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Thursday, April 23, 2015

Human embryos, genetically modified for the first time ever

Isn't this how Khan Noonien Singh came about?

"Superior ability breeds superior ambition."

Chinese scientists have revealed that for the first time in history, human embryos have been genetically modified.  They've published their research.  And now the genie is out of the bottle: we have arrived at a place where it is possible to edit, amend and append the human genome.

We can now, quite frighteningly, play God in a way that has never been done before.

Of course, this has been a long time coming.  We've already been tinkering with the genes of plants and animals: everything from simple viruses on up to algae and fungi, on through to complex organisms like fish and rats.  It's been almost twenty years since the first cloned animal was announced.

It was only a matter of time.  It was inevitable.  But that doesn't make it any more comforting.

Some will argue that this is going to one day be a good, even a routine thing: taking human embryos and "cutting-out" genetically-derived diseases as hemophilia or Down's syndrome.  Or autism.  Or maybe even mental illness... like bipolar disorder.

But at what cost?  And where might such a thing stop, if it were to become a widely viable procedure?  Could parents "custom-tailor" a child so that it has red hair, or blond?  How about eye color?  Muscle mass?  Blood type?

Perhaps even intelligence?

My late father rarely commented on developing technology.  When he did it was usually to complain about how he couldn't understand such gimmicks as smartphones and high-def television ("I got lost when they went to FM radio" he often jibed).  But when he did, genetically altering organisms was one of the things he spoke most avidly against.  He thought that we were playing with things "not meant for us to mess with", as he put it.  And worst of all was the notion of altering human genetics.  Dad sincerely believed that to do so would invite divine retribution in one form or another.

It's a seemingly small thing, this new research out of China.  But who might have thought that two or three scientists experimenting with radioactive material and an oscilliscope would pave the way to the first nuclear reactor and shortly afterward the atomic bomb?

Where would it stop?  Would there come to be two breeds of humanity: the baselines and the "augments"?

As Ian Malcolm said in the movie Jurassic Park: we get so astounded with the the things that we could, we don't bother to ask ourselves whether we should.

It may turn out to be several decades late, but all of a sudden the Eugenics Wars of Star Trek lore seem like a thing waiting to happen after all...