Here it is: the moment historians will look back upon as the dawn of Homo sapiens superior and the moment when us natural-borns get knocked down a peg on the social hierarchy. For decades, science fiction writers have foretold a future in which genetically-superior humans made possible by gene modification techniques will rise above us lowly normies with their enhanced intelligence and physiology, greater resistance to diseases, and stunning good looks of course. The prospect of editing the human genome has remained taboo, though, for longstanding ethical and moral reasons. Naturally, human-rights-optional China has ignored these and blazed ahead and given the world its first two genetically-modified superbabies whether we want them or not. It begins.
This isn’t the first time Chinese scientists have tested CRISPR on humans. As early as 2015, Chinese researchers were already altering the genomes of human embryos in laboratories – embryos which were never gestated. Now, geneticists Southern University of Science and Technology, in Shenzhen have taken these techniques one step further by modifying the genomes of two embryos which were implanted into a human womb via in vitro fertilization. Those embryos are now two happy and healthy baby girls, Lulu and Nana. Scientists led by He Jiankui altered the girls’ genomes so that they will be immune to HIV – in theory. In statements made this week, He assures that the only changes made to the girls’ genomes were to the “doorway” which would allow HIV to potentially infect the girls. Who knows what unforeseen consequences might arise from the editing process, though?
The research has not yet been submitted for peer review and publication, so many scientists remain skeptical of the Chinese team’s claims. Jennifer Doudna, a biochemist at the University of California, Berkeley who helped develop CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing, warns that this trial is a “break from the cautious and transparent approach of the global scientific community’s application of CRISPR-Cas9 for human germline editing” adding that she and other scientists around the world are still “struggling to figure out what was done and also whether the process was done properly. We just don’t know yet.”
Many nations experimented with eugenics and other controlled breeding programs throughout the 20th century, but the advances made by CRISPR and other recent technologies let scientists remove all uncertainty from the equation (in theory) and edit the human genome on a gene-by-gene basis, opening the doors for all sorts of modifications with unknown long-term consequences.
While removing the chance for these girls to contract HIV can’t possibly be seen as a bad thing, this trial is the first to go over the apex and start sliding down the slipperiest of slopes. What’s next? Removing all cancer genes? Sure. Eradicating mental illnesses through removing their gene markers? Go right ahead. Creating an army of genetic Übermensch (more like 超人) capable of crushing genetically inferior opposing forces?
I, for one, welcome our new genetic overlords.