Exciting and Frightening – Book review of GMO Sapiens by Paul Knoepfler
Posted by heathermain, on 23 February 2016
ISBN 9789814678537 – 28USD/18GBP
The idea of human germline genetic modification is too close for comfort right now. However, society in general does not seem to realise the proximity of this threat or the technical basis of this threat, making the publishing of Paul’s book ‘GMO Sapiens – The Life-Changing Science of Designer Babies’ timely. This book is 250 pages of a digestible history of genetic modification and technologies and opinions that are leading to the very real and urgent threat of heritable human genetic modification.
In reading this book it should be noted from the start that while the validation of many that modification of the human germline would be useful for eliminating human disease, in the light of existing, safer and more efficient PGD (pre-implantation genetic diagnosis ) technologies (Chapter 5), this argument seems to front a human desire for modifications towards predicted ‘improvement’ of humans, Human+ if you want to go for the transhumanist view (Chapter 7). Personally, I do not believe there is a valid argument for genetic modification of the nuclear genome in the human germline (in light of PGD). To hide ‘positive eugenics’ (Chapter 7) behind a veil of ‘eliminating human disease’ is frankly wrong. Expert interviews in this book from renowned scientists shamelessly expressing their desire to ‘improve’ humans is scary. However, it was mentioned early that creating panic or scaring people is not the goal of this book, but rather to inform and energize people to become part of the discussion about this new inevitable reality. Reading this book is going to catch you up with the best of the best.
If we stick to arguments and perspectives on the heritable genetic ‘improvement’ of humans, Paul provides a thorough and balanced view. Who should choose what is better? Do we know enough about the human genome to safely predict ‘better’? Will better be for the individual or for society as a whole? All of these views and more are discussed in the book giving time to both sides. There are however a lot of question marks, which reasonable people will approach with caution. But it is not the reasonable who will be pioneering clinical germline modification. It is a fact that someone will heritably modify the human genome (someone has – Chapter 4 and Chapter 9) and use this to enhance perceived positive traits. How will we react to this? How will we manage the unseen consequences.
However, once the mistakes have been made, the technology refined and the benefits become clear, would I say no? Paul presents a story where you have yourself wondering what choices you would make if presented with a list of options; Should I choose that my children are resistant to diseases? Should I choose that my children have reasonably sizes physical features so they do not get teased at school? In a society where these options were available as a reproductive shopping list, what parent would not choose what is ‘best’ for their child? Are we aiming towards human agriculture?
There may be someone in the world right now miscarrying or having an abortion from a defective genetically modified human embryo. This urgency and a thread of caution is present throughout the book. But what I find troubling, exciting but scary, is that I find myself agreeing with an undertone, I do not support human germline genetic modification but with all the new information and perspectives available to me I have found myself questioning my own views and will be watching any developments with a fascinated interest I would rather not admit to.