Will Gene-Editing Technologies Spark the Next Cold War? They Already Have.

The folks behind CRISPR gene editing were runners-up for Time's Person of the Year. Their creation may win the future for secular China.


Peter Bagge, Reason

Sure, Donald Trump won Time's coveted Person of the Year award (coveted in the sense of, Who wouldn't want to be in a line of succession that includes Hitler, Stalin, and "You"?). But the runners-up, transhumanist visionary Zoltan Istvan reminds us, were the pioneers of the cheap and easy gene-editing techniques called CRISPR.

CRISPR, which stands for "clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats," was discovered in 2012 and has really gained steam (sorry to be 19th-century in my metaphors) over the past couple of years. As Reason's Ronald Bailey has written, the low cost and ease of the technology has sparked all sorts of Brave New World-style fears but, more important, it offers immense hopes "to cure disease, correct defective genes, [and] create more productive crops." (Reason's archive on the topic is here.)

Writing at Motherboard, Istvan worries that anti-CRISPR attitudes in the United States—emanating from both religious rightists and technophobic leftists—could mean that America will largely be left behind by countries that have fewer hangups.

If China or another country vows to increase its children's intelligence via genetic editing (which I estimate they will be able to do in 5-10 years time), and America chooses to remain "au naturel" because they insist that's how God made them, a conflict species-deep will quickly arise. If this scenario seems too bizarre to happen, just consider the Russian Olympic track and field team that was banned in the recent 2016 Games for supposed doping.

It's quite possible the same accusatory flavor of "banning" could happen between China and America in the game of life—between its workers, its politicians, is people, its artists, and its media. I wonder if America—approximately 70 percent who identify as Christians—will put up with beings who modified themselves by science to be smarter and more functional entities.

This type of idea takes racism and immigration to a whole new level.

Istvan lays out three possible scenarios (transhumanists, bless their non-souls, love scenario planning and so should we all). First, a strongly religious Congress, bolstered by a president who wants to keep peace with a large part of his constituency, goes along with a ban on CRISPR tech that sees America falling behind other nations, especially those with authoritarian regimes that force things on their citizens whether they like it or not). Second, a total "transhumanist nightmare" in which a global ban is enacted against all forms of enhancement, out of some mix of technophobia, reactionaryism, and misguided egalitarianism. And third:

America could focus more on technology and less on biology and genetics. On my recent 4-month long Immortality Bus tour across America, I found conservative people seem more inclined to use tech accessories or wear a special headset that would make them smarter (for example, by connecting their thoughts Matrix-style into the cloud and AI)—as opposed to structurally changing their brains, as the Chinese likely will do. America could innovate that accessory tech that would keep us ahead of the biological modifications of other nations.

Read whole piece here.

As an advocate of self-directed evolution and decentralized experiments in living (including experiments with the living, as long as consent is present), here's hoping that the American and global public recognizes the promises of CRISPR not necessarily to "perfect" the human race (whatever than might mean) but to better our condition by warding off disease and aging and by making it easier for all of us to imagine and reach our potential. And then to start over again when we figure out that what we really want to do is something totally different.

Must-watch: "The $140 Mail-Order CRISPR Kit: Is unregulated bio-hacking the future of science?"

NEXT: Trump Will Announce His SCOTUS Pick Around Inauguration, Says Reince Priebus

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  1. The last thing we need is a rehash of the Eugenics Wars of the 1990’s.

    1. I’ll start to get concerned when Mexico and Indian join forces to create the ultimate superman who will offer the world order.

      1. You’re the kind of guy who leaves the keys in his DY-100-class sleeper ship.

      2. He was the Best of Tyrants after all.

      3. Curry tacos? No thanks.

    2. But won’t the progs have their own version of the superman in Colonel Green?

    3. Germ line modification for everyone! Or at least for me.

  2. I wonder if America?approximately 70 percent who identify as Christians?will put up with beings who modified themselves by science to be smarter and more functional entities.

    I wonder if America will have a choice.

    1. I wonder how you make the leap from “Christian” to “anti-modification”. All the flak on gene engineering so far has come from the proggy/enviro left, after all, which is not notably Christian.

  3. If Rocky can beat Ivan Drago then my unmodified self will always be better than some lab-grown Chinaman.

    1. If Gattica and every anime ever have taught me anything it’s that the loser who tries hard and sacrifices much will always beat the entitled prodigy. So we should use CRISPR to make everyone mundane duds like $parkYen.

    2. Considering the number of people in China, chances are your unmodified self is already bested by thousands of unmodified Chinamen.

      Like I always tell people sometimes…If you’re one in a million, there are a thousand people just like you in China.

  4. If China or another country vows to increase its children’s intelligence via genetic editing (which I estimate they will be able to do in 5-10 years time), and America chooses to remain “au naturel” because they insist that’s how God made them, a conflict species-deep will quickly arise.

    1. Even if they were able to edit genes that precisely, the Chicomms would prioritize submission to the regime above all else. Intelligence gets in the way of that.

    2. Even if they are somehow able to engineer gains in intelligence while maintaining submission, the most intelligent Chinese children have a habit of emigrating to the US and EU.

    3. Points 1 and 2 become moot if the PRC transforms into a liberal democracy, but in that case there’s little to be afraid of from their rise.

    1. Austrian economics would lead me to believe that if 1 billion people were to get smarter, then everyone else would be better off with what they would invent and the efficiencies they would create. So this would be a better thing, in the Utilitarian sense anyhow…

    2. ^So This^

      I read to the same sentence and stopped. Would you feel better Statism beat out liberty without using CRISPR or enhancing IQs?

  5. I wonder if America?approximately 70 percent who identify as Christians?will put up with beings who modified themselves by science to be smarter and more functional entities.

    Why would that be a problem? The author (incorrectly) implies that Christians simply can’t “put up” with things they disagree with, when I fail to see an example of that when time and again, things they disagree with are put on an untouchable pedestal. (What would failing to “put up” with those things look like? Suicide?)

    It seems that most people even in this government-loving country treat other people just fine, even if the other person does things they don’t agree with. Or am I missing something?

    But, that being said, the more government grows, the less in each person’s life will be outside the scope of that government, and then there will be better means to not “put up” with something. Another reason to defang government completely.

  6. I wonder if America?approximately 70 percent who identify as Christians?will put up with beings who modified themselves by science to be smarter and more functional entities.

    Why wouldn’t they? Is there some sort of biblical proscription “Thou shalt not improve yourself”?

    If I had a shortcut to being smarter, stronger and longer-lived I’d jump at the chance. Not to mention the laser beam eyes.

    1. Depends on how it’s done. The “genetic engineering” methods currently available involve creating scads of embryos and destroying the ones that don’t have the genes you want. The latter part makes Christians a mite twitchy.

      1. You don’t appear to actually know what CRISPR is Tulpa.

    2. Seeing as it is the Christian Right that continually puts up roadblocks to even the simplest scientific research, I can easily see them fighting anything involving gene-editing tooth and nail. Have we already forgotten the fights over something as innocuous as stem cell research only a few years ago?

      1. You seem to gloss over the side effect that the resistance to the easily harvested abortion remains being used in such a manner helped incentivise figuring out that more or less any adult sell could be made to revert to a stem cell and moot the process of embryonic harvesting.

      2. Taxpayer funding of embryonic stem cell research was the controversy, actually. Which libertarians should oppose due to the first part.

        Of course it ultimately got pushed through years later and hasn’t produced shit.

        1. “Taxpayer funding of embryonic stem cell research was the controversy, actually. ”

          No, Tulpa, it wasn’t. Actually.

      3. the Christian Right that continually puts up roadblocks to even the simplest scientific research

        I am unaware of such roadblocks other than their opposition to harvesting stem cells from abortions. Maybe I missed something, though.

        Now, if you want to look at roadblocks to research, you should be looking at the regulatory state and at the proggy/enviro left.

  7. Let me know when you can gene mod an adult Luke with Sci-fi movie retro viruses but with good things instead of bad ones. Better metabolism, smarter, stronger, maybe even younger. I don’t plan on having kids so who cares what toys we can give them pre birth. Actually make them super geniuses maybe they can figure out that immortality thing before I die.

  8. Might have been an interesting article. But we are told right at the first sentence that it’s an opinion piece from one of the Intolerants. Do it my way or we will dispose of you.

  9. Black market embryo gene modification centers will spring up within easy travel distance of the US. The market always knows how to get around silly laws.

  10. I imagine two interesting side effects of CRISPR-enhanced human intelligence:

    * They would be even less interested in putting up with stodgy bureaucrats

    * Luddite refusers would have to scramble to get protected-class status before they lost the power games

    1. People can be extremely intelligent in a their technical area of expertise, and raging idiots in the big picture. Look at academia.

      I knew math profs who could spot extremely subtle logical errors in 100-page proofs with great precision, and a few minutes later would turn around and swallow idiotic Democrat arguments hook line and sinker.

      1. Hell, I know math profs who can do that, but can’t balance a God damn checkbook.

      2. True but … my feelz is that any rebellious streak is bad news for governments of all kinds.

        Also, if there are genes for raising intelligence, people will pick general intelligence over just math or any other specific kind.

        Actually, people are more likely to pick height, good looks, eye color, hair color, skin color, etc than just intelligence. I mean … if we get the ability to control genes, intelligence won’t be the only one, and probably not the first choice.

        1. I mean … if we get the ability to control genes, intelligence won’t be the only one, and probably not the first choice.

          Oh the irony if there’s a gene regulating penis length and truncating it creates ‘well-endowed’ men.

    2. * Luddite refusers would have to scramble to get protected-class status before they lost the power games

      This assumes they’re not completely content to have the new iPhone 28 waved under their noses.

      1. Hopefully the improved humans will realize what crap the iPhone is and get rid of it.

    3. I imagine unions would have a lot to say about genetically enhanced individuals entering the workforce as well.

      1. They’d have to allow bigotry and their heads would esplode.

  11. I can definitely see religious objections on the grounds that mankind isn’t meant to play God, as it were. But this is essentially no different than the secular objection that would be raised by ethicists as to under what standards and to what ends people should be permitted to edit genes.

    1. If you’re talking about curing disease and remedying defective genes for a particular person, then even the Catholic Church would not be against that. The problems arise when you “cure a disease” by killing all the people with the disease, which is analogous to current “genetic engineering” techniques.

  12. “America could focus more on technology and less on biology and genetics.”

    So Americans will have to move to another planet, as in the story line from S.M. Stirling?

    1. Mars, to found the Adeptus Mechanicus.

      1. So the true American Dream is to hump toasters with your metal tentacle penis?

        1. Turn safe search off. You’ll see that this is no lie.

          1. *ahem* They would found the Mechanicum. Only after some galaxy-destroying ultra-heresy war would it become the Mechanicus.


  13. I, for one, look forward to having a Swiss Army Hand and radar… hearing? But I don’t see how CRISPR is going to make either of those possible.

    1. Don’t forget the plastic nipples and completely smooth pubis, apparently.

  14. I think the danger to these developments rests a lot more with the egalitarian left than with the fundamentalist right. When the technology first emerges, I’m sure it will be fairly expensive. And you can bet the left won’t have any tolerance for worsening inequality by allowing the rich to actually make themselves superior people. Nevermind the fact that having those smarter people around will likely improve the lot of the poor tremendously.

    1. At the same time the danger from these developments rests with the left as well.

      They already consider conservative or libertarian tendencies to be a psychological disorder. If some gene or combination of genes was correlated with fidelity to tradition (which statists hate because it provides limits to their power) and/or resistance to authority, fixing that would be classified as “removing genetic defects”, perhaps to be part of the one-size-fits-all genetic tune-up that govt provides (promising increased intelligence, athletic ability, etc. but delivering other things as well).

      1. At first, this will be so expensive that only the rich will have it, and the numbers will be too few to matter. It also won’t matter what controls the government throws in, because the rich can afford to circumvent the controls. And because rich kids already have so many advantages, the genetic difference won’t stand out.

        As the tech gets cheaper and more widespread, government limitations will be seen as favoring the rich who have already used it, and the restrictions will disappear in a panic as the first generation nears college and their first jobs.

        Eventually the tech will become as cheap as 3D printing, and the government can go pound sand.

        The only way any government could control this, either banning it or mandating specific changes, would be to add contraceptives to drinking water or some other far-fetched dystopian idea. As long as people can procreate without government interference, the government will nto be able to control this.

  15. really gained steam (sorry to be 19th-century in my metaphors)

    20th century alternative: “really gained criticality”.
    21st century (BC) alternative: “really gained availability”.

  16. “to cure disease, correct defective genes, [and] create more productive crops.”

    I at first read this as “more productive *cops*” – I bet the Chinese read it that way, too.

  17. out of some mix of technophobia, reactionaryism, and misguided egalitarianism

    Egalitarianism being the only real threat. Technophobia and reactionaryism both tend to die off as wide scale phenomena over a couple of generations. Egalitarianism is eternal.

  18. Would the new technology help the secularists avoid fainting spells every time someone says “Praise Jesus”?

    Why would Christians oppose this? I’m sure they get laser eye surgery; not sure how this is much different, unless, as someone above said, it involves destroying the lives of unborn persons.
    I just read the linked article, curious to see the examples of Christians decrying this new technology. The examples were the Paris Climate Change Treaty, the 2016 Russian Olympic Team doping incident, and Bush halting govt funding of the embryonic stem ce’ll research (except for what had already been used).

    The author implied that religious types oppose all stem cell research, when that isn’t the case. Leaders of the religious right promote research done with adult stem cells.

    1. In addition, the author expresses concern that the research in America–if allowed–would proceed outside government supervision and funding. That would mean the research would be “dangerous”.

    2. Istvan worries that anti-CRISPR attitudes in the United States?emanating from both religious rightists and technophobic leftists…

      Is there a source that members from either group hold such attitudes regarding CRISPR specifically?

  19. CRISPR will be nothing to when some guy from Anatolia perfects the geneseed method and starts conquering the world with three meter tall walking tank-men. As it should be.

    1. Two references in one thread. It’s a good day for 40k.

      1. *the sound of a riven heretic*

  20. So intelligence is genetically determined, just like the Human Biodiversity folks have been saying, to the displeasure and vicious disapproval of the bien pensants. Interesting discussions coming soon.

    I’m digging out my copy of Brave New World and stocking up on popcorn.

  21. Theologically speaking, if God gave us a planet with the resources available to better ourselves, I don’t see the issue with doing so, whether that means the wheel or steam engines or CRISPR. Obviously some people will use the advances unwisely, but then, some people will use anything unwisely.

    Since I’m sure a lot of you don’t care about theological perspectives, I’ll add that, like most anything else, CRISPR will probably be fantastic until the government gets its fingers in it (and continue to churn forwards afterwards, despite said fingers). Cures for diseases, greater intelligence, greater drive to succeed…

    More to say, but I gotta run.

  22. Wow, the author is concerned about what the United States will do instead of what the Chinese will do? You know, since the United States will have some sort of moral qualms about what will be done with the technology, specifically?

    Sorry, guy, I think I’d be more afraid of what genocidal maniacs would do with gene editing techniques. I mean, look what they’ve done to their population without this ability. Their one child policy and their forced switch to an industrial economy from an agrarian economy have killed, what, Billions?

    So yeah, I find it far more likely that they’ll mutate a few hundred thousand children and throw their hands up in disgust at the various short sighted mistakes their ‘great leaders’ made in their calculus. They clearly have no idea what they’re doing, and billions of people suffer because of it.

    1. What will happen is that the Chinese will become super intelligent, which means they will be nerds who can’t get dates, and the Chinese civilization will die off.

  23. The big question that no one really answers here is “what are the side effects?” Intelligence is difficult to define and affected by many different things both genetic and environment. What specific gene gets edited to make us smarter, and in what way? Let’s take a more neutral example: height. Our tallness is determined by hundreds of genes controlling the length of our bones and muscles and their supporting and connecting tissues. Editing all those genes to get an extra inch or two of height as an adult likely will affect other genes controlling other processes as well. (For example, Yao Ming’s leg bones won’t worth with Peter Dinklage’s ligaments and muscles.) Bone marrow produces blood cells. Will editing the genes to make longer bones change something that causes the baby to develop leukemia as an adult? If it’s this complex for height, imagine the risks involved in editing genes that affect our brains and neurons. I just don’t see many people willing to take this kind of risk unless the genes are causing some kind of extremely serious deficit. Correcting the problems caused by Down’s Syndrome is likely to be worth it, but ten extra SAT points?

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