George Church’s Brave New World (and Ours)

Harvard molecular geneticist George Church’s interview with Der Spiegel is a must-read. Highlights:

ON NEANDERTHAL CLONING

SPIEGEL: Will you witness the birth of a Neanderthal baby in your lifetime?

Church: That depends on a hell of a lot of things, but I think so. The reason I would consider it a possibility is that a bunch of technologies are developing faster than ever before. In particular, reading and writing DNA is now about a million times faster than seven or eight years ago. Another technology that the de-extinction of a Neanderthal would require is human cloning. We can clone all kinds of mammals, so it’s very likely that we could clone a human. Why shouldn’t we be able to do so? [...] The first thing you have to do is to sequence the Neanderthal genome, and that has actually been done. The next step would be to chop this genome up into, say, 10,000 chunks and then synthesize these. Finally, you would introduce these chunks into a human stem cell. If we do that often enough, then we would generate a stem cell line that would get closer and closer to the corresponding sequence of the Neanderthal. We developed the semi-automated procedure required to do that in my lab. Finally, we assemble all the chunks in a human stem cell, which would enable you to finally create a Neanderthal clone. [...]

SPIEGEL: Might it one day be possible to descend even deeper into evolutionary history and recreate even older ancestors like Australopithecus or Homo erectus?

Church: Well, you have got a shot at anything where you have the DNA. The limit for finding DNA fragments is probably around a million years.

ON ORGANISMS AS MACHINES

SPIEGEL: Flying rabbits and recreated dinosaurs are pure science fiction today. But on the microbe level, researchers are already creating synthetic life. New bacteria detect arsenic in drinking water. They create synthetic vaccines and diesel fuel. You call these organisms “novel machines”. How do they relate to the machines we know?

Church: Well, all organisms are mechanical in the sense that they’re made up of moving parts that inter-digitate like gears. The only difference is that they are incredibly intricate. They are atomically precise machines.

SPIEGEL: And what will these machines be used for?

Church: Oh, life science will co-opt almost every other field of manufacturing. It’s not limited to agriculture and medicine. We can even use biology in ways that biology never has evolved to be used. DNA molecules for example could be used as three-dimensional scaffolding for inorganic materials, and this with atomic precision. You can design almost any structure you want with a computer, then you push a button — and there it is, built-in DNA.

SPIEGEL: DNA as the building material of the future?

Church: Exactly. [...]

SPIEGEL: You are seriously proposing to build all kinds of machines — cars, computers or coffee machines — out of DNA?

Church: I think it is very likely that this is possible. In fact, computers made of DNA will be better than the current computers, because they will have even smaller processors and be more energy efficient.

ON INCREASING LONGEVITY BY CHANGING THE HUMAN GENOME

Church: [W]e are now involved in sequencing as many people as possible who have lived for over 110 years. There are only 60 of those people in the world that we know of.

SPIEGEL: Do you have any results already?

Church: It’s too early to say. But we collected the DNA of about 20 of them, and the analysis is just beginning. [...]

SPIEGEL: You seriously envisage a new era, in which genes are used as anti-aging-cures?

Church: Why not? A lot of things that were once left to luck no longer have to be if we add synthetic biology into the equation. Let’s take an example: virus resistance …

SPIEGEL: … which is also achievable using synthetic biology?

Church: Yes, it turns out there are certain ways to make organisms of any kind resistent to any viruses. If you change the genetic code …

SPIEGEL: … you are talking about the code that all life forms on Earth use to code their genetic information?

Church: Exactly. You can change that code. [...]

SPIEGEL: And if it works in bacteria, you presumably could then move on to plants, animals and even humans? Which means: no more measles, no more rabies, no more influenza?

Church: Sure. And that would be another argument for cloning, by the way, since cloning is probably going to be recognized as the best way of building such virus resistance into humans. As long as it is safe and tested slowly, it might gain acceptance. And I’m not advocating. I’m just saying, this is the pathway that might happen.

ON BIOLOGY’S COMPLEXITY

SPIEGEL: It all sounds so easy and straightforward. Aren’t biological processes far more complicated than you would like to lead us to believe?

Church: Yes, biology is complicated, but it’s actually simpler than most other technologies we are dealing with. The reason is that we have received a great gift that biology has given to us. We can just take a little bit of DNA and stick it into a human stem cell, and all the rest of it is self-assembled. It just happens. It’s as if a master engineer parked a spacecraft in our back yard with not so many manuals, but lots of goodies in it that are kind of self-explanatory. You pick up something and you pretty much know what it does after a little study.

SPIEGEL: Do you understand that there will be people who feel rather uncomfortable with the notion of changing the genome of the human species?

Church: I think the definition of species is about to change anyway. So far, the definition of different species has been that they can’t exchange DNA. But more and more, this species barrier is falling. Humans will probably share genes with all sorts of organisms.

SPIEGEL: First you propose to change the 3-billion-year-old genetic code. Then you explain how you want to create a new and better man. Is it any wonder to you when people accuse you of playing God?

Church: I certainly respect other people’s faith. [...] I have faith that science is a good thing.

ON HUMAN GENOME TINKERING

SPIEGEL: Virus-resistant crops is one thing. Virus-resistant humans is something altogether different.

Church: Why? [...]

ON THE SCIENTIST’S VISION VERSES THE POET’S

Church:  Seriously, I’d say that I am very much in awe of nature. In fact, I think to some extent, “awe” was a word that was almost invented for scientists. Not all scientists are in awe, but scientists are in a better position to be in awe than just about anybody else on the planet, because they actually can imagine all the different scales and all the complexity. A poet sees a flower and can go on and on about how beautiful the colors are. But what the poet doesn’t see is the xylem and the phloem and the pollen and the thousands of generations of breeding and the billions of years before that. All of that is only available to the scientists.

I find Church’s vision for the future at once mind blowing, promising, and unsettling. He has a book out, by the way. It’s called Regenesis: How Synthetic Biology will Reinvent Nature and Ourselves (Basic Books 2012). And after the Der Spiegel interview, he’s been trying to tamp down on the idea, floated in a Huffington Post article, that he’s actually seeking a woman as a surrogate for a Neanderthal baby. Here’s The Boston Herald:

Church said his phone was ringing off the hook yesterday with reporters from around the world calling to talk to what they believed, and no doubt hoped, was a modern-day Dr. Moreau — the H.G. Wells character who created weird hybrid animals.

He blames a mistake in an article he says was written off an interview in the German magazine Der Spiegel, badly misinterpreting what he said — that such a cloning might theoretically be possible someday — and arriving at the conclusion that he was actively looking for a woman to bear a cave baby with DNA scavenged from ancient Neanderthal bones.

Regardless of the sensationalism of seeking women surrogates for Neanderthal babies, it is quite evident from the excerpts provided above that there is a big story in the Der Spiegel interview: a leading Harvard molecular geneticist obviously believes humanity, over the next century, will be taking over, through genetic engineering and cloning, aspects of its own evolution and increasingly broaching the species barrier.

Are we ready for this? Will we call it eugenics? And will the United States be in a race with other countries (most notably China) to accelerate eugenic science?

Isn’t that what it is? Eugenic science?

Perhaps we should call the future that Church sees on the horizon what an editor at Scientific American, Mariette DiChristinacalled it back in 2011: the “eugenicist ideal.”

The first time the eugenicist ideal was attempted, of course, it went horribly wrong. The Nazis did not pursue eugenics in a universal humanistic spirit, but in a Herderian, Machiavellian, and Nietzschean one. I have no doubt as to George Church’s humanism, but I wonder if that humanism is shared by his colleagues in China (or the leadership of contemporary China).

__________

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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2 Responses to George Church’s Brave New World (and Ours)

  1. Staffan says:

    With robots getting increasingly sophisticated, what do we need neanderthals for? Selling books perhaps.

    As for the Chinese, if they want to rid themselves of genetic variation, and in consequence of behavioral variation, that’s their problem. In fact, I suspect they already have that problem, but now they will make it even worse.

    Keep in mind that entrepreneurs often show symptoms of ADHD and people with Asperger were in institutions just a few decades ago. These are the bad genes that the Chinese want to get rid of. They are a conformist society so they think more conformism must be an improvement.

    And they are getting serious competition from India with an IQ level of 85 or so but with more innovative thinkers. That must give them – and perhaps you? – a lot of cognitive dissonance.

  2. China? Even taking for granted that this technology will be all that good, what makes you think that it will be evenly accessible to anyone and everyone, in an unequal capitalist society as the US (among others) is? What makes you think that you, your daughters, or mine, or their children will benefit from this necessarily?

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