Brave new world

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This issue of New Zealand Geographic went to print almost 20 years to the day after a science-fiction film by a young screenwriter and director from Paraparaumu opened in cinemas in the United States. It envisaged a future where people are genetically engineered, creating an upper class of physically ‘superior’ humans and an underclass of ordinary people whose parents couldn’t afford to tweak their DNA.

Gattaca was Andrew Niccol’s first film. It bombed at the box office, but has since acceded to the rank of a classic. In 2012, it topped NASA’s list of the “most-realistic” science fiction films ever made. I was dubious about paying a return visit to its vision of the future, but I discovered that Gattaca has barely aged: its concerns about genetic engineering are the same ones we are still facing today. Since 1997, we haven’t come any closer to answering the question: If we can edit our DNA, where do we draw the line between the eradication of disease and the improvement of other physical qualities?

We can’t wait another 20 years to decide. Since 2012, we’ve all of a sudden become really, really good at editing genes. Though we’ve been able to tinker with DNA for decades, only recently has it become possible to make very precise changes very quickly. That’s because the tools are different: we’re using a scalpel rather than an excavator claw. The technology described in Kate Evans’s story is going to dramatically reshape the world around us.

So we need to make up rules for how we will use it, and fast. Trouble is, the technology for editing genes—known as CRISPR—has outstripped our understanding of genes themselves.

“A geneticist said to me, ‘It feels like we’re building the plane as we’re flying it’,” said ethicist Josephine Johnston, at a public talk in Auckland about gene editing.

Data deficiency is a bit of a theme in this issue of the magazine. We don’t know very much about whitebait, except that we’re probably on the cusp of losing them, and we’ll need to make a number of decisions in the absence of complete data if we want to be scoop-netting them every spring for the next 20 years.

Nor do we know very much about what lives in the vast blue expanse of our territorial seas, or how our actions impact those species, yet we will increasingly be called to make decisions that affect them.

We cannot let the unknown prevent us from taking action. As Jennifer Doudna, the first person to demonstrate how CRISPR works, said of the tool she helped invent: “People will use the technology whether we know enough about it or not.”

One place to begin is to address the values that we, as a society, hold close. When we lack data about the species in the world around us, we make decisions—such as decisions to learn more—based on those values.

Concerns over gene editing causing discrimination against certain people or characteristics exist because those attributes are already discriminated against. Gattaca’s gene-edited humans are tall and strong and healthy and beautiful because we’re biased against the sick, the weak, the short, the ugly.

Social views dictate our use of science, not the other way around, and we should begin any decision-making process by taking a careful, open-minded look at our values and the shape of the society that we want.

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