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Rewriting Life

Genome editing and Aristotle

I.

A new technology is revolutionizing genome editing and is going to change how we live and what perceive as normal forever. Genome editing is a type of genetic engineering in which DNA is inserted, deleted or replaced in the genome of a living organism using what is referred to as molecular scissors. They create site-specific breaks at a desired location in the DNA and repair mutated or defected versions of the gene.

Since it was first tried on a patient in 1980 it has been very difficult and expensive to perform, but with a new technology developed a couple of years ago called CRISPR, the cost of the engineering has shrunk with 99 percent overnight. The process takes a few weeks instead of a year, and CRISPR literally has the potential to change humanity forever.

In 2015, scientists used CRISPR on humans for the first time. They cut out the HIV virus from living cells from patients in the lab proving that it was in fact possible to cure complicated diseases. In 2016, scientists successfully treated hemophilia and certain forms of inherited blindness, and it looks like CRISPR might even be the cure for cancer, because it is possible to edit human immune cells and make them better cancer hunters. So far, a couple of therapies have been tested only in a handful of lethal cancers as a last resort when more traditional treatments did not work. Some patients have had remarkable recoveries and remain in remission months or years later. In the future it is probable that a few injections with an edited version of some thousand of your cells will cure you for good. CRISPR might also be the answer to curing genetic diseases, and specialists agree that we should be able to cure a lot of other diseases in a decade or two by engineering genes with CRISPR

II.

But CRISPR can and probably will be used for much more - the creation of modified humans. If CRISPR is used on early embryos, scientists can make change to their reproductive cells and create designer babies, but the changes will be irreversible. The modified genes will spread through generations and slowly be modifying the entire gene pool of humanity.

The first designer babies will most likely be created to eliminate a deadly genetic disease. But this will open a door that can’t be closed again. It might even become unethical not to cure your baby from genetic diseases or immunise them against other diseases. But when genetic modification becomes normal, and the knowledge of the human genetic code enhances, the temptations will grow.

If you make your children immune to Alzheimer’s, why not also enhance their metabolism, or give them perfect sight, make them higher or thicken their hair?  Yes, we will become able to solve many problems with CRISPR, but we do not know yet how much of the gene pool we will change for the coming generations. And that is why the scientists behind the discovery called for the scientific community to halt all work involving the editing of human reproductive cells back in 2015. Nevertheless, Chinese scientists already had two partially successful results working on human embryos.

Even though CRISPR is in its early stages, and there are still a lot of unknown factors, and errors, we must understand that we are in fact already editing our race. Tests of genetic diseases have become the standard for pregnant women in much of the world. And often the suspicion of genetic defects can lead to the end of a pregnancy.

Are we creating a world where we will reject the non-perfect and preselect features and qualities based on our ideas of what is healthy in the future? And should humans be exercising this kind of power at all?

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III.

To Aristotle, human life is about finding a way to live in virtue. In Ethics, he unfolds the idea that virtuous action involves seeking the way between two extremes. To embody virtue in a particular circumstance is to respond in a manner that is neither excessive or deficient in nature. Virtuous action, says Aristotle, always exists between these two extremes. For example, between extravagance and greed is generosity. Between rashness and cowardness is courage. A virtue though is not defined according to the individual, but according to the polis, the city state - the larger community. What is best for you is also what is best for the public. To Aristotle, the ethically right way to live is about seeking balance between the excessive and the deficient. In between extremes. Or in other words, what we might define as the flawless and the imperfect.

Engineering and perfecting the human race according to our definition of perfect, would hardly end. The bar for flawless would be pushed further away the further we get, and we would probably be climbing up an endless ladder of desire. It is important to figure out what potential CRISPR has to cure diseases, but it might be just as important to balance what is responsible to edit with CRISPR.

What Aristotle resonates is that we need the imperfect as humans. We need diversity. Being imperfect and different from each other is a basic condition of being human. Engineering the human genome would change the evolution of our race and create a mass of perfectly identical, flawless individuals, completely stripped from all the attributes, qualities, and characteristics that define human beings.

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