Americans — but not yet the Brits — delight in an appellation they apply to those eminently intelligent people who bring out well-acclaimed books and then, from time to time, pop up into the public domain with pronouncements on this or that recent development or event.
Such a one is Stephen Pinker and he’s probably America’s No. 1 public intellectual. He’s certainly in the top half-dozen anyway. He’s recently been totally irresponsible by throwing what amounts to a mortar bomb into the controversy now building up about the new biological techniques, such as Crispr, which allow researchers to precisely extract and replace the errant version of someone’s gene and replace it with a healthy product. This is known as gene editing. There are other much slower techniques beside Crispr, and no doubt there’ll be faster neater techniques in due course. Suffice it to say that gene editing has now arrived.
As soon as the implications of Crispr sank in — only in the last few months or so — there has been an outcry from those who say we shouldn’t tamper with the human genome. On principle! It’s contrary to human dignity. In effect, they think that the human DNA is sacred.
Never mind that we have already been practising something similar to gene editing of the Crispr sort for 20 or 30 years without these sort of objectors making a cheep of protest. Why? Because they would have been onto a loser from the word Go. Gene editing is practised in many IVF clinics around the world when they test the fertilised eggs of two parents who might, unknown to themselves, be carrying a copy of the recessive gene variation which is responsible for producing cystic fibrosis or many other serious genetic diseases in their children — or at least one in four of their children. Instead the clinicians make sure that only the one-in-four eggs that are completely free of the mutation are selected for insertion in the mother.
But Pinker’s comprehensive pronouncement also railed against any form of supervision over Crispr-type gene editing. But this is what research scientists themselves are now calling for because genes are so complex that very little is as straightforward as might seem initially. Removing deleterious variations causing known genetic diseases of a serious nature in children is one thing but anything beyond this can be dangerous because once a change is made to someone’s DNA then it has a chance of continuing forever — not only that but causing other serious consequences that don’t reveal themselves until much later when they have spread too widely that they can’t be remedied. They want to have overseers among themselves or those deeply versed in genetics — though not of the amateur do-gooding or religious variety who are now making a clamour.
Stephen Pinker has not improved the situation by weighing in so ponderously.