Gene editing a force for good, not slippery slope

This year brings the 50th anniversary of the full deciphering of the genetic code — the four-billion-year-old cipher by which DNA’s information is translated and expressed — and the centenary of the birth of Francis Crick, who both co-discovered the existence of that code and dominated the subsequent 13-year quest to understand it.

Europe’s largest biomedical laboratory, named after him, opens this northern summer opposite St Pancras station in central London.

At a seminar overnight to mark Crick’s centenary at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York, hosted by his famous collaborator, Jim Watson, I shall argue that the genetic code was the greatest of all the 20th century’s scientific discoveries.

It came out of the blue and has done great good. It solved the secret of life, till then an enigma: living things are defined by the eternal replication of linear digital messages. It revealed that all life shares the same universal, but arbitrary, genetic code and therefore shares common ancestry, vindicating Charles Darwin.

From the very moment that Crick first showed a chart of the genetic code, on May 5, 1966, at the Royal Society in London, speculation began about the dangers of using this knowledge for the eugenic enhancement of human beings or for making biological weapons. The discovery only three years ago of a precise gene-editing tool (known as CRISPR-Cas9) has revived that debate yet again, not least with the first application, by Kathy Niakan of the Crick institute, to use CRISPR experimentally (not therapeutically) on very early human embryos.

Yet in truth the threat of eugenics is fainter than ever. This is for three reasons.

First, the essence of eugenics was compulsion: it was the state deciding who should be allowed to breed — or to survive — for the supposed good of the race. As long as we prevent coercion, we will not have eugenics. Our politics would have to change far more drastically than our science.

Remember that many of the most enthusiastic proponents of eugenics were socialists. People such as Sidney and Beatrice Webb, George Bernard Shaw, HG Wells, Karl Pearson and Harold Laski saw in eugenic policies the start of the necessary nationalisation of marriage and reproduction — handing the commanding heights of the bedroom to the state.

In The Revolutionist’s Handbook and Pocket Companion, an appendix to Shaw’s play Man and Superman, one of the characters writes: “The only fundamental and possible socialism is the socialisation of the selective breeding of Man.” Virginia Woolf thought imbeciles “should certainly be killed”.

Surprisingly, it was California that pioneered the eugenic sterilisation of disabled and “imbecile” people in the 1920s; and it was from California that Ernst Rudin of the German Society of Racial Hygiene took his model when he was appointed Reichskommissar for eugenics by the incoming National Socialist government in 1933. The California conservationist Charles Goethe returned from a visit to Germany overjoyed that the Californian experiment had “jolted into action a great government of 60 million people”.

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