The Ethics Of Editing Genes

Plenty of people are upset by the idea of genetically modified food.

I am not one of those people.

Farmers, gardeners, and pet owners have been genetically modifying plants and animals for millennia. This is why we have so many varieties of tomatoes and day lilies and terriers. Traits like pest- and disease-resistance are also why farms produce far greater quantities of vegetables and grains per acre than they did just a few decades ago.

And of course, long before genetic modification created our own species, plants and animals modified themselves through a process of natural selection, survival of the fittest. This is why certain animals have camouflage and plants have peculiar ways of propagating seeds.

The only difference today is that we have more tools to carry out these changes — notably, by tinkering with DNA. It’s not a new concept, really, but more of a new process. It simply accelerates the changes that can be affected in living organisms — changes that would often happen anyway, with or without human intervention.

That said, while I’m totally okay with the principle of genetic modification, the practical aspects are much more complicated and troubling. Look at any chicken farm, and you’ll see birds that have been so heavily modified to mature faster and grow larger, they can barely walk. In the wild, those animals would likely die out very quickly, but because we’ve chosen to grow them under very specific conditions, they’re now commonplace.

As gene-editing technology becomes cheaper, faster, and more widely available, we’re going to find ourselves facing a greater number of ethical concerns about that technology’s use. For example:

  • Should we grow salmon larger and faster to feed people around the globe? (The vegan answer is pretty clear.)
  • Should we edit the genes of mosquitoes so that they’re incapable of carrying malaria, a disease that killed roughly 438,000 people last year? (That’s a much trickier question.)
  • If scientists someday discover a “gay gene”, should parents be able to edit it out of their unborn children? (My thinking? No, we need more awesomeness on this planet, not less, please.)

If this kind of thing interests you, the New York Times recently published an article that hits some of the high and low points of these debates. Have a look.

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