Hacking Darwin

Hacking Darwin: Genetic Engineering and the Future of Humanity - Jamie Frederic Metzl

[I received a copy of this book through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.]

This book is not heavy on the actual science details—if you’re looking for those, you’ll be better to get another book, but if you don’t know that much about genetics, then there won’t be anything in there impossible to follow. It focuses instead on the various advances in genetics in terms of “what do they do”, “what do they entail”, “what could the results be”, and “how should be approach those?” (You can tell that the author has also written novels, because there’s a definitive storytelling thread throughout some of the chapters, especially when he deals with IVF and the potential of modifying embryos to make their future selves healthier. This makes the reading all the more accessible and enjoyable.)

You can also tell that Jamie Metzl is probably more on the side of advocating gene-related manipulations than on the side of those who want them banned, but in a cautious way: it’s not all enthusiasm and sparks and giggles, and for every “good point” he lists, he also takes care to consider the negative sides (or potentially negative sides, since there are still many approaches that haven’t been tested, so we just have no idea how people would react when given the choice). And it is true that while the transhumanist in me is excited at so many prospects, the cynic is me is also convinced that, like we so many other things, humanity in general will bork its way through this and pervert it. But let’s keep hope, shall we?

“Hacking Darwin” considers the therapeutic potential of genetic intervention. Through current techniques such as CRISPR-Cas9, we are already able to cut material that leading to genetic diseases, although this hasn’t been approved so far on human embryos destined to be implanted, because the results are good, but more on a “60% good” scale than on a “95% good” one. Which leads to understandable caution about all this, and with reason. There is something frightening and sublime (in the philosophical and literary meanings of the word) to all these developing technologies, because when we contemplate them, we are put face to face with how we are, all in all, code; and code can be hacked, and modified, and this could be for the best or for the worst.

The best: if we had a chance of preventing babies with genes condemning them to Alzheimer’s or to Huntington’s disease, for instance, shouldn’t we take it and thus prevent future suffering? If we can make crops that yield more nutrients (Golden Rice comes to mind, and is actually even mentioned), shouldn’t we do it, so that people dying of malnutrition illnesses can get a chance at life? And if we could give our future children better health and strength in general, better chances in their future lifes through specific abilities, wouldn’t we want to do that? But the worst, too: who’s to tell that this won’t spiral downward (eugenics and the earluy 20th century come to mind), lead to less diversity (not a good thing), to people all wanting the same kind of child—or, perhaps more alarmingly, to a growing chasm between those who can afford to enhance tyheir future babies, and those who can, thus leading to a class of “superhumans” trampling “subhumans”?

The book considers these aspects, and other ones as well, including the major religion’s take on it (you’d be surprised at some of them) and approaches and pitfalls that humanity as a whole must consider here. It doesn’t hold all the answers, far from it. But it gives you a lot of food for thought. And even though it is perhaps too optimistic (again, seeing the world as it is today, I just don’t trust us in general to avoid creating worst societies based on even more inequalities, this time from before the womb), it does remain a very interesting start for more discussions about genetic engineering.