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Cultivate and CRISPR

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AUTHOR: Andrew Jones

November 3, 2021

You’ll have to forgive me. These blogs are probably supposed to be devotional, even (rarely) inspiring, but sometimes I just have to write about something I can’t shake. In the midst of our politically-polarized-strange-labor-market-when-is-COVID-over world, I can’t shake the feeling that this is not how we will be remembered when the history books are written.

Instead, I wonder if our children’s children’s children (should the Lord tarry) will only know this time for the powerful technologies that were born right under our noses. One of those is AI. But I’m more curious about another one: CRISPR.

If you don’t know what CRISPR is, I didn’t either, until Ezra Klein explained it. I was browsing his podcast and saw an episode entitled, “Humanity’s Awesome, Terrifying Takeover of Evolution.” That piqued my interest, and gave me a clue. While the mechanics are beyond my scope, the basic idea is simple. After listening, here’s what I gathered: CRISPR is a burgeoning technology capable of genetic editing at the molecular level. Give it a specific genetic sequence, say, for early onset Alzheimer’s, release it into the body, and watch it search and destroy.

But it can do more than delete faulty genetic code. It can put another sequence in its place. If you have ever edited a document in say, Microsoft Word, it’s not unlike the “find and replace” feature you used when you realized you misspelled a name throughout. CRISPR finds the sequence, cuts it out, and replaces it with another.

The technology is still relatively new, and there’s lots of kinks to work out, but this is happening right now. In fact, a patient in Mississippi has already undergone treatment using CRISPR to fix her sickle-cell anemia. She’s a year in and currently shows zero symptoms of the disease.

How much good could we do with a tool like this? Cure cancer? Treat heretofore incurable diseases? Completely change the outlook on life for millions of people with any number of chronic genetic conditions? Yup. It’s as awesome as Ezra Klein said.

And as terrifying. Because what else could we do with this? Or, perhaps more pessimistically, what else will we do with this? Pay-to-play designer babies with a “superhero” genetic package available? “With this CRISPR, your son or daughter is guaranteed an IQ of an MIT graduate and the physical strength of an NFL linebacker.” Hair colors, eye colors, skin colors, falling in and out of fashion like first names? “Oh, you have blue eyes. That was such a thing in the early 2050s!”

I haven’t even gotten creepy yet: growing disparities between the rich and poor as the vulnerable are “priced out” of genetic enhancements, transcending ethnic markers that are God designed and inherently good, and yes, even the potential of species splicing. Terrifying indeed.

I told you that I just had to get this off my chest. I honestly don’t know how to think about this. Did God intend for us to develop these tools, like the automobile and cell phone, as a way we cultivate the natural order? Or are we crossing a line to make our own name great, like the builders of the tower of Babel of old? I honestly don’t know. I’d love your thoughts in the comments on how believers are to think about these things.

Two ideas come to mind that I think are helpful for all of us:

  1. Follow the work of thoughtful Christians in the hard sciences. Francis Collins, the former director of the NIH is someone in this category (he’s written several books on the integration of faith and science). So are the bioethicists at the Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity at Trinity International University, my alma-mater.
  2. Pray for wisdom. As I said, as important as all the conversations we are having right now are, I feel that technologies like this are flying under the radar. This will have massive implications for our world and our witness as believers. May God help us navigate wisely and compassionately.

Let me know what you think! Comment below with thoughts, questions, or resources.

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3 Comments

  1. Michelle

    First, I am grateful there is even the term “bioethics”. Second, I’m grateful for people like Francis Collins and Stephen Meyer, scientists who see the magnificence of creation, are humbled by it and respect it. The Lord allows us to co-create with Him, but ultimately we are at the mercy of the genesis creator, the Genesis creator.

    My kids knew about CRISPR long before I did. I remember feeling very “cool” and educated when I announced to my high school and college sons “guess what?! A woman, Jennifer Doudna, won the Nobel prize in chemistry for pioneering work on gene editing technology called “CRISPR”. Their response: “oh, yep – we learned about CRISPR a while back.”

    Mom got no cred. It was old news. This concerns me. Is this flying under the radar? Are we bring enough attention and heart to this? Meanwhile Moderna, who has earned billions from the COVID vaccine, now markets the vaccine as “SpikeVax” with 20 billion in the pipeline just this year with existing orders, is now well funded for their gene-editing work, among other things.
    I would love, and I pray, that more Christians become scientists like Francis Collins, that parents raising the next generation stay attuned to these these things and foster a heart-head connection in the scientific community.

    I’m proud of you, Andrew for paying attention – I really appreciate this post.

    Reply
  2. Chip Shockey

    Thanks Andrew and Michelle! Personally, I believe that occasionally getting beyond the devotional and inspirational to big picture, real world issues like this confirms our commitment to engaging our minds and that scripture and our Faith informs our view of all of life. In fact although we have been accustomed to hearing that science and religion are completely separate worlds and incompatible (you believe one or the other), a long-standing tradition and compelling argument has been made that modern science (the scientific method) emerged in the Western world precisely because many of the early scientists were men and women of deeply held Christian Faith (Newton for instance wrote more books on religion than science or mathematics). Science emerged in the West because it’s early practitioners believed our Creator God had ordained the mechanisms of life and the universe and that it was our duty to discover them, test our assumptions about what we thought we had discovered and use the validated discoveries to serve mankind (Christian Redemptive influence). As such, they operated from the base of a rich philosophy that saw religion and science as complimentary and mutually reinforcing, one addressing certain questions better than the other, but far from mutually exclusive which is the common pre-supposition today. I am thankful for scientists like Dr. Collins who have not fallen into this false dichotomy.

    For me, as terrifying as the the potential of CRISPR abuse is, I think we are already seeing an early version of genetic manipulation being deployed on a universal basis today with the Covid mRNA and related vector vaccine technologies. Please understand, I am not anti-vaccine. The traditional pathogen attenuated model vaccines have rid mankind of many devastating diseases, many of which predominantly ravaged the young we so endeavor to protect as our highest priority. These new vaccines are gene therapies designed for targeted applications such as critical amino acid production in patients with genetic dysfunctions. Their use in broad based applications such as universal Covid vaccination is brand new and lacks the longitudinal safety and efficiency testing we have demanded and established in traditional vaccines.

    It is not for me to decide the risk benefit calculation for others related to Covid vaccination. However, in light of this issue (and other related Covid treatment issues), I am sympathetic and supportive of people who choose not to take these medications. And as such, I think Covid “mandates” that threaten people’s ability to pursue their career and provide for their families are horribly wrong and should be called out for the attack on personal autonomy and freedom that they are. There are members in our midst that are facing this “death sentence” dilemma.

    So I pose another quest, should we be speaking out on their behalf?

    Reply
  3. Bruce Barrett

    Hi Andrew- I read with interest your blog post about CRISPR. I think C. S. Lewis summed it up quite well in his book That Hideous Strength.

    Speaking of the modern scientists at Belbury, Lewis says, “What should they find incredible, since they believed no longer in a rational universe? What should they regard as too obscene, since they held that all morality was a mere subjective by-product of the physical and economic situations of men? ……. There was now at last a real chance for fallen Man to shake off that limitation of his powers which mercy had imposed upon him as a protection from the full results of his fall. If this succeeded, Hell would be at last incarnate” (pp. 203-204).

    Reply

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