Contemplating The Role of Tomorrow’s Technology
A capacious laboratory swarms with workers in white overalls, their hands gloved with “pale, corpse-colored rubber.” There are several work tables inside, each accompanied with a lab technician hunched over a microscope. This is where the next generation of humanity is meticulously engineered, grown, and brought into the world. We learn this from the laboratory director, a man considerably older than 30 despite not looking it thanks to an assortment of medicinal procedures involving young-blood transfusions and internal secretion balancing. The director, beaming with sterile condescension, explains how the human engineering process works, beginning with a detailed explanation of how non-defective human eggs are introduced into a container of spermatozoa for fertilization. After this process, some of the fertilized eggs — the zygotes — are specially treated so that they bud dozens of duplicate zygotes (a phenomena referred to as “Bokanovsky’s Process”). These duplicate zygotes will grow to be identical human beings and members of one of the three lower classes of society.
In the “Social Predestination Room” every embryo — and there are thousands of them — is supplied varying degrees of oxygen to moderate physical and mental development. Those predestined to be social intellectuals and world leaders are given robust levels of oxygen to aid their physical and mental maturation, while those predestined to be menial service workers are given much less to staunch such development. Through a series of ingenious technological innovations, the modern state controls, moderates, and develops its citizens exactly to its liking for the purposes of maintaining social stability and order.
This is how Aldous Huxley’s famous dystopian novel Brave New World begins. In the book — which was written two decades before the discovery of DNA — Huxley imagined the equally fascinating and awful possibility of engineering human beings in divine capacities. And while such a vision is no doubt frightening, it’s becoming less of a science fiction and more of a pending possibility. Within the last few years, scientists have pursued the development of something called CRISPR-Cas9, a genome editing technology that reveals the gateway for changing sequences of the human genome and therefore, at least in theory, editing every possible human trait — from preventing genetic disorders like muscular dystrophy to increasing IQ and athletic abilities. Of course, the type of genetic engineering depicted in Brave New World is a long way off and may not actually be possible, but such questions must be considered today. And similar to genome editing, technologies involving synthetic life and artificial intelligence also hold out the possibility for radical life enhancement and extension. To some, technology holds out the possibility of becoming immortal gods.
These developments bear both incredible and ominous possibilities, and a series of pressing questions come to the fore: how should we respond to certain technological innovations as Christians called to image God’s love to society and to future generations? By admitting both the danger and benefit of technology, how should we approach innovation that claims to enhance human life indefinitely? And, ultimately, as technology continues to provide a way to relieve human suffering and exponentially propel humanity forward, how are we careful not to let it supplant the hope we have in God?
EDITING THE HUMAN GENOME
In 2013, Dr. Feng Zhang at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard became the first person to successfully use CRISPR-Cas9 for genome editing on human cells. CRISPR stands for “Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats,” which refers to DNA in a specific type of bacteria that contain snippets of DNA implanted by viruses. The complex molecule known as DNA, or deoxyribonucleic acid, is what carries the genetic instructions for the growth, functioning, and reproduction of every living thing.
Scientists, especially in the United States and China, are investing major resources into the exploration and use of this technology. And while the prolific and regular use of it on human beings remains some ways off, last October a group led by oncologist Dr. Lu You in China became the first to inject a person with cells with genes that were edited using CRISPR-Cas9 technology. The injected patient has aggressive lung cancer and will be monitored closely over the course of several months for results.
Ryan Weiss (08), Ph.D., is a postdoctoral scientist at UCSD and adjunct professor of chemistry at PLNU. After earning a degree in chemistry at PLNU, he went on to earn a doctorate in organic chemistry. Weiss employs CRISPR-Cas9 to help locate genes that regulate the biosynthesis of sugars that are found on the cell surface of all animal cells. Certain viruses can enter the cell by attaching to these sugars, and Weiss works to understand the biosynthesis of these cell-surface carbohydrates in order to prevent dangerous viruses from entering the cell and wreaking havoc.
Weiss explains, in layman’s terms, how CRISPR-Cas9 technology works, emphasizing that it’s surprisingly relatively simple and inexpensive to use (assuming, of course, you have access to a proper lab and harbor a basic understanding of biochemistry). It works like this: scientists insert the biotechnology known as CRISPR-Cas9 into the nucleus of a cell. One piece of this biotechnology — Cas9 — is a protein that can snip strands of DNA. This is combined with another piece of biotechnology, a guiding RNA, which is essentially a tracking device that zeros in on the appropriate sequence of DNA (scientists construct the guiding RNA to match the genetic base pairs of their choosing). The guiding RNA finds the right sequence of base pairs within the DNA and the Cas9 protein cuts it. Lastly, a new piece of DNA that has also been injected into the cell’s nucleus is incorporated into the original strand of DNA through a complex repair process that occurs automatically. Weiss compared it to making an edit in a Word document. If the words in a paragraph are snippets of DNA, then the guiding RNA is the cursor that locates the appropriate word, the “Delete” key is the Cas9 protein, and the newly added word is the fresh snippet of DNA. And just like that, the entire genome of an organism can be permanently edited.
What are the implications of genome editing? For starters, it allows the possibility to replace mutated genes. This is where CRISPR-Cas9 offers amazing potential in the way of medicine.
“CRISPR-Cas9 can help us permanently heal genetic diseases, especially these less complex ones where we have a single DNA base pair that’s been mutated, like sickle cell anemia.” Weiss explains. “They’ve already healed mice with sickle cell anemia, muscular dystrophy, and Huntington’s disease using this technology.”
“CRISPR-CAS9 can help us permanently heal genetic diseases, especially these less complex ones where we have a single DNA base pair that’s been mutated, like sickle cell anemia.”
—RYAN WEISS (08), PH.D.
This is no doubt an incredible opportunity for medicine and the flourishing of humanity; and in many ways, it’s what motivates Weiss in his work as a scientist committed to using his God-given gifts and passions to serve others. However, the potential to edit the human genome also unearths massive ethical concerns and dangerous possibilities. There is still much we don’t know about the human genome — which is made up of a dizzying three billion base pairs. We don’t know what every gene does, and we’re discovering that the sequencing of base pairs within DNA isn’t the only factor that controls protein development and, therefore, specific physical traits. Further, the CRISPR-Cas9 machinery isn’t perfect. What if the guiding RNA locates the wrong piece of DNA that is consequently snipped by the Cas9, something known as off-target effects? What if a gene is altered that is responsible for some additional critical biological function that we didn’t know about?
To provide a detailed example of how a well-intended genome edit could result in disaster, let’s consider the mosquito. We could potentially wipe out malaria by editing the mosquito genome so that these insects can’t transfer the disease to humans. On paper, it sounds promising. We edit a few mosquitoes’ genomes, release them into the wild, allow them to reproduce and give birth to genetically altered offspring, and due to their short life spans within a couple of years every living mosquito is synthetically altered in a way that prevents the infection of malaria in humans. Yet, what if in the process of editing the mosquito genome we cause unplanned mutations somewhere else in the genome?
What if that malaria-carrying gene was responsible for some key ecological benefit that the insect provided? By the time we realize this, it might be too late and the damage irreversible.
Additionally, it’s not only the unpredictable side-effects of genome editing that are cause for concern, but also the intentional use of this technology to harm others. James Clapper, the U.S. director of national intelligence, has added gene editing as a possible “weapon of mass destruction and proliferation.” Terrorist groups or antagonistic governments could create biochemical weapons designed to change the genome to incur mass human suffering or death. An article from MIT Technology Review, “Top U.S. Intelligence Official Calls Gene Editing a WMD Threat,” further explains that, “given the broad distribution, low cost, and accelerated pace of development of this dual-use technology, its deliberate or unintentional misuse might lead to far-reaching economic and national security implications.”
These mark some of the more immediate concerns related to using this technology irresponsibly or with ill intent. Yet, should we devise ways to accurately and safely use this technology down the road, do ethical concerns still remain?
In addition to CRISPR-Cas9’s use for medicinal or other beneficial purposes, it introduces the possibility for radical human enhancement. Instead of using it only to repair mutated base pairs that constitute a genetic disease, what if we used it to elevate human intelligence, fashion more attractive individuals, bring about the fastest and strongest human beings that have ever walked the earth?
To be clear, we are still far away from this type of technology. There is surely not a shortage of articles and publications talking about this technology as if 10 years from now we’ll be able to customize our children in any number of ways — from eye color to height to artistic and cognitive ability. One article from Nautilus, “Super-Intelligent Humans Are Coming,” even suggests we might be able to fashion people with “IQs of over 1,000.”
Is this possible? Perhaps, although not for some time for the reasons already outlined. Still, it’s important to be aware of these possibilities and for society to weigh the ethical and moral implications. Another article from MIT Technology Review, “First Human Embryos Edited in U.S.,” explains that Alta Charo, a co-chair of National Academy of Sciences committee, believes that “genome editing to enhance traits or abilities beyond ordinary health raises concerns about whether the benefits can outweigh the risks, and about fairness if available only to some people.” It’s a sentiment that isn’t only shared by leaders in the sciences, but also those in the general public. According to one Pew Research Center study, “Why Americans Are Wary of Using Technology to ‘Enhance’ Humans,” the majority of U.S. adults say they would be “very” or “somewhat” worried about genome editing.
However, there are reasonable arguments for why it might be permissible. We have been using technology to enhance ourselves for thousands of years — from wearing glasses and having Lasik surgery to eating B-vitamins and applying skin moisturizers. Some argue that by editing the genome, we are only using a more effective and permanent type of technology to achieve greater human flourishing. And perhaps, in a world where no possible side-effects could occur and such technology was accessible and affordable to all, such technology would be permissible.
Although these are questions that may not need to be answered until tomorrow, today we are already witnessing the use of technology in ways that sets value on different “types” of human life. According to an article from CBS, “‘What Kind of Society Do You Want to Live in?’: Inside the Country Where Down Syndrome is Disappearing,” Iceland has nearly eliminated Down Syndrome from their population. Yet, this hasn’t occurred by editing the genomes of human embryos (Down Syndrome results in having an extra chromosome). Instead, women are given prenatal screening tests early in their pregnancy, and if a mother is informed that her child has an extra chromosome, she is encouraged to have an abortion.
Darell Falk, Ph.D., is an emeritus PLNU professor of biology and the co-founder of an organization called BioLogos, which seeks to bring harmony between science and biblical faith. He explains that through a technique called preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) we can spot genetic abnormalities at very early stages. PGD involves in vitro fertilization, where an embryo is monitored outside of the womb for deformities at an early stage before being implanted within the mother.
“Looking under the microscope we can see which embryos have an extra chromosome,” Falk explains. “At that point, should mothers choose to do so, defective embryos are discarded and only the healthy ones are allowed to grow. To make a decision we’re not going to have this child, we’re going to have this other. Or we’re not going to use this embryo, we’re going to use this one is concerning.”
There are certainly substantial challenges involved in raising a child with Down Syndrome, but Falk shares that “many parents who have had a Down Syndrome child would say that ‘that child has done so much for our family.’”
Although this type of technology is not new and has been the cause of ethical concern for a few decades now, questions of this sort will continue to grow at the rate of our technological development. What is happening in Iceland, even though it doesn’t constitute genome editing, is eerily similar to the beginning of Brave New World, where only children that fit certain parameters are allowed to grow and live. This presents grave ethical questions for Christians. At what point are we able to decide which embryos are worthy to develop and which ones are not? It might give us pause to recall that what we perceive as admirable is not always what’s most important to God, for “man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (1 Sam. 16:7). Do we believe that by removing undesirable conditions from the human family through discarding embryos we are creating a more just, humane, and flourishing world? This only reaffirms why Christians must be involved in the bioethical questions of today.
TOOLS OF GREAT POWER AND RISK
Although the use of technology requires caution, this doesn’t necessarily mean that the pursuit of superior technology — especially when motivated to relieve human suffering — is automatically impermissible. Mark Mann, Ph.D., PLNU associate professor of theology, looks to C.S. Lewis to illuminate the proper relationship of Christians with technology.
“I like what C.S. Lewis said once, that whatever is capable of the greatest good is therefore capable of the greatest evil,” Mann says. “The machines we use are in and of themselves neither good nor bad. What matters is how they’re used.”
Mann refers to Genesis to help us understand the role we have within creation. We are instructed to “subdue” and have “dominion over” the earth, but this is often misunderstood to imply that God has given us absolute mastery over creation — that we may exploit it purely for our own benefit (Gen. 1:28). But the original Hebrew and larger biblical context indicate instead that mastery is about care, protection, and stewardship. And the responsibility we are given is “grounded in the larger dominion of God,” says Mann. “God has given us tools, wisdom, and knowledge to be able to build things within creation, but we must always remember that our responsibility as stewards of creation is to ensure that God’s sovereign will is always kept at the center of how we use these resources and gifts.”
Falk pushes this further, noting that it isn’t right for Christians to simply refrain from engaging in certain technologies because there is the potential to cause harm. “It’s really important for us to remember that we are called to relieve human suffering,” Falk says. “One of the key examples that Jesus set for us was healing the sick and ministering to others.” Falk calls to mind Matthew 25, where the goats are separated from the sheep based on how each one responded to “the least of these.” Falk is clear that the ability to use genome editing and other medicinal technologies to relieve human suffering is in some sense an imperative that we must heed. “For us to look at this technology that could relieve the suffering of Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s and just decide we’re not going to do anything is to me the antithesis of what it means to be a Christian.”
This can also be applied to the case for synthetic life, which is the engineering of bacteria or complex organs using biomolecular components. Falk explains that “synthetic biology involves making new forms of life that will carry out functions that will be helpful to humankind in some way.” He follows this up with the acknowledgment that some people will see this as “playing God,” but he’s quick to point out that we’ve been doing this for a long time already. “We’ve been manipulating life through breeding, plant breeding or animal breeding, for thousands of years,” Falk says. “We’re just getting better at it.”
What if we could engineer a bacteria that could ensure environmental sustainability, or protect against devastating famines? What if we could fashion replacement organs — a heart, liver, or kidney — and supply them to those in dire need? Again, there are certainly risks, but the possibility of relieving human suffering through such technologies must be weighed with these risks.
It seems the issue comes down to whether or not we are using technology for the good of everyone. Mann believes that, with the immutable command to love both God and neighbor, the rationale for the pursuit of science and technology only makes sense grounded in the expectation that we do so to help those who are sick, suffering, and forgotten by society. As a result, Mann points to some in Silicon Valley and wonders if their motivation is not so much a concern with the “least” of humanity, but rather the further enhancement of those with the most.
THE QUEST FOR LIFE EVERLASTING
Today there are certain individuals who believe they will live for hundreds of years, if not indefinitely, thanks to technology. Whether it’s through short circuiting our genetic code to vastly slow or stop the aging process or incorporating machines to pick up the slack within our moribund bodies, there is a contingency of wealthy individuals in Silicon Valley who have faith in radical life enhancement and extension. Entrepreneurs such as Peter Thiel and Ray Kurzweil are among its ranks, and such institutions as Singularity University and the Future Human Institute have sprung up as a response. This movement has been coined “transhumanism.” Nick Bostrom, a Swedish philosopher and professor, defines transhumanism as follows:
“The intellectual and cultural movement that affirms the possibility and desirability of fundamentally improving the human condition through applied reason, especially by developing and making widely available technologies to eliminate aging and to greatly enhance human intellectual, physical, and psychological capacities.”
It’s interesting to note that the term “transhumanism” was first used in Dante’s Paradiso from the 14th century. In the famous work, as the poet reaches heaven, we read that “words may not tell of that trans-human change.” The modern movement’s eschatological aim for everlasting life has obvious parallels with our Christian belief in the resurrection of the dead. Although, instead of Christ raising us to new life, the transhumanists believe our machines will.
“Looking under the microscope we can see which embryos have an extra chromosome. At that point, should mothers choose to do so, defective embryos are discarded and only the healthy ones are allowed to grow.”
—DARELL FALK, PH.D.
To elaborate, the futurist Ray Kurzweil, a wealthy entrepreneur and technocrat, believes that by 2029 we will reach the point of “singularity” — the moment that computers will demonstrate intelligence and behavior equivalent to that of human beings, or in other words, the year when machines become conscious. For Kurzweil, there is no fear of The Matrix-like harvesting of humans for energy or Terminator-inspired genocidal destruction of humankind. Instead, he envisions a perfect marriage of sorts, the merging of human and machine in ways that radically enhance human abilities, lifespans, and productivity. In an article entitled “Are the Robots About to Rise? Google’s New Director of Engineering Thinks So … ,” Kurzweil is quoted as saying that technology in on the brink of ushering in “radical life extension, radical life enhancement. We are talking about making ourselves millions of times more intelligent and being able to have virtually reality environments which are as fantastic as our imagination.” Kurzweil has his critics, and his belief in such a future, though possible, is more akin to an anti-Luddite religion than an inevitable outcome.
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April Maskiewicz Cordero, Ph.D., PLNU professor of biology, has spent some time reading about this movement. She views its motivation as stemming from a desire for control. “I get this feeling that people want to have control over all aspects of everything,” Maskiewicz Cordero says. “Yet, when it comes to controlling life, I’m not in control and there are many times in my life where God’s plan was so much better than mine. I see this secular community grasping at more and more control.”
This brings us back to a critical question: even though we might be able to manipulate creation, should we do it because we can? It’s because of questions like these that Maskiewicz Cordero remains mindful of the limitations of science: science allows the pursuit of truth, but only within one area of human experience.
“Science can only answer the kind of questions related to the nature of the physical world.” Maskiewicz Cordero provides some examples for clarification. “I have a cold. How do I heal it? I broke my arm. How can I fix it? That’s what science is great at answering. It’s not meant to answer: why are we here? How did we get here? Is it right to genetically modify a child?”
This is where theology, the social sciences, literature, philosophy, and other areas of study must be brought to the table. And in the light of faith, the question of using technology to radically enhance human life must be concerned with whether such a pursuit creates a more flourishing and just world for everyone — not just the wealthy elite. Mann doubts that an investment of vast financial resources to extend and enhance the life of only those who can afford it when there are still millions dying from lack of basic needs creates the type of world Christ desires. Mann sees that such behavior may only lead to a greater divide between the wealthy and the poor. In some aspects, it might propel us closer to the society in Brave New World, where the upper class enjoys greater mental, physical, and material abundance while the lower class is left suffering in its wake.
“Science can only answer the kind of questions related to the nature of the physical world.”
—MASKIEWICZ CORDERO, PH.D.
Mann asks, “Are people really investing in technology for the benefit of all, not only part, of humanity?”
Finally, the evading of death signals a lack of trust in Jesus’ promise that, through death, we will have life. Life enhancement might be a good thing if ordered properly to God’s purposes and set toward relieving the suffering of all of humanity.
“I’m naturally afraid of death, but as a Christian I also affirm that God has redeemed death,” Mann says. “The apostle Paul talks about death being an enemy, but it’s only an enemy in relationship to sin and the pain of loss. Instead, for Paul, death is ultimately a beautiful thing in light of the death and resurrection of Jesus. As Paul says, ‘to live is Christ, to die is gain.’”
FOR A CHRIST- CENTERED FUTURE
The Biblical story of the Tower of Babel remains a cautionary tale of what can happen when we rely on human strength and ingenuity alone. Much of what fuels technological development is an underlying belief that human beings, through their intelligence, can essentially become gods and masters over our own lives and universe. In fact, Yuval Noah Harari has written a book that implies so much, called Homo Deus (Latin for “human God”), in which he explores the future of humanity and the quest to become “gods” through the overcoming of death and creation of intelligent life.
“Biotechnology and artificial intelligence are going to be the keys to a bright future,” Falk says, before pointing out a critical flaw with the belief. “But we can say we can’t live up to it because of the sin that creeps in, because of our own selfishness that is the great spoiler. We need that personal relationship with God. We can’t love our own like we’re called to love, like we would like to be able to love.”
Although many look to technology to save us, as Christians there are many things we can do today — and not in some utopian future — to elevate humanity and increase human flourishing, such as working to bring material resources, education, and Christ to the many millions of people who suffer in squalid living conditions.
The questions related to technology have no easy solutions, but neither a blind push toward novel technology nor a fearful abandoning of it altogether seems to be the answer. Ultimately, we can only place our hope for human flourishing — for a place without death and where our tears are wiped away — not in any machine of our hands, bu tin the loving God of all creation.