Genetic modification: Nothing wrong with correcting God’s mistakes

The announcement that scientists are to be allowed to edit the DNA of human embryos will no doubt provoke an avalanche of warnings from opponents of genetic modification (GM) technology, who will warn that we are “playing God” with our genes.

The opponents are right. We are indeed playing God with our genes. But it is a good thing because God, nature or whatever we want to call the agencies that have made us, often get it wrong and it’s up to us to correct those mistakes.

Of the half a million or so babies that will be born this year in the United Kingdom, about 4% will carry a genetic or major birth defect that could result in an early death or a debilitating disease that will cause misery for the child and their family.

This research will eventually lead to technologies that could edit DNA in the same way that we can edit text – to correct the mistakes before the child’s development goes to its final draft. Its successful implementation could reduce, and eventually eliminate, the birth of babies with severe genetic diseases.

But surely our DNA cannot be compared to the patterns of printer ink on page? Our DNA is considered to be so special that the phrase “it’s in his or her DNA” is said with the same sense of fatalism that our ancestors would have spoken of their fate or their soul.


Anti-GM activists, many of whom are devout atheists, often insist that our DNA is somehow special, something donated to us by an all-powerful, wise and benevolent nature, which has taken God’s place as our creator. But nature is just blind chance – mutation – combined with the survival of the fittest.

There’s no grand plan and no reason nature shouldn’t, like the rest of us, occasionally make terrible mistakes. When those errors could lead to terrible human suffering, it is our duty to try to correct them.

Gene editing could provide revolutionary benefits to our children.

Our DNA is just a chemical. Schoolchildren isolate it from cells in the class laboratory and it can be spooled out on a glass rod looking like slimy cotton wool. When dried, it looks like fibrous paper. You can eat it or burn it and it will return to those simple atoms and molecules from which it is made. There is no special magical ingredient between the atoms, no soul, just atoms and space. DNA is the most amazing chemical in the known universe. But it’s just a chemical – made of the same atoms of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen you can find in the air. It is no more spiritual than your fingernails or hair. And we don’t mind clipping those when we need to.

Gene editing of human embryos to eliminate disease should be considered to be ethically the same as using laser surgery to correct eye defects, or a surgeon operating on a baby to repair a congenital heart defect. DNA is just another bit of our body that might go wrong.

Yet gene editing could provide revolutionary benefits to our children. A team based at Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children in London recently used gene editing to treat a one-year-old girl with leukaemia, who is now in remission.

More technology is in the pipeline. A team based at Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania reported in this week’s Nature Biotechnology that they were able to correct a genetic liver disease in newborn mice. Taking this technology into human embryos could correct devastating genetic diseases in the womb.

But isn’t this a slippery slope to designer babies genetically engineered to be healthier, cleverer or more beautiful than they would otherwise be?

Wouldn’t it provide a technology that would only be available to the super-wealthy, potentially creating the kind of divided society that HG Wells envisaged in his futuristic novel, The Time Machine?

Perhaps. But let’s worry about the future in the future.

In the present, if those of us with mostly healthy children are worried about the ethics of gene editing, then we should ask the parents of children born with haemophilia, cystic fibrosis or muscular dystrophy whether they would have used this kind of technology if it had been available to them.

If science can be used to eliminate human suffering, then let’s get on with it. – Guardian News & Media 2016

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

Related stories

Advertising

Subscribers only

How lottery execs received dubious payments through a private company

The National Lottery Commission is being investigated by the SIU for alleged corruption and maladministration, including suspicious payments made to senior NLC employees between 2016 and 2017

Pandemic hobbles learners’ futures

South African schools have yet to open for the 2021 academic year and experts are sounding the alarm over lost learning time, especially in the crucial grades one and 12

More top stories

Fashion’s future is bricks and clicks

Lockdown forced reluctant South African clothing retail stores online: although foot traffic in brick-and-mortar stores remains important in a mall culture like ours, the secret to success is innovation

Egypt, Seychelles get first jabs

The two countries have rolled out China’s Sinopharm vaccine, but data issues are likely to keep some countries from doing the same

What the Biden presidency may mean for Africa

The new US administration has an interest and much expertise in Africa. But given the scale of the priorities the administration faces, Africa must not expect to feature too prominently

Zuma, Zondo play the waiting game

The former president says he will talk once the courts have ruled, but the head of the state capture inquiry appears resigned to letting the clock run out as the commission's deadline nears
Advertising

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…