At least not the way you want it to.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about two related stories that recently crossed my desk. In one, our top Chinese scientists are apparently genetically engineering babies “with the goal of making the babies resistant to infection with H.I.V.” The second is simply headlined, “Deformities Alarm Scientists Racing to Rewrite Animal DNA.”
Now, you can split the difference between these perspectives in any number of ways. Is genetic engineering a medical treatment that people who are sick or at risk of becoming sick have a right to? If it’s a medical treatment, how should we weigh the benefits and risks of treatment? Should we take into account the risk of modified genes being passed on to future generations in unknown ways? All good, interesting questions.
But at the end of these articles, journalists always feel compelled to throw in what I call the Gattaca question: “Ever since scientists created the powerful gene editing technique Crispr, they have braced apprehensively for the day when it would be used to create a genetically altered human being. Many nations banned such work, fearing it could be misused to alter everything from eye color to I.Q.” [emphasis mine].
Genetic engineering won’t work and we’ll never know if it does
There are three key problems when it comes to genetically modifying embryos to produce desired outcomes in adults:
- identifying the genes that are responsible for the desired traits in existing adults;
- modifying those genes;
- and assigning future adult outcomes to those modifications.
The technology associated with the second item has advanced by leaps and bounds in the last few decades, and there’s no reason to believe it won’t continue to advance. In 50 years we’ll no doubt be able to target and edit individual genes with much greater precision than we can today.
But the technology related to the first and third items is infinitely more complex than merely editing strings of alleles.
When it comes to identifying the correct genes to modify we run into an immediate problem: we can only base our genetic guesses on the outcomes we observe in adult humans, and adult humans are subject to both social and environmental inputs. This is most often parsed through the lens of race in the United States, but the larger point has nothing to do with race and nothing to do with the United States.
I always like to look at statistics from abroad wherever possible in order to remove my own national and regional biases, so let’s glance at Oxford University in England. An exemplary institution of higher education, no doubt applying the most rigorous possible screening process to make sure each and every admitted student is of the highest possible caliber. But if we were to collect our genetic samples from the student body of Oxford University, we’d find ourselves with a sample composed overwhelmingly of residents of Greater London!
And indeed this problem is universal. You don’t need to go to an Indian Institute of Technology to get a genetic sample from a Brahmin. You don’t need to go to Moscow State University to get a genetic sample from an ethnic Russian. You don’t need to go to Hebrew University to get a genetic sample from an Israeli Jew. Just find the most privileged group in a society and each and every time you’ll also find the “smartest,” “most ambitious,” “most charismatic,” “most successful” group in the society.
But what if it turns out, after collecting all these samples, conducting rigorous double-blind randomly-controlled twin studies, and spinning more centrifuges than an Iranian nuclear plant, that all the most successful individuals in every society really do have some distinct set of genes in common (besides the 99% of genes we all have in common)?
Well, then you spend millions of dollars modifying your children’s genes in order to make sure they have the “success gene.” And once you’ve sunk a few million into the embryo, you may as well feed them a healthy diet, enroll them in good schools, pull some strings to land them their first job, buy them a nice apartment in a good neighborhood, and introduce them to the children of your wealthy friends so they can get married and have their own super-kids.
Hopefully you’re starting to see the problem.
Genetic engineering is an expensive, ineffective way to produce super-soldiers
There are obvious reasons why the various branches of the world’s militaries favor different kinds of candidates. An aircraft pilot has to be short enough to fit in the cockpit. A drone pilot has to have reflexes refined over years of video gameplay. A sniper has to maintain constant control over their breathing.
But why would any country try to plan the composition of its military decades in advance by genetically engineering super-soldiers? First of all, you’ve got to take care of the babies for years before they can even feed themselves. Then you’ve got to start training them, and only years later will you find out that some of them turn out to be too tall, too short, too smart, too dumb, or too lazy anyway!
When it comes to the genetic super-soldier question, I ask a simple question: what was the last war that was won because of the genetic superiority of the victors? Wars have been won and lost because of technology, because of manpower, because of patience, because of natural disaster, and a thousand other reasons. But I’ve never heard of a war being won or lost because of genetic superiority.
Of course, in 2038 when the People’s Liberation Army occupies Washington, DC, everyone will credit the success of their super-soldier program. But if I survive the purge, I’m still going to be here expressing my doubts about the whole idea.