What would happen if you could order your baby online, the way you might order and customize a pizza? Six foot five, bronze hair, and an IQ of 150? Done.
According to biotechnology policy expert and novelist Jamie Metzl, this bizarre thought experiment is much closer to becoming a reality than you might think. Jamie has spent the last eight years exploring the staggering opportunities and dangers associated with genetic modification. His articles and new book raise the question: what will happen if the world approaches a genetic arms race?
Jamie himself is one of those people you might assume is genetically modified. His laundry list of credentials includes completing twenty-eight marathons, nine ultra-marathons, and twelve ironman triathlons; writing three books, running for Congress, topping off a Harvard Law Degree with a PhD in East Asian History, and receiving the White House Fellowship.
Take a look at Jamie’s top insights into the technology he predicts will change our world.
The revolution has already begun, but the general public hasn’t realized what’s happening yet
After 250,000 years of evolution, our species is now on the verge of being able to take active control over our own evolutionary process. The science making human genetic engineering possible already exists and is being carried out, albeit in its nascent form, in labs and clinics around the world.
In the earliest phases, we’ll be doing more of what we’re beginning to do now: screening early stage embryos during in vitro fertilization for single gene mutations that cause diseases like Huntington’s, and trying to select out those diseases. Soon, the same process will also enable us to select for positive and polygenic characteristics like intelligence or even empathy.
We’re probably 2-3 years away from being able to sequence the cell of a 5-day old embryo to estimate how tall that person is going to be, within an inch or two. We’re likely a decade or so away from being able to predict within 5-10 points what that child’s IQ will be. An average woman has about fifteen eggs extracted for in vitro fertilization. Those fifteen potential children will generally range in IQ within 20-30 points. If you keep selecting the embryos with the highest IQ for implantation in the mother, you can rapidly change the intelligence of a family or a community or a country. Very quickly, we’ll have the capacity to realize evolutionary changes that have previously taken thousands to millions of years.
We don’t need any new science to do all of this. The technology is already there. We’re on the verge of this fundamental transformation, not just of our reproductive processes, but of how we think of ourselves as humans. This revolution has already begun, but the general public hasn’t yet fully realized what’s happening or where this is all headed.
Just because we can do something, doesn’t mean we should do something
There are many dangers connected with this type of technology. First, a lot of it is plain hubris. As much as we know about how the brain and the body work, there’s even more that we don’t know. When we tinker with systems we don’t fully understand, it is very likely we’ll make mistakes. Perhaps we won’t understand that a gene that causes a disease we’re trying to eliminate also carries a protection against another disease not yet on our radar. Genetic diversity and mutation has a lot of negative consequences, but they are also our species’ insurance policy against unforeseeable changes in the future.
Second, a very real danger is that we get into a genetics arms race, especially if different societies have different ideas about the desirability of genetic selection and engineering. We can already see today that different countries have dramatically different views on these technologies. Some will see all of this as modern Eugenics, others as a pathway towards greater competitiveness. What happens when genetic sciences get wound into global rivalries? If some countries push ahead and others refrain, it is easy to imagine how this difference could lead to global instability (imagine the GMO debate with much higher stakes). If (and when) other countries genetically enhance their children and we do not, what do we do? Do we have a genetic screening of everyone who comes into US? Do we make it illegal to procreate with people who are not genetically enhanced? My novel, Genesis Code, deals with these types of issues.
A third danger is that we will we start to see our children as consumer products. What happens when you ordered a six-foot-five boy, and he turns out to be only six foot two? Will some people be disappointed, want a refund? It would be awful if these technologies led to a different way of seeing our children and their characteristics.
Lastly, there’s a philosophical side to all of this. As a species, we’ve been philosophizing for thousands of years, struggling with the issue of what makes us human. What is our essence? Genetics is a part, but there’s so much more. As we continue to race forward with our revolutionary technologies, focusing on things that make us human (our emotions, our relationships, even our limitations) will be more important than ever before.
Genetics will become an important national security issue between the United States and China
When I first started writing Genesis Code five years ago, it was just a thought experiment, given what I knew about China. If these technologies were available, how would China think about them? China is a country that is very comfortable with population engineering (the one-child policy), environmental engineering (Three gorges Dam, South-North water diversion project), and taking children away from parents so they can become champions of and bring glory to the state (Olympic sports schools).
I wondered if a society comfortable with those things could use genetic engineering to make their population more globally competitive, would they do it? Over the course of the time I was writing the book, lots of new information came out about the genetics programs within China. I’ve been focused on BGI Shenzhen’s Cognitive Genomics Initiative in particular. They’re analyzing the genomes of geniuses around the world to see if they can find the genetic fingerprint of genius. Their plan is to see whether you can pre-select (as early stage embryos) the smartest kids to be born.
As I researched and wrote the book, I watched my thought experiment begin to take form as China raced forward in its genomics activities. I definitely believe that at some point in a not-too-distant future, genetics and the different viewpoints on how to deal with genetics technologies will become an important national security issue between the United States and China.
The biggest issues we’re not focusing on
When I was on the National Security Staff in the Clinton Administration, my boss was a man named Richard Clarke. Dick used to say that if everyone in Washington was focused on one thing, there was probably something far more important they were missing. At the time, he was obsessed with terrorism and cyber security. Everyone said he was crazy, that he wanted to US to be bombing people in prehistoric huts in remote Afghanistan. And then 9/11 happened and it became clear that Dick was one of the only people looking around the corner.
When I left the government, I thought about the big issues we’re not focusing on. I kept coming back to genetics and biotechnology. I read everything I could, found the smartest people to talk to, and soon became ready to write policy articles about the national security implications of the genetics revolution. I was approached to write a non-fiction book about it, and even started writing. But I quickly realized the book I really wanted to write was a novel. The issues of our genetic future are policy and science issues for sure, but they also touch at the core of what it means to be a human being. I thought the best way to bring those pieces together was through a novel that brought in the science and policy, rather than through a policy book that brought in the human angle.
A Message to the Public
The most important ways to get involved are just to have conversations about this topic. This is maybe the most important issue of our lifetime, and yet it hasn’t entered into public consciousness. I’ve written a bunch of articles on the subject—if people want to learn more about it, those articles are on my website. If they would like to read the book, I’d be honored. Lots of book clubs are reading it and having great conversations about the future of human genetic engineering.
The most important thing is to start talking. If anything I’ve written can be helpful in spurring those conversations, then that would be very gratifying.
Jamie Metzl is an IVY Member (NYC).