“We are as gods and we might as well get good at it.”
So wrote futurist Stewart Brand in the introduction to the first Whole Earth Catalog in 1968. At the time the statement seemed tongue-in-cheek. Nearly 50 years later it’s much less of a joke.
The past 30 days have seen several unheralded but consequential strides in the scientific quest for god-like control of our destiny. Last week, the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Medicine published a report on human genome editing that allows the manipulation of sperm and egg cells to create changes that could be passed down to offspring. In January, scientists for the first time grew a part-pig, part-human “chimera,” a step toward developing animal embryos with functioning human organs for interspecies transplantation. With Tesla chief executive Elon Musk hinting last month at having made progress on a brain-computer interface, injectable electronics and other forms of human augmentation have clearly entered mainstream discussion as a way for humans to keep up with quickly advancing artificial intelligence.
The potential for control at our fingertips makes the idea of “playing God” more than a cheeky metaphor.
Knowing this, we should view our judgment on these questions warily. Rather than relying on our feelings as these technologies inexorably progress, we should engage in vigorous public debate about their potential and regulation. Now is the time to examine the things we value, the ways in which we make decisions and what we see as solutions.
For instance: Much of the debate around CRISPR, the technology that would make inheritable gene editing possible, involves what we can fix and how far changes should go. This latest recommendation from the National Academy of Sciences would allow the technology to be used only to treat or prevent “serious disease or disabilities.” But what is a disease? Should certain qualities, such as deafness and autism, be considered normal variations and sources of valuable diversity? Fostering the notion that only perfect is desirable is certain to change society in the long run. We may play god, but we don’t have the power to foresee all the consequences of assuming that role.
That’s only the first in a long line of concerns. It’s certain that we will quickly move past questions of “fixing” disease to enhancing human capability more generally. One prominent scientist described the recommended restriction of gene editing for disease as “double-stick tape on the slippery slope so that nothing can slip” — an un-reassuring metaphor if there ever was one. As we go forward, what preferences of the present age will we be enshrining, and what inequities will we be setting in stone? Where does human dignity enter the picture? The autonomy of future generations? How will we mitigate unintended future harms?
Maybe these are questions for a deity.
If so, how do we become better gods? First, by acknowledging that we can’t be gods at all. As individuals, even brilliant ones, we lack the attributes we would hope to see in a deity: omnipotence; benevolence; foresight; a view of the world not harnessed to our flawed conceptions of the here and now. As gods go, we’re pretty bad ones.
What we do have, however, is the knowledge of others: our communities, traditions and history; guidance both philosophical and religious. Those quick to dismiss such wisdom as based in superstition or fear might want to consider that there’s often much reason behind them. Rather than forging blindly ahead, now may be a time to finally converse with the past and present.
What would that conversation look like? Ideally, it would be ideologically diverse, well publicized and ongoing. It would draw in a wide variety of constituents, with a range of motivations. It would not be helped by cutting funding from organizations such as the National Endowment for Humanities, as our current president has proposed, but it would benefit from the support of all of society’s interlocutors: scientists in discussion with religious leaders, ethicists with historians, politicians and a public engaged in the debate.
We aren’t gods, but we’ll have to make the decisions anyway. We should try to make them well.
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