Image of He Jiankui

Technology will soon be able to tinker with who we are. Are we ready?

Sometimes the future arrives in waves, advancing abruptly and then withdrawing. Last week, a Chinese researcher named He Jiankui announced that he had successfully altered the genetic code of a pair of twin girls born this month. He said that while they were still embryos, he had edited the babies’ genes to make them resistant to HIV infection, but offered few further details.

Scientists and bioethicists from around the world were incensed by He’s announcement, given serious concerns about the danger the still-developing technology could pose to humans. Jennifer Doudna, a researcher at the University of California at Berkeley who helped develop the gene-editing technique known as CRISPR, said she was “deeply disappointed” and “a bit horrified” by what Jiankui had done, adding that his intervention was not medically necessary and breached international guidelines on the use of gene-editing technology. Likewise, the National Institutes of Health released a trenchant statement decrying “a deeply disturbing willingness by Dr. He and his team to flout international ethical norms.” Chinese authorities have called for a halt to He’s research. But He says the two infants weren’t the only ones he worked on, and has raised the possibility that another child with edited genes is yet to be born.

It’s a jarring reminder that technology will soon place us in the position of tinkering with the blueprint of what makes us who we are. The time might not come tomorrow. But even if it comes in a hundred years, my guess is that we will still be morally unprepared to handle the decisions we will find ourselves faced with. Because to know what a human being ought to be, you have to have some sense of what a human is for — an issue we barely contemplate as a society, much less share some general sense of.




UC Berkeley



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