Brexit and the global genetic arms race

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About five years ago, I got the flu, and didn’t get better for a month. I was constantly getting ill, and feeling tired. I went to my GP, and she suggested an iron test. My iron levels were through the roof. She asked me if I had any Irish ancestry. I do. A blood test revealed I had a genetic mutation common among Celts, called haemochromatosis, which means my body is not good at absorbing iron. 60 years ago, it wouldn’t have been spotted, and the mutation would have killed me as the iron built up around my organs. Now, I simply go to the hospital every three months, for a venesection.

That’s an easy-to-spot way in which my identity is influenced by my genetics. But what about other aspects of myself, like IQ, or love of reading and writing, or my political and spiritual beliefs, or my proneness to mental illness? Did I develop social anxiety and post-traumatic stress because I inherited a disposition to it or because, in my mother’s words, ‘you were a prat and took drugs’? If my genes were responsible, are they editable for my children — or even for me?

Like the climate crisis, the genetic revolution has gone from a distant wave to a raging flood all around us. 150 years ago, Charles Darwin recognized the heritability of characteristics in species. 100 years ago, eugenicists like Francis Galton and Julian Huxley tried to steer the future of the human race through reproductive policies — encouraging the ‘fittest’ to reproduce (one idea was a sperm bank for geniuses) while discouraging those deemed ‘unfit’, in some cases through forced sterilization or even (in Nazi Germany) murder.

50 years ago, in 1968, James Watson and Francis Crick discovered the double helix structure of DNA. In 1974, the first genetically modified animal was created (a mouse), and in 1983 scientists made the first genetically modified plant. In 1978, the first babies created through IVF were born — five million ‘test-tube babies’ have since been born. In 1989, the first pre-natal genetic diagnosis tests were introduced, to screen embryos for genetic conditions like Down’s Syndrome. In 1990, the first human genome was sequenced. In 1996, the first cloned animal was born (Dolly the sheep).

Seven years ago, scientists discovered the CAS-9 CRISPR technology, in which an enzyme can be programmed to edit a particular gene sequence in an embryo, or in an already-born human. Since then, the flood is upon us. In the last seven years, over 15,000 papers containing the term CRISPR have been published. There are 10,000 ‘monogenic’ illnesses (ie illnesses caused by a single gene) affecting 75 million people which can probably be treated with gene editing — such as sickle cell anaemia, thalassemia, Huntington’s disease, muscular atrophy and cystic fibrosis. Other gene treatments are being developed for cancer, HIV, hepatitis, diabetes. Some of these treatments are already available, already transforming lives.

Scientists are also using gene editing to transform other species. As bacteria become more resistant to antibiotics, potentially threatening our existence, gene editing gives us a new weapon against them. As illnesses like malaria, dengue fever and Lyme’s disease start to spread because of climate warming, a technology called ‘gene drive’ enables scientists to alter the genes of an entire species. The technology was used to combat malaria in Burkina Faso this year, by wiping out a local species of mosquito. Nearly 700 million people catch a mosquito-borne disease each year.

The prospects for genetic research are even more extraordinary. I thought transhumanists’ obsession with massive life extension was a weird fantasy until I saw the new documentary ‘Unnatural Selection’ on Netflix. It featured Juan Carlos Izpisua Belmonte of the Salk Institute in LA explaining how we may soon be able to regenerate cartilage, brain cells and even whole organs by learning from animals like zebra fish and salamanders, which have that capacity. His lab has already extended the longevity of mice by 30%.

Belmonte’s lab is researching the use of gene editing not just to cure illnesses but to enhance human potentialities, like longevity, intelligence, eye-sight, muscle mass. He says: ‘I think we all agree that [gene editing] is good to fix diseases. I’m not sure we agree whether it’s good or bad to try and enhance our abilities — intellectual and physical — to try and create new functions that we don’t even know today what they are’.

Another star of the documentary, biohacker Josiah Zayner, is less concerned. He says: ‘Do I wanna be big and muscly? Do I want my muscles to have, like, high endurance? Do I want to have dark color skin or light color skin or whatever you want. I think now is the starting place of where we get to make those choices. I think this is, like, literally, a new era of human beings. It’s gonna create a whole new species of humans.’

Another recent documentary — the BBC’s ‘Eugenics: Science’s Biggest Scandal’ — featured a British scientist from the Crick Institute assuring the BBC that the science is nowhere near being able to create ‘designer babies’. But that’s not true. Parents can already travel to China or Ukraine to choose the gender of their child, or their eye colour.

Who controls this new technology? Corporations? There’s been a gold rush in the last two decades, with the market for gene medicine nearing $3.5bn in size. One American company started selling a gene treatment for spinal muscular atrophy this year, costing $2.1 million for a single treatment.

Or should the people control the tech? There’s a flourishing movement of biohackers, featured in the Netflix documentary, who use CRISPR tech in their garages to breed genetically modified animals (glow-in-the-dark rabbits, for example, created by introducing genes from jellyfish); or to try and hack their own genomes to become more muscular, say, or immune to HIV. But operating with a complete lack of state or institutional regulation seems dangerous — it opens the doors to charlatans ripping off the gullible with fake or dangerous treatments, not to mention the risk of genetically-modified species disrupting ecosystems.

Should states regulate the tech, or a global body like the World Health Organisation? Different regulatory regimes exist in different countries, and some countries — like China or Russia — seem happy to turn a blind eye to human gene-editing. A year ago, a Chinese scientist called He Juankui announced the birth of two children whose genes he’d edited to make them immune to HIV. That led to calls for a global moratorium on human gene editing and the creation of a global regulatory body. But what are the chances of countries obeying that, in the current global climate?

Instead, countries seem to be heading for a ‘genetic arms race’, trying to position themselves as world leaders in gene technology and data, and trying to create the gene-modified superhumans who will power their country forward in sports, science and war.

Even Brexit can be seen through the lens of this global genes race. One way to understand Brexit is as an early, somewhat subconscious, response to the climate crisis and global migration. Another way is as a chess move in the genetic arms race. Brexit’s chief architect, Dominic Cummings, is obsessed with genetic technology, and with making the UK a leader in it. He thinks getting the UK out of EU regulations on gene editing is as important as his successful campaign to keep us out of the euro: ‘Post-Brexit Britain will be outside this jurisdiction and able to make faster and better decisions about regulating technology like genomics, AI and robotics’.

He writes:

China is pushing very hard on genomics/AI and regards such fields as crucial strategic ground for its struggle for supremacy with America. America has political and regulatory barriers holding it back on genomics that are much weaker here. Britain cannot stop the development of such science. Britain can choose to be a backwater, to ignore such things and listen to MPs telling fairy stories while the Chinese plough ahead, or it can try to lead.

He may have agreed to become Boris Johnson’s chief of staff in this highly acrimonious climate in return for his ultimate prize: the chance to establish an DARPA-style policy unit dedicated to scientific research, particularly to genomics; he also wants to transform the NHS into a massive gene sequencing database and hub for gene research; and suggests the creation of a ‘school for the genetically-gifted’, to identify and educate the 1% of geniuses he thinks are responsible for scientific breakthroughs.

When Brexiters talk about freeing the UK from EU regulation on the environment, they have EU regulations on genetic modification in mind.

The impact of the genetic revolution is transforming our idea of humanity, and leading to ‘genetic essentialism’, or the view that genes are the main determinant of who we are. You can see that view clearly expressed in one of Cummings’ favourite books, ‘Blueprint’, by KCL scientist Robert Plomin.

Plomin writes:

Genetics is the most important factor shaping who we are. It explains more of the psychological differences between us than everything else put together… the most important environmental factors, such as our families and schools, account for less than 5% of the differences between us in our mental health or how well we did at school — once we control for the impact of genetics….Genetics accounts for 50% of psychological differences, not just for mental health and school achievement, but for all psychological traits, from personality to mental abilities.

If that’s true, there’s a big incentive to use gene screening for education (IQ tests, after all, were introduced by Francis Galton for just this purpose), or for employment, or even for dating. You can already get apps to genetically screen prospective partners. If genes determine how well your child does at school, why spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on your child’s education, when you could edit your child’s genes and give them the best possible start in life?

We’re at an extraordinary moment in human history, when nature — or rather, our impact on nature — threatens human existence and the existence of countless other species, at the same time as new technology gives us the ability to alter the building blocks of nature as never before. I don’t know how the story plays out…but it’s a fascinating story.

Written by

Fellow @ Centre for the History of the Emotions. Author of Philosophy for Life, Art of Losing Control, and new book Breaking Open

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