In April, the scientific community was jolted by news that Chinese researchers had successfully edited the DNA of a human embryo. It was a watershed moment: the first time humanity had edited its own germ line, the sex cells (eggs and sperm) used to pass on genes from generation to generation. Although the experiment—conducted by Junjiu Huang and his colleagues at Sun Yat-sen University—used non-viable embryos and produced unintended mutations, the implications are profound. Beyond fears over genetic engineering and “designer babies,” to manipulate the human germ line is to manipulate human heredity; evolution itself becomes malleable.
The scientific community outside of China responded to Huang’s work with outrage, condemnation, and calls for a moratorium on future experiments. Despite the technology being widely available, Western scientists have voluntarily refrained from human germ line editing, deeming the risks and ethical questions surrounding such experiments too great to proceed. The real significance of Huang’s breakthrough, they argue, is not that he was able to do it, but that he was willing to do it. Scientists, watchdog groups, and governmental agencies have all urged restraint.
China seems uninterested in heeding those calls. Indeed, the Chinese government has a long history of trying to control its people’s biology. In 1995, it enacted the Maternal and Infant Health Care Law (MIHCL). Originally called the Eugenics Law, the MIHCL required married people with genetic disorders to practice contraception or be sterilized while simultaneously initiating mass ultrasound testing for birth defects and urging abortion for such cases.
Already there are rumors in the scientific community that more work on the human germ line is a fait accompli, that more papers are being readied for publication, more laboratories prepped for further experimentation. While enormous technical barriers remain before the procedure is viable, this only reinforces the critics’ charges: technical barriers are not ethical barriers. Unfettered by the strictures that govern the rest of the world, Chinese genetic engineering shows no sign of slowing down.
The consequences of China’s rising biopower range from the hopeful to the dystopian. In the near term, germ line editing could be used to eliminate inherited diseases such as cystic fibrosis, a disorder that stems from the mutation of a single gene. Parkinson’s disease, neurofibromatosis, and various cancers are also strong candidates for germ line therapy. These diseases would be permanently eradicated not only from the unborn, but also their future offspring.
Beyond the therapeutic, germ line editing would be a powerful tool for human enhancement. Cosmetic changes would be relatively simple for those who could afford it; for a price, a child’s hair and eye color, height, and body type would all be selectable. Looking to current trends in Chinese body enhancement suggests children who are taller, have higher nose-bridges, larger breasts, and sharper chins. The homogenization of facial characteristics and hip-to-waist ratios among the wealthy would almost certainly be inevitable. And while some features would be exaggerated, others would be eliminated; considering the enormous popularity of eyelid surgery among Chinese women, the epicanthic fold might become, in just a few generations, an exclusively masculine trait.
Beyond the cosmetic (and entering the speculative), changes to the human genome become more problematic. Increasing IQ, desirable for both the individual and the state, has long been a target of genetic research. For parents, enhanced intelligence would be a necessity for their children to compete in a highly competitive world; like steroids in sports, the more advantageous a procedure, the more ubiquitous it becomes. For the state, increased intelligence leads to increased productivity, especially when it is the right kind of intelligence, i.e., logical-mathematical. Super-soldiers who are stronger, faster, heal more quickly, and require no sleep are also obvious candidates for breeding.
As the science evolves, however, we are learning about other traits that are rooted in our genes. Self-control, social interaction, learning style, and sense of purpose have all been linked to our DNA, as have religiosity levels and even political leanings. As powerful as increased height and intelligence are, the ability to influence the personality of a child before it is born, to create a citizenry that is predisposed towards asceticism, conformity, and ideological commitment to the state, is the dream of any authoritarian regime.
As China continues to advance, the rest of the world is left to ponder how they will confront the emerging landscape. Since the beginning of the 20th century, Western scientists have grown increasingly cautious in their approach to human genetics. While the shadow of Nazi Germany looms over today’s researchers, their approach to genetic manipulation is also tempered by Western culture itself. From the Greek notion of hubris to the Christian abhorrence of “playing God,” from Shelley’s Frankenstein to the Brave New World of Huxley, cautions against usurping nature abound in the West.
At a deeper level, germ line editing presents a challenge to one of humanity’s defining characteristics: serendipity. The odds against any individual’s existence is absurd, a one in 500 million chance per ejaculation that a specific sperm will fertilize a specific egg and produce a specific person. Everyone born has already beaten astronomical odds, the unlikely culmination of countless accidental moments and fork-in-the-road turnings that could have put another in their place. Individual worth and the dignity of each person is rooted in the “miracle” of their existence. Despite the woes that beset the human condition, our origins share an essential serendipity, the moment when the DNA of our parents conjoined within our nascent selves.
As the West grapples with its laws, its ethics, its conscience, China moves forward. While we may hope that reasoned debate and international goodwill will triumph over the eugenicists’ ambitions, a line crossed cannot be uncrossed, the genie will not return to its bottle, and the distant rumbling may not be thunder but the tread of a million Chinese supermen leaving the rest of us behind.
Featured image: Rachel Lee Hovnanian. “Perfect Baby Showroom (Installation view #2),” (2014). Wallpaper, extension cords, baby dolls, metal, acrylic, wood, neon light, foam, cotton fabric, LED lights, cereal. Dimensions variable. Courtesy the artist.