Earlier this month, an international initiative convened by the national science academies of the United States, China, and the United Kingdom released a major report on the implications of new “gene-editing” technologies, most notably the recently developed tool CRISPR/Cas9. The report was broadly optimistic about the scientific and technological potential of tools like CRISPR/Cas9, which has been employed in labs around the world, generated thousands of scientific publications, and attracted over a billion dollars in venture capital for private companies exploring its medical and commercial applications.
These gene-editing techniques may transform our world as profoundly as many of the greatest scientific discoveries and technological innovations of the past — like electricity, synthetic chemistry, and nuclear physics. CRISPR/Cas9 could provide urgent and uncontroversial progress in biomedical science, agriculture, and environmental ecology. Indeed, the power and depth of operation of these new tools is delivering previously unimagined possibilities for reworking or redeploying natural biological processes — some with startling and disquieting implications. Proposals by serious and well-respected scientists include projects of broad ecological engineering, de-extinction of human ancestral species, a biotechnological “cure” for aging, and guided evolution of the human future.
The questions raised by such projects go beyond issues of individual rights and social responsibilities to considerations of the very source and significance of the natural world, its integrated and interdependent processes, and the way these provide the foundational frame for the physical, psychological, and spiritual meaning of human life.