A waste of time – Stephen Chen on “Gene Editing”

I recently read Stephen Chen’s article in the South China Morning Post and rarely have I been so dumfounded and infutiated by an opinion piece such as this one. Let’s hope Stephen is just rehashing the opinion of researcher Professor Yang Hui. Yan Hui recently made significant progress in editing faulty genes in humans, reducing respectively the error rates and failure rate of selective gene editing significantly. Yan Hui takes it upon himself to warn the world for ‘mis-use’ of these technologies. He calls on the world waking up to alleged dangers, and “implementing world-wide rules” to make sure no disasters happen. “The technology is similar to weapons and drugs. Immoral use, such as the creation of a super-baby, should be banned forever,” Yang said.

This is essentially a nonsense statement.

In the 1940s it need vast technological resources and manpower on an industrial scale to create the first nuclear bomb. Project Manhattan took 130 thousand people and in today’s dollars 23 billion. In the old days it required major effort to create revolutionary new technologies. Now a small dedicated team working in utmost secrecy can make sweeping advancements in total secrecy.

Yan Hui compares his technology to “drugs”. He conveniently ignores the fact that decades of a world-wide war on drugs have miserably failed. When there is ravenous demand for a product or service or technology, people will do whatever they can to get their hands on the product. To make such a product effectively illicit instantaneously creates a black market, and more or less hands over the legislation, product quality control and distribution to either deeply corrupt politicians, or cutthroat criminal kartels and gangsters.

Just try and visualize how much of a market genetic editing of babies comprizes. Imagine if a typical above middle class parent had access to a short vacation somewhere in east asia and respective parents would come back, mom pregnant. No one would be the wiser, even if after some physician would notice some genetic anomalies with the infant. What do you do to parents who pay for a service that removes genetic ailments, real or imagines from the unborn infant? Who thinks for a moment that once these technologies become anywhere near affordable for billionaires they will not be used? Now imagine that the technologies become available, some kind of media scandal ensues, they become illegal and are henceforth and as a direct result of this “war on genetic misschief” only available to well connected and very wealthy parents.

Maybe we should. If we look at the track record of cocaine dealers, it’s clear that black markers produce results far better than legal and legislated markets. Cocaine and heroin prices have dropped precipitously over the years, whereas quality of these products have sharply increased. At the time time “legal” medical companies use proven predatory US patent law to hike up prices of critical drugs (such as insulin, for peace sake! – a product that was originally intended by its developers to be for free) to the point patients start dying in droves. So color me a sceptic with regards to the interests and goals of Professor Yan Hui. Maybe he knows that once we legislate it’ll become a black market, and he’ll be rich. Or it’ll become a legal, highly patented, highly corporatized market and he’ll become even richer.

I call upon you my reader to just for a few minutes try to visualize how much you can ‘fix’ in a human genome. Look around you at your colleagues at work, to your family, to people in the street and anyone with a shred of humanity must conclude the human species is genetically a mess. Most people have some form of genetic malady, no matter how subtle. Even minor afflictions cause major suffering world wide. Asthma. Color Blindness. Bad teeth. Diabetes.

But even something we so take for granted as “a valuable life lesson” such as someone being ugly is soul destroying. Uglyness destroys lives and careers. No one wants to be ugly, yet everyone regards other people being born ugly “something they shouldn’t whine or complain about”. Gods forbid ugliness would be covered for medical treatments – people would have to pay more dollar to fix the neighbours butt-ugly kids, amirite?

We made massive, sweeping progress this last few decades people would fight tooth and nail, to the death, to not give up. Try pry smartphones from a few billion people’s fingers, and you’ll likely to get lynched. two decades ago just the mention of the very idea of smartphones and my mom and stepdad would get verbally abusive that “such things are an abomination in addictive personality disorders”. Even if they were right, nobody would give a flying hoot these days.

Genetic therapies for the unborn are just like cars, computers, games, mobile phones, vacations to thailand – etc.. At first they are buggy, hideously expensive and unpleasant. A few years later they are not. At first nobody but some rare few eccentrics and hipsters would dream about paying for them. A few years later my mom is inseperable from her samsung.

Chinese science minister warns scientists not to overstep ethical bounds after He Jiankui’s gene-edited babies scandal

The article above decides halfway to call major progress in these treatments “a schandal”. I again wonder what is wrong with these people. Maybe they should have been genetically edited for more compassion, pity or intelligence.

In the early 1990s I saw the emergence of internet. At first internet was laughed at. It was called a “fad” that would quickly “disappear”. Then people start demanding strict laws against “internet”. Even now well-meaning imbeciles call for “legislation” against a range of things, such as “wikileaks”, “pornography”, “bitcoins”, “illegally downloaded music” or “anonymous comments under youtube videos”. All that busywork feels to me a lot like the rantings of some US senator when he haphazzardly, foaming at the mouth labels the internet “a series of tubes”. It’s simply old people who have no idea what the hell they are talking about (my mom, 10 years ago, regarding smartphones) or deeply corrupt and self-serving politicians or corporate executives that wish to cash in by betting on either side of this technology. If the technology escapes the legislative clutches of a all these useless government interference by a geriatrocratic and chronically future-shocked billionaire politicians (as internet did for a decade) then they won’t make any money on their diabolical patents. Or if the government does’t do its best to try and legislate it, there won’t be black markets and these people also won’t make any money.

Sad thing is – nobody will listen. Even if I produce a 700 page PDF listing all genetic afflictions that cost society (taxpayers) trillions, create untold human suffering, the typical voter/consumer/constituent whatever will not be able to intellectually associate genetic therapies with the eradication of those afflictions.

Like my mom, ten years ago, had no idea what a smart phone would do, or why it would make a difference in her life. Very very very sad. Maybe we as a species all need to get our genetics altered to increase our functional intelligence by a significant amount, because probably right now we are just too collectively stupid to know what’s good for us.

I guarantee you – later this century we’ll know real well. And not having your kids genes fixed will be reason parents go to prison for child abuse. I guarantee it.