Worth losing sleep over

Watching Human Nature, directed by Adam Bolt, for New Scientist, 27 November 2019.

Mature and intelligent, Human Nature shows us how gene editing works, explores its implications and – in a field awash with alarmist rhetoric and cheap dystopianism – explains which concerns are worth losing sleep over.

This gripping documentary covers a lot of ground, but also works as a primer on CRISPR, the spectacular technology that enables us to cut and paste genetic information with something like the ease with which we manipulate text on a computer. Human Nature introduces us to key start-ups and projects that promise to predict, correct and maybe enhance the genetic destinies of individuals. It explores the fears this inspires, and asks whether they are reasonable. Its conclusions are cautious, well-argued and largely optimistic.

Writers Regina Sobel and Adam Bolt (who also directs) manage to tell this story through interviews. Key players in the field, put at their ease during hours of film-making, speak cogently to camera. There is no narration.

Ned Piyadarakorn’s graphics are ravishing and yet absurdly simple to grasp. They need to be, because this is an account hardly less complex than those in the best popular science books. As the film progressed, I began to suspect that the film-makers assume we aren’t idiots. This is so rare an experience that it took a while to sink in.

There are certain problems the film can’t get round, though. There are too many people in white coats moving specks from one Petri dish to another. It couldn’t be otherwise, given the technology involves coats, specks, Petri dishes and little else by way of props the general viewer can understand. That this is a source of cool amusement rather than irritation is largely due to the charisma of the film’s cast of researchers, ethicists, entrepreneurs, diagnosticians, their clients and people with conditions that could be helped by the technique, such as schoolboy David Sanchez, who has sickle-cell anaemia. We learn that researchers are running clinical trials using CRISPR to test a therapy for his condition.

Foundational researchers like Jennifer Doudna and Jill Banfield, Emmanuelle Charpentier and Fyodor Urnov provide star quality. Provocateurs like Stephen Hsu, a cheerful promoter of designer babies, and the longevity guru George Church are given room to explain why they aren’t nearly as crazy as some people assume.

Then the bioethicist Alta Charo makes the obvious but frequently ignored point that the Brave New World nightmare CRISPR is said to usher in is a very old and well-worn future indeed. Sterilisations, genocide and mass enslavement have been around a lot longer than CRISPR, she says, and if the new tech is politically abused, we will only have our ourselves to blame.

There is, of course, the possibility that CRISPR will let loose some irresistibly bad ideas. Consider the mutation in a gene called ADRB1, which allows us to get by on just 4 hours’ sleep a night. I would leap at the chance of a therapy that freed up my nights – but I wonder what would happen if everyone else followed suit. Would we all live richer, more fulfilled lives? Or would I need a letter from my doctor when I applied for a 16-hour factory shift?

The point, as Human Nature makes all too clear, is that the questions we should be asking about gene editing are only superficially about the technology. At heart, they are questions about ourselves and our values.

Eugenic America: how to exclude almost everyone


Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American eugenics, and the sterilization of Carrie Buck by Adam Cohen (Penguin Press)

Defectives in the Land: Disability and immigration in the age of eugenics by Douglas C. Baynton (University of Chicago Press)

for New Scientist, 22 March 2016

ONE of 19th-century England’s last independent “gentleman scientists”, Francis Galton was the proud inventor of underwater reading glasses, an egg-timer-based speedometer for cyclists, and a self-tipping top hat. He was also an early advocate of eugenics, and his Hereditary Genius was published two years after the first part of Karl Marx’s Das Kapital.

Both books are about the betterment of the human race: Marx supposed environment was everything; Galton assumed the same for heredity. “If a twentieth part of the cost and pains were spent in measures for the improvement of the human race that is spent on the improvement of the breed of horses and cattle,” he wrote, “what a galaxy of genius might we not create! We might introduce prophets and high priests of civilisation into the world, as surely as we… propagate idiots by mating cretins.”

What would such a human breeding programme look like? Would it use education to promote couplings that produced genetically healthy offspring? Or would it discourage or prevent pairings that would otherwise spread disease or dysfunction? And would it work by persuasion or by compulsion?

The study of what was then called degeneracy fell to a New York social reformer, Richard Louis Dugdale. During an 1874 inspection of a jail in New York State, Dugdale learned that six of the prisoners there were related. He traced the Jukes family tree back six generations, and found that some 350 people related to this family by blood or marriage were criminals, prostitutes or destitute.

Dugdale concluded that, like genius, “degeneracy” runs in families, but his response was measured. “The licentious parent makes an example which greatly aids in fixing habits of debauchery in the child. The correction,” he wrote, “is change of the environment… Where the environment changes in youth, the characteristics of heredity may be measurably altered.”

Other reformers were not so circumspect. An Indiana reformatory promptly launched a eugenic sterilisation effort, and in 1907 Indiana enacted the world’s first compulsory sterilisation statute. California followed suit in 1909. Between 1927 and 1979, Virginia forcibly sterilised at least 7450 “unfit” people. One of them was Carrie Buck, a woman labelled feeble-minded and kept ignorant of the details of her own case right up to the point in October 1927 when her fallopian tubes were tied and cauterised using carbolic acid and alcohol.

In Imbeciles, Adam Cohen follows Carrie Buck through the US court system, past the desks of one legal celebrity after the other, and not one of them, not Howard Taft, not Louis Brandeis, not Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr, gave a damn about her.

Cohen anatomises in pitiless detail how inept civil society can be at assimilating scientific ideas. He also does a good job explaining why attempts to manipulate the genetic make-up of whole populations can only fail to improve the genetic health of our species. Eugenics fails because it looks for genetic solutions to what are essentially cultural problems. The anarchist biologist Peter Kropotkin made this point as far back as 1912. Who were unfit, he asked the first international eugenics congress in London: workers or monied idlers? Those who produced degenerates in slums or those who produced degenerates in palaces? Culture casts a huge influence over the way we live our lives, hopelessly complicating our measures of strength, fitness and success.

Readers of Cohen’s book would also do well to watch out for Douglas Baynton’s Defectives in the Land, to be published in June. Focusing on immigrant experiences in New York, Baynton explains how ideas about genetics, disability, race, family life and employment worked together to exclude an extraordinarily diverse range of men and women from the shores of the US.

“Doesn’t this squashy sentimentality of a big minority of our people about human life make you puke?” Holmes once exclaimed. Holmes was a miserable bigot, but he wasn’t wrong to thirst for more rigour in our public discourse. History is not kind to bad ideas.