CRISPR/Cas-9 and the future of genome editing – a Pandora’s Box of morality and ethics

I recently published a piece regarding the discovery of the intelligence gene and how it could path the way to creating designer babies in the not too distant future. By venturing down this path, scientists are prizing open a Pandora’s box of morality and ethics almost beyond comprehension, but are they right to?

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What is genetic engineering?

Genetic engineering is the process of altering the genetic makeup of cells to create improved organisms. It has long since been the subject of science fiction – from the 1924 essay Daedalus, or Science and the Future in which J. B. S. Haldane predicted that eventually children would be modified using eugenic selection to the latest instalment in Ridley Scott’s Alien franchise, Prometheus, in which an aged wealthy individual attempts to contact humanity’s forerunners to prevent his death from old age.

But that science fiction fantasy is rapidly becoming a reality. The first genetically modified organisms (GMOs) were bacteria generated in 1973. Mice were genetically modified the following year. In 1994, genetically modified food went on sale for the first time – the flavr savr tomato was given an extra gene that suppresses a rotting enzyme giving the fruit a longer shelf life. In 2003, the world’s first genetically modified pet, the GloFish, was available for purchase in the United States.

More recently, breakthroughs in biotechnology have given rise to genome editing tools such as Zinc Finger Nuclease (ZFN) and Talen. These tools have accelerated and expanded genetic engineering possibilities but one, in particular, the CRISPR/Cas9 is a revelation in genetic engineering.

Its precise and powerful genome editing capabilities make genetic engineering drastically cheaper and easier than it has ever been. It reduced the cost of genetic modification by 99 percent overnight and cut the duration of experiments from years to weeks significantly accelerating the possibilities and expanding the potential of genome editing.

CRISPR/Cas9

Clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats (CRISPR) are short, repeating, palindromic DNA sequences separated by short, non-repeating, “spacer” DNA sequences.

CRISPR was discovered by Japanese scientists in the DNA of E.Coli bacteria in 1987, and over subsequent years researchers realised that these repeats were common in many other bacteria and single-celled organisms.

Over the next decade, scientists discovered that the repeating DNA sequences combined with a family of CRISPR-associated proteins called Cas provided an acquired form of immunity. In 2012, a simplified version of the CRISPR/Cas system, CRISPR/Cas9, developed by UC Berkeley scientists Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier, was announced.

CRISPR/Cas9 has a gene-editing technique that targets and modifies DNA with ground-breaking accuracy and is best thought of as a pair of molecular scissors guided by a satnav. It can find specific sections of DNA, snip away at the undesirable code to remove, repair or replace it with new code. A biological version of cut-and-paste software.

It has been successfully used in animal embryos to create fast growing salmon and featherless chickens as well as in human stem and immune cells. It can be used to genetically modify crops, eradicate viruses, screen for cancer genes and, of course, be used for genome engineering.

It has the exciting prospect of potentially curing AIDS and dementia as well as more than 3,000 genetic hereditary diseases such as sickle-cell anaemia and Huntington’s disease. Paradoxically, one can speculate that it’s a tool that is so powerful that its own success could become a threat. How far advanced does it have to become before its sparks a desire for designer babies, genetically engineered humans possessing super strength and hyper-intelligence? This highlights once again that the potential benefits also carry significant ethical implications.

Arguments for

It is estimated that one in five people around the world is inflicted by a mental illness. That equates to just shy of 1.5 billion people. If genetic engineering promises to cure those people, then surely there is no argument? Yet a recent Pew poll revealed that 83 percent of Americans believe that it is inappropriate to alter a baby’s genetic characteristics and universal systems of law tend to agree, it is illegal almost anywhere to genetically modify human embryos. This highlights the challenges that the industry faces moving forwards.

Disease

As previously touched upon, arguably the biggest benefit of genetic engineering is the promise of curing a wide scope of diseases from the mildly irritable to the fatal right through to those that inflict decades of torture upon their victims.

Disease prevention would gift children the opportunity to have a healthy life, an improvement in the quality of their life and the opportunity to be productive and happy without the shackles of disease holding them back.

Genome editing has already been used in laboratory studies to correct mutations that cause metabolic disorders and create cells that are resistant to HIV infection or which attack tumours.

In April 2016, Chinese researchers used CRISPR/Cas9 to cure the fatal blood disorder beta thalassemia. They bypassed the legal implications of genome editing on human embryos by modifying unviable embryos that could not survive to birth and would have been destroyed by the clinic anyway. The experiment was designed in part to demonstrate the potential of the technology.

In November 2016, that same technology was used to inject modified immune cells which had been engineered to fight the lung cancer of a patient in China.

In 2015, scientists at the Great Ormond Street Hospital and University College London used genome editing to create designer immune cells which could hunt out and attack the leukaemia in one-year-old Layla Richards. The cancerous cells within her bone marrow were killed off after three months. It was the first time in history that gene-edited immune cells had been used to treat an ‘incurable’ disease.

Genetic engineering could also detect and remove problems within human embryos. At present, doctors are already able to determine from the womb if a baby is going to suffer from Down’s syndrome and in Europe, more than 92 percent of pregnancies where it is identified are terminated. Genome editing has the potential to change that by removing the genetic condition within the embryo.

Improvement

We use environmental interventions such as education, diet, and training to make our children better people and improve their chances in life.

Other environmental conditions can have the opposite effect. Child abuse has been shown to negatively impact the development of a child’s nervous system, resulting in a lifelong negative effect on their wellbeing. Similarly, stress is associated with abnormal brain (hippocampal) development in children which has psychological deficits later in life. A study of rats revealed that pups (baby rats) who were mothered showed changes in the methylation of their DNA which neglected pups did not, meaning that these environmental conditions have a direct impact on biology.

How about medicine? Women use folate during pregnancy to reduce the risk of autism. We use vaccines to prevent illness and disease. Prozac is a serotonin reuptake inhibitor that changes a person’s brain chemistry.

All of this begs the question, if we allow environmental and medical manipulations to alter our biology, why not biological manipulations themselves.

Enhancement

“Plastics are just good grooming. Imagine going a year without brushing your teeth”. This is the philosophy a supermodel in Nicolas Winding Refn’s film The Neon Demon, the idea that a person who works in the beauty industry visiting a plastic surgeon for the purpose of cosmetic self-maintenance is no different to a regular person cutting their fingernails or brushing their hair. We have an increasing interest in cosmetic enhancement. We’re spending more money than ever on tummy tucks and lip enhancement, nose jobs, boob jobs, wrinkle reductions, body art and fashion.

We make certain lifestyle choices to change our appearance, to mould ourselves into the image of how we would like to look. Sometimes it’s clothes or hairstyles, other times a more direct impact on our bodies such as cosmetic surgery, a fitness regime, changes in diet or even getting a suntan.

If genome editing can advance to such a level in the future where we can change hair colour or muscular structure genetically rather than through gruelling gym sessions or tacky dye products, is there really any harm in it? With the kind of big bucks floating around in the business of self-enhancement, genome editing represents an absolute beast of a financial incentive for an entirely new industry. Lest we forget, money – it has a habit of talking.

What if we didn’t just focus on improving human beings to improve their quality of life? What if we focused on enhancing animals to improve the quality of life for humans? One of the human species biggest killers is disease transmitted by mosquitos. Scientists are already experimenting with engineering animals, such as mutant mosquitoes, that are designed to be incapable of spreading malaria.

Evolutionary shortcuts

Biological changes necessary for adapting to the changing environment can take thousands of years, but by genetically modifying humans we could speed up that process by creating evolutionary shortcuts. Maybe this could be to help humans more comfortably cope with global warming, or survive a new ice age, or adapt to conditions on Mars, making it possible for humans to live there. While natural cycles have caused mass extinction events in the past that wiped out most of the life on the earth’s surface, biotechnological advancement could safeguard the existence of our species.

What might not be immediately obvious to us is that we’ve been dabbling with genetic enhancement for centuries already, any walk in a park is testament to that. We purposely crossbreed dogs to enhance different characteristics such as temperament, intelligence, physical ability and appearance all developed through years of crude genetic selection.

Equality

Many people fear that if genetic modification is restricted to the wealthy, it will create a class divide in terms of genetics. The haves and the have-nots, giving the privileged another leg up over the underprivileged.

While this is a perfectly valid concern, imagine if genetic modification was free in much the same way the current NHS is. Or if it was obligatory under the law in much the same way vaccines are today for children. This could encourage rather than deter egalitarianism. After all, the lottery of nature is often extremely unfair – some children are born with extraordinary gifts, others with crippling diseases. Genetic modification could level the playing field in ways we would have never dreamed possible.

Crops

Global warming threatens some of sub-Saharan Africa’s most important crops and could have a devastating impact on the continent’s agriculture. The domino effect of this means an adverse impact on crop production, hitting trade exports, clobbering the economy and leading to more starvation and impoverishment.

Crops that are modified to resist pests, to grow in harsh conditions and to contain more nutrients can prevent this and could actually become crucial as the world’s population grows. Healthier crops, healthier livestock, healthier economies, healthier people. All made possible by genetic modification.

Prolongation

“What appears to be the problem?” asks Dr Eldon Tyrell.

“Death”, retorts Batty “I want more life! Father”.

You probably recognise this famous exchange between the replicant Roy Batty and his maker Dr Eldon Tyrell from the film Blade Runner. While the idea of prolonging life through genetic modification has only ever existed in fiction, modern genome editing techniques could give rise to significant increases in human lifespan.

Common illnesses that occur in later life and kill us could be eradicated by genetic engineering. On a cellular level, genetic engineering could also reverse some of the more basic reasons for the body’s natural physical decline, increasing the quality of our health and thus, drastically extending our lifespan. We already know of some animals that are immune to the aging process (yes lobsters, we’re looking at you) and because of that, we can borrow their cells and use them to reverse the aging process in humans.

The closer we look at genetic engineering, the more it becomes apparent that not only will it become the norm in society as the decades roll by, but that it will completely revolutionise life as we know, shaping our species and our environment and the animal kingdom in the process. After the iron age, the industrial age and the digital age, the genetic modification age looks destined to be the next big leap in human development.

All the more reason then to heed the dangers, risks, and hazards that it also presents. With great power comes great responsibility after all.

Arguments against

Designer babies, invasive mutants, species-specific bioweapons, and a dozen other apocalyptic sci-fi tropes – the mind boggles at the limits of the nightmare scenario assigned to genetic engineering. In exploring some of its disadvantages, where better to start than the biggest taboo of all – eugenics.

Eugenics

“You may pronounce me guilty”, declared Adolf Hitler during the trial in 1924 for his failed Rathaus putsch, “but the eternal court of history will absolve me”.

Herein lies the moral conundrum of genetic engineering, it is shadowed by the sinister past of eugenics. As attractive as the notion of creating a “master race” may be, we watched the ugly side of that ideology unfold during the horrors of the Third Reich when Nazis used industrial-scale extermination to purge the pure Aryan race of the genetically unfit.

Much like other contentious issues such as capital punishment, abortion, and euthanasia, the problem with eugenics is knowing where to draw the line on where beneficial intervention becomes molested by detrimental invasion.

Doctors screen for Down’s Syndrome in unborn babies and parents have the freedom of choice to terminate the pregnancy, but State-mandated eugenics designed to favour society over the individual could seek to create a “healthy population” through coercion or infringement of liberty and personal autonomy.

The argument goes that some people are born strong and others weak, they pass these traits down the generations and thus selective breeding of the strong or the intelligent is required to prevent degeneration of the gene pool by weeding out the stupid, the sick, the criminals, the poor, the Brexit voters and the Corbynites. I lapsed into satire at the end there to demonstrate the fatal flaw in the traditional eugenics argument. How do you decide on which characteristics should be stricken from the human gene pool?

It was in 1924 that respected Nobel laureate Bertrand Russell said he hoped that one-day government would acquire the right to sterilise those who are not considered “desirable parents”. So while Hitler took eugenics to its horrific inglorious peak, the idea had already been floating around and was initially, you may be surprised to learn, quite popular.

The term itself was coined by Francis Galton, fascinated by the evolutionary arguments of his cousin Charles Darwin. Galton theorised that advances in healthcare and welfare had sullied the human gene pool on account that they allowed the sick and disabled to escape the clutches of natural selection.

In 1883, he went off and gathered data on the subject and returned with the theory of eugenics, which was hailed as a magnificent discovery, a new science, the conventional wisdom of the developed world rooted in rationalism and liberated from religious hocus pocus.

Galton himself saying “a race of gifted men could be created as surely as we can propagate idiots by mating cretins”. The sort of thing Katie Hopkins might deviously say today with the express intent of triggering the public. Back then, it was taken as being quite progressive.

Some prominent names lapped this new theory up including Darwin, Churchill and William Beveridge who, in talking on the subject of the ‘feeble-minded’ said: “they must be acknowledged dependents of the State but with complete and permanent loss of all civil rights – including not only the franchise but civil freedom and fatherhood”. If you don’t know who Beveridge is, he was the guy who founded the welfare state.

A Sterilisation Bill brought before Parliament in 1931 had the support of the medical and scientific establishment while some 60,000 compulsory sterilisations were carried out in Sweden and a similar number in the United States.

Of course, we would assume that due to the holocaust the concept of eugenics would be confined to the archives of history. But that’s not necessarily the case. Joining the dots of recent academic research, Dr Perkins, a lecturer at King’s College London, has said that the genes identifying alcoholism, criminality and sporting success etc. have been found, giving rise to a growing academic pedigree of “new eugenics”. His study on the ‘employment resistant’ created by the welfare state and representing a burden on more functional citizens echoes the pre-Nazi era of eugenics on the feeble-minded. He has even argued that the government should restrict welfare forcing claimants to have fewer children.

While the concept remains highly controversial it is still supported by scientists and the intelligentsia who insist that applying rational design to humanity through gene design offers an opportunity to improve human stock. Professor Julian Savulescu, editor-in-chief of the Journal of Medical Ethics, argues “When it comes to screening out personality flaws such as potential alcoholism, psychopathy, and disposition to violence, you could argue that people have a moral obligation to select ethically better children”.

If eugenics simply means using science to make the best of genes handed down to the next generation, then regardless of the horrors of the past, it is something that needs to be revisited. But who in the hell is going to revisit something as controversial as eugenics when it resulted in the greatest evil mankind has ever known less than a century ago?

Designer babies and the unnatural process of genome editing

“You ask me if I have a God complex? Let me tell you something, I am God”, Alec Baldwin’s character Jed, a brilliant but narcissistic surgeon in the film Malice highlights the arrogance of human nature. One of the most common arguments against genetic engineering that has dated back decades is that it is tantamount to playing God, and many people believe, particularly when it comes to followers of orthodox faiths, that humans have no right to do so. They believe that to pretend to play God or defy nature is cataclysmically erroneous and in fairness to them, they may well be right. The problem is, don’t we play God already?

Screening embryos for disease and then rejecting them for implantation if they are not healthy is an unnatural intervention in the procreation process. By doing this, we are playing God by defying nature, but where is the harm? It prevents a child being born with a disease and instead gifts them with an improved chance at a healthier and happier life.

Many aspects of modern society are “unnatural” including technology and medicine, or even skyscrapers. Vaccinating children or providing pain relief to women during labour or treating cancer are all “unnatural”, but few outside of religious zealots would argue against them. The idea that we should reject all things unnatural seems unconvincing in the modern world.

On the flipside, using CRISPR on embryos would result in irreversible changes to the human gene pool. If we get this wrong, we could cause irreparable damage to our species and that floats us back Jed the surgeon and humanity’s spectacular arrogance. Are we equipped with enough knowledge to be able to make such drastic decisions as artificially altering the human gene pool?

What if there is some underlying value behind hereditary disease that remains hidden from scientific discovery? To throw out a wild hypothetical scenario. What if there is some terrible viral outbreak in the future that threatens to wipe out humanity from the face of the earth, but people who have cancer cells are immune to this viral outbreak, except, no one has any cancer cells because we used genome editing to eradicate them from existence. We would have eradicated our only defense against extinction. This is colossally speculative, but until we’re 100 percent sure, do we have the right to proceed with something so fundamentally important?

Designer babies

“Designer babies” refers to children that have been genetically engineered in the womb, at the moment predominantly in a lab through IVF, to have desired qualities such as a particular hair colour, improved muscular strength, improved intelligence etc.

One of the arguments against designer babies is the undue pressure it could place upon that engineered child. If you haven’t seen Dead Poet’s Society, spoiler alert, wealthy parents send their son off to a prestigious school where students are expected to come out as masters of the universe. The son would prefer to pursue a career as an actor. The parents feel this is too fruity and deny him the opportunity to follow his heart. Under the weight of pressure from his parents to live the life they want him to rather than the life he chooses, he kills himself.

This theme of overbearing parents harassing and bullying their children because they want them to succeed is familiar. Now imagine if those same rich parents can genetically engineer an embryo to have a child with enhanced athleticism. In effect, the embryo is having its life decided for it before it has even had the chance to develop into a human being. Now imagine that child fails to live up to their parent’s expectations and doesn’t make the football team or the flunks the hockey trials. A whole new avenue for insurance and law firms to exploit perhaps, but not much fun for the kid.

Another question is why? If you could choose brunette instead of blonde or blue eyes instead of hazel. Why would you want to interfere in that natural process? What if you could change the colour of a child’s skin? Again, it doesn’t take long before you start heading off down a very slippery ethical slope.

The idea of consumer or cosmetic eugenics isn’t far off. Already, sperm banks boast about being able to screen for red hair. Pay a premium and if you have a choice of viable embryos you can choose not to have the red headed one implanted. I can’t imagine why parents would choose this, I think red heads are hot. You can also pay extra for an increased chance in choosing the gender. If we can do that now, what on earth is waiting around the corner once the technology becomes more sophisticated?

Ethics

Sexual attraction and chemistry between two consenting adults, we’re not quite sure exactly how it works but what we do know is that the species has been engaging in selective mating for quite some time now. We might not be that fussed about the characteristics of people we choose to fool around with, but when we decide that we want to have children we pick mates on a whole spectrum of positive traits such as intelligence, wealth, health and, yes, looks. At no point do we ever think of this as unethical, a little vain at times perhaps, but certainly nothing to tie ourselves in knots over.

As previously touched upon, as genetic engineering progresses and becomes the accepted norm in society, it will eventually be argued that not using it is unethical because it condemns children to unnecessary suffering or death. Genome editing will be able to prevent this just as surely as vaccines prevent diseases in children now. When we start to hit turbulent waters is when it is used to make “super babies”.

The new class divide

This is a fairly straightforward one, how much will genetic engineering cost and will it be available only to the wealthy? Wouldn’t giving the privileged even more privilege appear to be extremely unfair in a world where we keep trying to achieve equality?

This could create a new avenue of class war, at the moment we have the rich pitted against the poor, in the future we could have the “designers” or the “enhanced” outranking the “standards”. This monopoly on genetic engineering for the selected few could give them greater job opportunities, make them unfairly prettier, healthier, faster, stronger, more intelligent.

They could rule over the rest of us plebs like the lords of old. Of course, nature doesn’t care much for privilege itself. It doesn’t discriminate in gifting some children with extraordinary talent while striking others down with crippling illnesses. But to take that lottery out of the hands of nature and pawn it off to the highest bidder is the sort of dystopian nightmare that Huxley might have once written about.

Wealthy parents already pay for private tutors and private schools to give their children the best advantages in life, it stands to reason that they’d pay the same money if not more to have them genetically enhanced. By allowing this to happen, we would be taking existing inequality and literally hardwiring it into our DNA.

Safety

At present, while CRISPR/Cas9 technology is exciting, it isn’t perfect. So-called “off-target” edits sometimes happen and could have profound impacts on a patient were something to go horribly wrong.

What happens if editing embryos leads to miscarriage or stillbirth? As previously mentioned, what happens if an attempt to enhance one characteristic has an unpredictable or unforeseeable adverse effect somewhere else in the biological system of the subject?

I’ve touched upon this briefly already, but how can scientists possibly understand the ramifications of slight changes made at the smallest cellular level? How can we claim to possess sufficient knowledge of the complexity of the human system in order to meddle with it? After all, genes are pleiotropic, they have different effects in different environments.

Diversity

As just mentioned, genes are pleiotropic – a gene that predisposes a person to be a manic depressive may also gift them a heightened sense of creativity.

Controlled breeding to increase the occurrence of ‘desirable’ heritable characteristics raises a fundamental social justice question – who gets to decide what diversity looks like?

Earlier I talked about Dr Perkins and his research into screening for personality flaws such as alcoholism, psychopathy, propulsion towards violence etc. Wider research into the field of behavioural genetics goes deeper, it attempts to understand the genetic basis for aggression, anxiety, neuroticism and even homosexuality. If you could remove these traits, would you want to? Some of the greatest and most gifted people throughout history have been some of the most troubled.

Abraham Lincoln, Vincent Van Gogh, Isaac Newton and Ludwig Van Beethoven are all thought to have suffered from depression. While OCD blighted people including Howard Hughes, Michelangelo, and Charles Darwin. Were these people brilliant because they were suffering ailments or were they brilliant in spite of them?

An article on http://www.asperger-syndrome.me.uk lists famous Asperger’s sufferers as Sir Isaac Newton, Michelangelo, George Orwell, Jane Austen, Mozart, and Beethoven. Would the future Lincoln’s and Michaelangelo’s exist were depression, autism, schizophrenia or Asperger’s eradicated by genome editing?

If depression or mania or madness is the price you pay for greatness, isn’t it a price worth paying? Would genetic engineering that was introduced decades ago deny us of contemporary artists such as Amy Winehouse, Kurt Cobain, and Philip Seymour Hoffman? Statistics reveal that writers are 10 times more like to be bipolar than the general population and poets 40 times more.

Think about the number of celebrities who have had a bit of the bonkers about them: Miley Cyrus, Sinead O’ Connor, Brittney Spears, Michael Jackson, Robin Williams, Charlie Sheen, Dennis Hopper, Mel Gibson. It’s a sizeable list.

While there might be an argument for removing cancer cells or for curing AIDS, but is there an argument for removing autism? Isn’t there value in autism? An awful lot of computer programmers, for example, appear to be on the spectrum. I’m not arguing that a mental impairment is a prerequisite to being gifted, I’m simply saying that … we don’t know, and if we don’t know, do we have a mandate to rid ourselves of something that could actually be deceptively crucial to our species?

At what point does the state get involved in all of this? If we can screen for psychopathic traits, will future governments introduce a legislation that seeks to terminate such embryos? A high proportion of CEOs and entrepreneurs carry psychopathic traits. Donald Trump is a raving narcissist. If Trump was genome edited he might have been a nicer chap instead of such a firebrand, but would his life have been less successful? If it was, would he have been happier? Isn’t the spice of life in diversity? Wouldn’t “gentrifying” the human race just make society sterile and bland? Easier to manipulate, easier to control? These are big, big questions with seismic consequences and we cannot begin to approach answering them.

Dr Jim Kozubek, author of Modern Prometheus: Editing the Human Genome with CRISPR/Cas9, has suggested that genetic editing to cure future generations of disease and mental disorders could rob the world of the creative geniuses who have transformed society, such as Thomas Edison.

“Scientists tend to think of variations in life as problems to be solved, deviations and abnormalities outside of a normal curve”, said Dr Kozubek. But he believes that actually autism should be viewed as “a strange gift from our deep past”, which has been passed down through millions of years of evolution.

He argues that many genetic variants could be advantageous for creative thought and urges caution before removing DNA, which could be inextricably linked to other areas: “Before we begin modifying our genes with gene editing tools such as CRISPR-Cas9, we’d be smart to recall that genetic variants that contribute to psychiatric conditions may even be beneficial depending on the environment or genetic background,” he added.

Could there, in fact, be a suggestion or a link between intellectual gifts and learning difficulties? Extremely intelligent people can also be extremely odd. The eccentric genius is one of cliché. Exactly what is intelligence anyway? It can’t be nailed down to one set of criteria. There are many forms of intelligence, and diversity in those intelligences – social, emotional, artistic, mathematical, academic, street smarts. Aren’t all of them, in some way or another, essential?

Could we stop it if we wanted to?

“You can’t stop what’s coming”, says an elder to Tommy Lee Jones’s Sheriff Ed Tom Bell in No Country for Old Men. He was talking about fate, the driving force behind change. On the subject of shoehorning in movie trivia, you have Dr Malcom in Jurassic Park, the chaos theorist who argues against attempts to control the engineering of dinosaurs by restricting gender genomes by stating simply “life … finds a way”.

So too, does scientific discovery. You can’t just bury genetic engineering and hope that it goes away. It is already a reality and prohibiting it outright will just force it onto the black market and into the wrong hands like prohibition always, always does.

How do we decide?

One of the reasons why this subject is so divisive is because the arguments both for and against are so strong. It pits enhancement against diversity, nature against medical advancement, cures for fundamental world problems against potentially disastrous human rights abuses carried down for generations. There are rich benefits, yet grave risks.

It is a basic principle of liberal states like the UK that the State be “neutral” to different conceptions of the good life. This means that we allow individuals to lead the life that they believe is best for themselves – respect for their personal autonomy or capacity for self-rule.

There will be cases where some intervention is plausibly in a child’s interests: increased empathy with other people, better capacity to understand oneself and the world around them, or improved memory. One quality is especially associated with socioeconomic success and staying out of prison: impulse control. If it were possible to correct poor impulse control, shouldn’t we correct it?

The obvious answer is “yes”, but anyone who has seen A Clockwork Orange might have second thoughts. However, we decide to proceed on this path, it has to be with extreme caution. That is the only way to navigate into the future of genetic engineering. Safeguarding and regulating this technology will be imperative but at the same time we should be humble and recognise the limitations of our knowledge. The cat isn’t going back in the bag, but we should be very careful about which genies we want to let out of the bottle.

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