Comments in response to this popular TED talk on CRISPER-based genetic editing:

In the Carl Sagan inspired movie “Contact,” the good Dr. Alloway (Jodi Foster) wants to ask the advanced aliens who have invited humanity for a first meetup the most important question of all, the truly perfect question, which is, “How did you make it through your technological adolescence without destroying yourselves?”

This technological adolescence is where Homo sapiens was when the movie was made in 1997 and when the C. Sagan book the movie was based on was written in 1985. It is where we are now. And it is not going well. We are headed towards socioecological catastrophe. Hope is rapidly diminishing. “This ain’t no party, this ain’t no disco, this ain’t no fooling around…”

In the movie, Dr. Alloway forgets to ask the question – excusable given the context. But unfortunate. As I have written elsewhere, I have a proposal for what the answer would have been: “Well, Dr. Alloway, the only advanced forms of life we have found are ones that figured out a way to take the evolution of their minds out of the hands of natural selection. The only way through the technological adolescence that we have seen is for the global society to agree to use CRISPEResque gene-editing technologies, first and foremost, as the basis for a well-researched program of intentional evolution. To be successful, this program has to be aimed at creating a psyche that consistently supports socioecologically sustainable goals and attitudes. Most of the successes involve continuously tweaking the genome in ways that render and maintain substantially more prosocial, biophilic, and generally compassionate minds in the global community than would ever come about by relying on natural selection as the genetic engineer.”

We have been and continue to be “designed,” without any foresight, in every aspect of our being, by the mechanism of natural selection. Evolutionary psychologists understand that while natural selection can come up with elaborate mental mechanisms capable of things like conscience and compassion, every such capacity it bestows is “designed,” in the end, to make individuals better at maximizing their lifetime inclusive fitness. So, every form of altruism ultimately is genetically selfish and, therefore, only is manifested strategically and contingently to directly or indirectly maximize propagation of the genes of the individual.

As we think about the uses of CRISPER for human genetic and epigenetic editing with the aim of coming up with “favorable outcomes,” we had better start facing the fact that we currently are congenitally utterly unable to muster the levels of prosociality and biophilia that can even come close to making us a sustainable life form. Cultural evolution alone will never be strong enough to overcome the very clever naturally selected genetic programs that drive our ultimately selfish patterns of behavior. It is an existential emergency that we make the grand leap toward genetically engineering ourselves not just to be sexier, healthier, longer-lived, or smarter… – all goals you would expect a naturally selected mind to come up with, and ones that do nothing to enhance our sustainability. We must race to transform ourselves from Homo sapiens sapiens, to Homo intentionalis compassionatus.

Note that the intentional genetic evolution program I have alluded to above is aimed at modifying key SPECIES-TYPICAL genes for unsustainably contingent and genetically selfish patterns of prosociality and biophilia, not to mention SPECIES-TYPICAL genes underlying our tremendous, largely unconscious ability to mute our consciousness and conscience as we perform, on a daily basis, big and small acts of socioecological violence and destruction. In other words, most or all of the “target genes” occur, probably with little or no meaningful allelic variation, in ALL human populations and ethnic groups.

Thus, the intentional genetic evolution program under discussion has nothing to do with identifying a superior race that would serve as an “eugenic” model for all others to become. For the human experiment to continue, along with many of the other miraculous ongoing evolutionary experiments in the earth’s biosphere which, through our horrible collective naturally-selected selfishness are quickly being extinguished, we must all, collectively, become a new far more compassionate species of human, one that does not yet exist on the planet.

We have got to begin talking openly about this project, and figuring out how to promptly implement it, or all the other emerging opportunities that bio- and other technologies offer us will be irrelevant.

The problematic, pan-cultural, species-typical genes mostly are yet to be discovered, a project that I hope will begin very soon. The next step will be research on how to modify those species-typical DNA sequences (some useful, virtuous natural variants may exist in a person of any race or culture, we should look for those worldwide) most efficaciously to produce new variants that, in combination, will transform our entire species into one not doomed to destroy ourselves and the intricate treasure trove of biological and ecological systems that life on earth depends upon. Some responses to other folks’ comments below…

(1) In reply to:

E, Irrespective of what we Humans do, Nature will decide for itself what will become of us and our Planet.



Eventually, of course, in a manner of speaking; this statement is a truism. But in the meantime, we can try to prevent or ameliorate catastrophes, and terrible associated sufferings, that we may in principle have lots of control over. We have at least a modicum of real decision power and we can transform certain inevitabilities into evitabilities, to steal language from Daniel Dennett. We have evolved some freedom. Will it be enough? The clock is ticking. Will we transition during our species’ “technological adolescence” into “responsible adults,” or just continue to indulge in naturally selected thinking and behavioral patterns guaranteed to spoil everything? Action is called for, putting to really good and responsible use, as a global civilization, the tools coming online, not passivity.

Certainly, using rapidly developing genetic and epigenetic editing tools, such as CRISPER, we do not HAVE to let natural selection decide who/what we are as a species, including, most crucially, in the domains of prosociality, biophilia and compassion. — PJW

(2) In reply to:

Hi, Do you think there is an ethical issue relating to the editing of DNA by using CRISPR technology? Regards, Reem


Hi RA,

I think that any “action plan,” every intervention, and every instance of non-action where action is called for, is likely to have ethical implications. So, let’s talk about the ethics in a sober, informed, and transparent manner, but always remembering that if we indulge in endless ethical debate, which is all too easy, the clock never stops ticking. We run the dire risk of losing the opportunity of doing something very good as we search, often just for the sake of social competition (human nature),  for nonexistent perfect solutions. — PJW


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s