SCIENCE can get really scary. I say this after reading a report about Chinese scientists who decided to ‘improve’ a group of macaque monkeys by making them more intelligent. They didn’t do this by training the monkeys (that would be boring and conventional) but by inserting the human gene thought to be responsible for shaping human intelligence directly into the brains of these monkeys.
Of the 11 gene-hacked monkeys, six survived and while these transgenic primates have not (yet) started plotting our downfall they have indeed shown signs of higher intelligence than their ‘wild’ peers, which makes you wonder if Planet of the Apes is less a work of fiction and more a remarkably prescient documentary.
The scientists didn’t do this because they secretly long for a world where our Simian overlords place us in labour camps and zoos but because they feel such experiments will provide invaluable insight into genetic research and into how the human brain actually works.
More specifically, they want to study how humans developed the intelligence that has, in a relatively short span of time, made us the (admittedly cruel) masters of the Earth. This isn’t even the first instance of such (mad?) science as previously scientists in the US have injected glial cells from human foetuses into mice and ended up with … you guessed it … smarter mice.
From a purely scientific point of view, this is certainly ground-breaking work but it is also fraught with incredible, and utterly unique, moral and ethical dilemmas.
What if you could edit out emotion itself?
There are other possibilities being studied as well, such as introducing traits from the animal kingdom into humanity. Consider the tardigrade, also known as the water bear. This millimetre-long creature is considered virtually indestructible, and has been seen surviving and thriving in temperatures as cold as -237 degrees Celsius and as hot as 151°C.
In 2007 a group of tardigrades were sent into the vacuum of space for 10 days and not only did most of them survive, some even had babies! Tardigrades are also capable of surviving radiation doses of 5,000 to 6,000 grays (a measure of absorbed radiation) without much ill effect. Humans, on the other hand, can only handle four to eight grays of radiation. So it’s no surprise that scientists are trying to figure out how to use proteins from tardigrades to give humans greater resistance to radiation, theoretically allowing us to work in radioactive environments and even on other planets without much protective gear. Others have been studying the ability of geckos to generate limbs in an attempt to give the same ability to humans.
And then there is the question of understanding and tapping human biodiversity, though this field is a political landmine unlike any other and has the potential to fuel incredibly divisive racial theories, which is one reason it remains somewhat underexplored.
But consider the Bajau ‘sea nomads’ that have lived at sea in Indonesia for over 1,000 years and are capable of diving 70 metres without any equipment, can hold their breath for over 13 minutes and can see underwater with clarity that no other humans can match, all thanks to a genetic quirk and natural selection.
Or take the genetic traits that allow populations in Tibet, Ethiopia and parts of South America to adapt to low-oxygen environments and imagine the possibilities if these were harnessed and transferred? Currently, the only real barriers to unfettered genetic experimentation are largely ethical and in some countries, legal. But these are tenuous restraints at best and all it will take to spark a genetic arms race, so to speak, is for one country to take the plunge, and then others, for fear of being left behind, will also join in.
It may already have begun: in November 2018, Chinese scientist He Jiankui shocked the world by announcing that he had ‘created’ the world’s first gene-edited babies, a pair of female twins nicknamed ‘Lulu’ and ‘Nana’. He claims to have disabled a gene called CCR5 in the girls, which encodes a protein that allows HIV to enter cells.
Outraged Chinese authorities placed Jiankui under house arrest and he was also fired from the university he worked at and the twins have also been placed under medical supervision, and their eventual fate is uncertain at best. Whatever becomes of the girls and the doctor, this door, now opened, cannot be easily closed.
Sooner or later genetic engineering will be a reality, with all that it entails. What if you could ensure that no child is born with Down’s syndrome? What if you could edit away the South Asian propensity towards developing diabetes? Going further, what if you could edit out emotion itself and heighten musculature to create a new breed of soldiers? Or perhaps create genetically engineered geniuses with advantages their ‘normal’ peers could not match? In the quest to improve ourselves, would it not be a great irony if we were to engineer ourselves out of existence?
The writer is a journalist.
Published in Dawn, June 10th, 2019