Sunday, October 11, 2020

Hugh Briss Is Back in Town

Sometimes you encounter a book that, for various reasons, sends mixed messages.  For me today it's A Crack in Creation: Gene Editing and the Unthinkable Power to Control Evolution by Jennifer A. Doudna and Samuel H. Sternberg (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017).  Doudna and Sternberg are among the scientists who developed a technique for gene editing known as CRISPR, though I see that just who should get credit for it has had to be litigated in some messy patent cases.  I discovered the book because the electronic version is on sale today, so this is not a review, just some thoughts about its marketing and the selling of science in general to the public.

I'd like to know who's responsible for that title, which is misleading in numerous ways.  It's very common to refer to "creation" and "god" in and around popular science writing.  In the first instance, if you're talking about evolution, you're ruling out creation.  I take it that the publisher figured that many readers are content to blur the two concepts together.  Or they hoped to reassure some of the public that although the book is about Science, it still maintains a stance of hushed reverence before the Mysteries of the Universe, giving us the worst of both domains.

The subtitle is even worse: is the ability to edit genetic material - or, more broadly, to fiddle with biology - really "unthinkable"?  On the contrary, it seems to be pretty easy to think about, even if an aura of superstitious dread still attaches to it.  (But maybe it's just the self-promoting author who wants you to think it does, to magnify his or her daring: I, a Scientist, dared to think the unthinkable.)  Just a few centuries ago, it was quite daring, even for free-thinking intellectual rationalists, to climb a mountain: high places were for the gods, and mortals trembled when they approached the tree line. Would they be struck dead for their irreverence? (I think that's part of the appeal: it gives you shivers, like a ghost story or a horror movie.)  Hans Blumenberg tells in The Legitimacy of the Modern Age (English translation, MIT Press, p. 342) how,

Even when Goethe climbed to the summit of the Brocken in December 1777 and saw "the environs of Germany" spread out below him, this had not yet become a commonplace diversion but was still, as he stylized it in writing to Merck in August 1778, "naturally a most adventurous undertaking."  The forester responsible for the area "could be persuaded only with difficulty" to guide him to the summit, and the letter writer claims to have observed that the forester "himself was lost in wonder ... because while living many years at the foot of the mountain, he had always considered the ascent impossible."  Goethe carries no Confessions with him [as Petrarch did on his own ascent of a mountain 400 years earlier]; he has to meet his own needs in this respect, through half a month of painstakingly staged withdrawal from the world: "There I was for fourteen days, and no man knew where I was."  The great gesture of Sturm und Drang still presupposes a 'position' of extraordinary behavior that had once been labeled blasphemous lingering.

Aside from that, gene editing does not confer "the power to control evolution." At most it might make a sneaky end-run around evolution.  Selective breeders can't produce traits that aren't already somewhere in the genome.  Directly manipulating DNA could perhaps produce something new in the gene pool, but that's not controlling evolution, any more than wearing corrective lenses is.  To do that, you'd have to be able to cause the new phenotype to multiply and become prevalent in the environment, which we can't do. The new phenotype would have to pass muster before natural selection, by being tossed out into the wild to participate in the struggle for existence over a long period of time.  It would help a lot, I think, if science fans would stop using the word "evolution" when what they mean is "descent with modification through natural selection," Darwin's preferred term; but I doubt most of them understand the difference.  The popular understanding of "evolution," even among many scientists, is the opposite of Darwin's.

The description of A Crack in Creation at Amazon surprised me when I looked at it, however:

Not since the atomic bomb has a technology so alarmed its inventors that they warned the world about its use. Not, that is, until the spring of 2015, when biologist Jennifer Doudna called for a worldwide moratorium on the use of the new gene-editing tool CRISPR—a revolutionary new technology that she helped create—to make heritable changes in human embryos. The cheapest, simplest, most effective way of manipulating DNA ever known, CRISPR may well give us the cure to HIV, genetic diseases, and some cancers, and will help address the world’s hunger crisis. Yet even the tiniest changes to DNA could have myriad, unforeseeable consequences—to say nothing of the ethical and societal repercussions of intentionally mutating embryos to create “better” humans.
Writing with fellow researcher Samuel Sternberg, Doudna shares the thrilling story of her discovery, and passionately argues that enormous responsibility comes with the ability to rewrite the code of life. With CRISPR, she shows, we have effectively taken control of evolution. What will we do with this unfathomable power?

That Doudna called for a moratorium on use of CRISPR is interesting, though not enough to make me want to read the book.  Nor does the concern-trolling about the "ethical and societal repercussions of intentionally mutating embryos".  Despite all the talk about the unprecedented problems in ethics, I don't see much serious engagement with those putative problems from scientists or professional ethicists.  Where the genome is concerned, what interests them most is who's going to make money from it.  That editing DNA "could have myriad, unforeseeable consequences" is a familiar concern, but it has less to do with evolution than with researcher- or physician-caused failures in the modified organism.  If the subject grows leafy branches from her back, or her head becomes water-soluble, it's not going to have evolutionary consequences.  As usual, I see a scientist overstating the magnitude of her new knowledge, and there's little real concern about the ethical ramifications of such false advertising.  (Mary Midgley once joked that there had been interest in prosecuting Daniel Dennett's book Consciousness Explained under the laws against false advertising; the joke, though I'm not sure she realized it, is that it would never happen.)

A Crack in Creation got a blurb from George Lucas, touting "the celebrated biologist whose discovery enabled us to rewrite the code of life.  The future is in our hands as never before, and this book explains the stakes like no other."  I don't think Lucas is an authority on this subject.  The hyperbole is typical though: first you inflate the significance of the science wildly, then you fret about "the stakes."  There are stakes, but they're rarely acknowledged.  Scientists and commercial interests insist on their inalienable right to experiment on the world, to pollute the planet with the detritus of their products, and to make vast amounts of money on discoveries that wouldn't have been made without taxpayer support.  Laypeople are allowed to quibble about this, but they will dismiss our quibbles out of hand: as hostility to Science, to Socialist hatred for business, as a superstitious desire to turn back the Clock of Progress.  

It's to Doudna's credit that she called for a pause in this normal order of business, but did it have much effect, or did it amount to virtue-signalling?  I don't know how responsible she is for the presentation of her book and her work.  But that presentation is part of what's wrong with the place of science in media and society.