Relativity Applies to Physics, Not Ethics

After dedicating over two years in graveyards and tombs collecting and combining body parts, Mary Shelley’s Victor Frankenstein accomplished the impossible by assembling the world’s first living creature. The tragic truth met Frankenstein when his very own monster wreaks havoc on his world and murders innocent people and family members closest to him. Frankenstein learns the sad, bitter truth that just because something is possible doesn’t mean it should be done. Today new technology is being created that makes it possible to change and modify the DNA of people — a discovery that has the potential to combat diseases but could change society in unpredictable ways. Should scientists heed the lesson learned by the fictional Victor Frankenstein? 

Scientists Dr. Jennifer Doudna and Dr. Emmanuelle Charpentier won the 2020 Nobel Prize in chemistry for a new technology known as CRISPR-Cas9. By using the CRISPR-Cas9 protein it is possible to cut the unwanted or potentially harmful DNA section and replace it with a sought after one, which the body then begins to copy, effectively spreading the modified genes to the rest of the body. This process is called gene therapy. Genetic engineering modifies genes to enhance an organism beyond what is naturally given. According to Nobel Prize recipient Jennifer Doudna as quoted in Jill Cowan’s article from the New York Times, her technology is “a way to alter DNA with precision and accuracy in cells to control cells’ fate. And even the properties of an entire organism” (Cowan, 2020).

Gene therapy gives doctors new ways to treat sickle cell anemia, certain types of cancers, genetic blindness, AIDS, cystic fibrosis, and muscular dystrophy which could potentially save the lives of thousands of patients.(Clara Rodríguez Fernández, 2019) This technology also provides promise of one day developing a cure for these diseases with the help of further research. 

It is also possible to genetically modify food to keep it fresh, make it more nutritious, and increase its growth rate. As this technology spreads it could greatly help those who are in desperate need of food and are starving. Modifying plants in particular ways can even help reduce the effects of climate change. For example, plants could be edited to stop methane from being emitted, which would greatly help the environment (Gallegos, 2019). According to Dr. Doudna, her technology “puts into science’s hands just extraordinary power to manipulate genes in ways that could lead to cures for genetic disease, to altering crops, to being able to deal with climate change” (Cowan, 2020)

Despite the numerous positive and potentially world saving capabilities of genetic modification, there are ethical and moral implications that must be taken into account. Editing human genes allows for the ability to pick desirable traits in our DNA thus causing a modification of our entire species. Scientist Fyodor Umov of the Altius Institute for Biomedical Sciences theorizes in the documentary Human Nature, “There’s no question in my mind that, as this field advances, people will be able to order a change in their genetic makeup to create an outcome of interest to them in their metabolism, in their appearance, in principle, potentially, in who they are as people, personality changes” (Bolt, 2019). With this new technology it is possible to pick and choose traits like height, eye color, speed of a person’s metabolism, and potentially someone’s personality, thereby avoiding the lottery of genes that normally occurs. 

Today, with the ability to choose the characteristics of humans, society has to decide if this is ethically and morally justifiable. One controversial use of this technology is for modifying the germ line of humans. Since when a scientist modifies the DNA of the sperm, eggs, or an embryo, all offspring will carry forward the modified DNA, and every offspring from that offspring will continue to carry the modified DNA, making the manipulation of the germline irreversible and dangerous if problems arise down the line. New diseases or harmful effects that we are unaware of could be instilled and passed onto future generations. Scientist Fyodor Umov proposes a temporary halt on manipulating any part of the human germline in fear of unforeseen consequences: “We proposed that there would be an unconditional moratorium: Don’t edit human embryos, don’t use edited sperm and eggs to make human embryos… When we authorize research on human embryo editing, we are enabling, ultimately, human embryo editing for human enhancement” (Bolt, 2019). 

Harvard Medical School Dean George Daleym questions the ethical portion of this science by saying, “We as a society may think that doing better on the SATs is better than doing worse. Being taller, being handsomer, being more creative, being more courageous, those are traits we would want to potentially select for. Should we go there?” (Bolt, 2019). If humans, as a whole, were to meddle with this technology and discriminately choose what parts of a person are the best or the most beneficial to society, are humans playing the role of God? Does removing the aspect of chance diminish what it means to be human? Even if it is deemed unethical to genetically change humans solely for the purpose of human enhancement and only use the technology to fight diseases, society still runs the risk of the technology slipping into the wrong hands. Comparatively, nuclear power/energy led to great advancements in society, but the creation of the nuclear bomb alongside it created an equally, if not a more dangerous, potential. 

Victor Frankenstein unleashed an uncontrollable monster on his world that led to his ultimate demise. Due to Frankenstein’s inability to foresee the consequences of his actions, he ruined his own life and the lives of those he loved. When humans make scientific discoveries there are always potential negative outcomes. Change can be good and trust in the scientific community is very important; however when faced with decisions like these it is important that every aspect is considered. Manipulating traits in humans would fundamentally change the ways we operate and could be detrimental to our society. The future may be very different from what people of the past ever dreamed of, and it is only through the power of science, balanced with ethics, that as a society we will be able to reach our highest potential.