• Phil Tanny
    Concerns about the future of genetic engineering are typically met with discussions of governance. To what degree is governance of these emerging technologies even possible?

    To the best of my knowledge, technologies like CRISPR still require considerable technical knowledge, and thus would seem to be currently limited mostly to a professional class, those with plenty to lose from conflicts with political authority. So for the time being, to some degree at least, governance mechanisms may be relevant to the use of CRISPR.

    However, there would appear not to be any effective method of governing political authorities. If North Korea decides to do XYZ with genetic engineering tools, who is going to stop them? We can't stop them from building nuclear weapon stockpiles, how is this any different?


    As genetic engineering technologies become easier to use and thus accessible to ever more people, a more troubling challenge would seem to arise, genetic engineering by the general public. We can't control guns or drugs, or even reckless driving, what makes us think we'll be able to control genetic engineering by enthusiastic hobbyists?

    If it's true that governance mechanisms are inherently limited, the question we should be asking is this.

    How much damage could a government or person do with genetic engineering technologies in coming decades? That is, what are possible price tags for all the benefits this technology will inevitably deliver?

    Just as well meaning scientists will push CRISPR technology to the limit in the quest for much desired benefits, shouldn't we assume that there will also be those who will be exploring anti-social uses of such tools?

    Jennifer Doudna, one of the developers of CRISPR technology, famously had a dream where she encountered Hitler asking her how to use CRISPR. She described her dream this way:

    “I had a dream recently, and in my dream”—she mentioned the name of a leading scientific researcher—“had come to see me and said, ‘I have somebody very powerful with me who I want you to meet, and I want you to explain to him how this technology functions.’ So I said, Sure, who is it? It was Adolf Hitler. I was really horrified, but I went into a room and there was Hitler. He had a pig face and I could only see him from behind and he was taking notes and he said, ‘I want to understand the uses and implications of this amazing technology.’ I woke up in a cold sweat. And that dream has haunted me from that day. Because suppose somebody like Hitler had access to this—we can only imagine the kind of horrible uses he could put it to.” — Jennifer Doudna

    When such people get their hands on genetic engineering technologies, how much trouble can they cause, and how will we stop them? Somebody is going to bring the "master race" idea back to life. What are we going to do about that?


    Is talk of governance mechanisms for genetic engineering really just a smoke screen intended to pacify the public while the scientific community pushes these technologies full speed ahead no matter what the consequences might be?
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