A gene drive is a self-propagating mechanism by which a desired genetic variant can be spread through a population faster than traditional Mendelian inheritance.
Gene drives are not new to science, but a milestone was reached in 2012 when two scientists, Jennifer Dounda and Emmanuelle Charpentier, published a paper describing a gene drive that greatly simplified the manipulation of the genetic composition of wild populations. Called CRISPR-Cas9, this gene drive promises enormous strides toward the eradication of some of mankind’s major diseases and illnesses.
A simplified explanation of the process is that a certain segment of DNA can be cut and replaced by a completely different segment, thus altering the gene. Scientists now have a specific tool to use as they pursue alleviation of diseases that are so-far, although treatable, not curable.
Scientists are aware of the potential for misuse of such an intrusive technology. There seem to be two main areas of discussion about managing the use of gene drive technology: financial and humane. On the financial side, there already exists a thriving market sector of companies that have been formed to get in on the gene-editing trend and scientists are striving to calm the nerves of such corporations about the safety of the process in order to protect funding by promising laboratory safety and ethical behavior.
Humane concerns are related to the potential for irreversible damage to organisms, accidental release of altered genetic material, species alteration, long-term impact of genetically modified food and the possible weaponizing of deliberately altered dangerous genetic material.
These are vast and appropriate areas of concern and research, but I want to examine this issue from an entirely different point of view—the egoistic nature of mankind.
The Development of Nature after the Big Bang
Physicists have known for a long time that the universe still reverberates with the mighty force of the Big Bang. Those aftershocks represent the evolution of nature—what happened and what is to happen. The story of nature’s development through four phases—inanimate, vegetative, animate and human—is a fascinating and absorbing one.
The inanimate level was spewed out in the form of solar systems, and planet earth acquired rocks, dirt, minerals, sand, water, basic elements—the building blocks of the entire evolution. After things settled down a bit, the vegetative appeared. The flora of the earth has more qualities and liveliness than the inanimate, but survives only by the support of that lower level’s provision of sunshine, water, and nutrients. Earth’s fauna, the animate level, isn’t tethered to the earth as are those preceding them, but can move about and has basic cognitions—the need to hunt for food, sensing danger, calculating whether to engage in fight or flight. And within each animal, bird, fish and bug are all of the elements contained in those levels that came before.
And then came mankind, the human level, but only after the earth was prepared to support us. In addition to our inherent beastliness, we possess cognitive and social abilities that have allowed us to bring ourselves to our present state. And, you guessed it. All of what is described above is inside us—every element on the periodic table, the need for survival, the yearning to develop ourselves, animalistic instincts. Thus we directly affect all the other levels by our actions, and conversely, we are impacted by any disruptions in other levels of nature. Any meddling with nature’s laws has consequences rippling out through the entire system.
Ego—the Engine of Our Advancement and of Our Downfall
It is ego—the drive to fulfill our needs—that has allowed us to advance from clans and tribes to a global community by driving us to get what we needed for survival and for social structure. Now, however, that work of the ego is done. We have everything we need and more. The ego’s insatiability and force, however, remain, and by allowing it to grow unleashed we have created a world of greed, danger and suffering. It has become normal in the 21st century to exploit and harm others in order to fulfill our every desire.
Our insatiable appetite for comfort, wealth, power and knowledge has allowed us to assault and injure nature, disturbing her very foundations, her laws. We are now watching her shake herself, like a soaked dog, to restore equilibrium—an immutable state of interdependence, altruism, balance, interconnection, harmony and unity. Natural disasters, political debacles, failing institutions, social unrest, plagues all bring us together and engender a sense of how interconnected we are, but only briefly. Then, when we no longer feel personally threatened, we are back to our egoistic ways. Her message is clear if we listen. She is very distraught and she is signaling us to get back in alignment with her.
So the question regarding gene drive therapy, really, is do we dare to trust humankind’s ability to control the ego—individual and collective? CRISPR is impressive science that holds exciting promise for helping mankind. There is, however, a distressing history of manifestations of some sort of basic evil that lurks in the hearts of mankind. Genocide, human experimentation, forced sterilization, prohibitions against people with certain traits to reproduce, fanatical schemes to create a superior human, the creation of horrific weapons, and so on, are not unknown to us. No amount of laboratory regulations, codes of ethics, security measures or government regulations can guarantee that this new and amazing science will not be used for nefarious purposes.
Just as troubling is the prevalence of the profit-motive in societies—the transformation of every cultural event, social movement, human desire, new fad, scientific discovery into a money-maker. For example, designer face masks in response to the COVID-19 epidemic. There have already been examples of a plunge in the value of gene-drive stocks after publication of articles defining damage that can be caused by CRISPR. The profit-motive is not always compatible with the interests of the common good.
The human ego has only one goal: to satisfy me, me, me. Clever economists at the end of WWII recognized a population hungry for stuff, so the advertising/ marketing industries were born. The effect has been the brain-washing of our societies to the idea that the more we own the happier we are, and that it is just fine to exploit and hurt others to get what we want, even stuff we don’t need and often may never use.
“Gene drive” technology will let us edit life in new ways, but should we use it? This is not a yes/no question. It is a question that requires deep scrutiny about our responsibilities toward each other, a strong and wide-ranging dedication to promoting a good future for mankind, and especially, a clear understanding of the realities of man’s egoistic nature. The answer lies in whether or not we fully understand the laws of nature and our willingness to measure possible outcomes by these laws. In order to do that, we have to learn how to manage our egos.