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Erika DeBenedictis and the Cost of Playing God

Photo: Erika DeBenedictis, via YouTube (screenshot).

Erika DeBenedictis is not a mad scientist. She’s the class nerd who made good — photogenic, articulate, driven, and full of ambition to leave the world a better place than she found it. When it comes to her specialty of bio-engineering, she means that quite literally: She can make the world a better place, right down to the design of our own genes. In her TEDx talk, “It’s Time for Intelligent Design,” which biochemist and Evolution News writer Emily Reeves broke down recently in a carefully detailed series, DeBenedictis encourages people to not be as timid as all that as they approach the world as-is. It is beautiful, yes, but it’s not perfect. Far from it.

This is where DeBenedictis comes in, or hopes to anyway. But she knows what you’re thinking. She knows the free-association that goes on in people’s heads when they hear a phrase like “gene editing.” Probably your mind is already getting “carried away” with icky things like eugenics, designer babies, creating kids who are “tall and blond and good at basketball,” etc., etc. But she wants to assure you that this is not at all like that. What she has in mind would only ever be used ethically and would only ever be used in carefully controlled ways to effect carefully controlled solutions to human suffering. Because that’s what everyone would want to use it for, right?

What could possibly go wrong?

Begging the Question

I won’t recap the splendid work Emily Reeves has already done here dissecting the TEDx talk from a scientific angle. Read her entire series under the “Erika DeBenedictis” tag here. It’s highly instructive. Reeves, like DeBenedictis herself, is a recently minted science PhD. She politely but perceptively lays out weakness after weakness in Erika’s thesis. Underlying it all is the fact that DeBenedictis has simply begged the question on the nature of biological design, or lack thereof. Her thesis is that “Since all this [gestures] came about over 4 billion years of random chance, we should expect to find bugs in the system. So let’s get debugging.” 

There are a lot of angles from which to attack this, and Reeves covers many of them. There’s the very fact that in talking about “bugs in the system,” we’re acknowledging a “system” to begin with. There’s the fact that since natural selection is supposed to “select” things for a reason, from the mainstream scientist’s own perspective there’s a reason to have a care before assuming something that’s survived this long must be a glitch. Reeves even finds papers in the literature that discuss the very example DeBenedictis raises in her video, the puzzle of the INK4a/ARF overlap, speculating openly about alternative explanations.

In listening to rhetoric like Erika’s, I’m always put in mind of someone opening up the tower-case of a computer, disassembling it, and nonchalantly planning which bits he’s going to leave out when he reassembles it, since he can clearly perceive they’re not needed. We would fire any such technician on the spot, because it is obvious that the tower-case has been designed the way it is, with the parts it has, for a purpose. The analogy makes itself. DeBenedictis wants to fix broken stuff. But how does the saying go? If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Meanwhile, in China…

Dr. He Jiankui didn’t think he was a mad scientist either. He just wanted to help HIV+ couples have babies without fear of passing on the curse of their infection. “Do you see your friends or relatives who may have a disease? They need help,” Jiankui said at a summit in Hong Kong, rising nervously to present his research. “For millions of families with inherited disease or infectious disease, if we have this technology we can help them.” That’s all he wants — to help. Who could blame him for that?

Almost everyone, in fact. The Center for Genetics and Society traces the whole saga, quoting peer after peer who came forward to condemn Jiankui for his reckless malpractice after it was discovered he had attempted to edit the genomes of twin baby girls. Well intentioned or not, it was rogue work, with all manner of potential complications (because, as you may have noticed, our genomes are slightly complicated). That’s the thing about roads paved with good intentions: They can still lead somewhere you very much don’t want to go.

But as we all know, or at least all of us except Erika DeBenedictis, not everyone’s intentions are good. There is absolutely no guarantee whatsoever that powerful bio-tech will never be turned to purposes with far more deliberate bad consequences than the purposes of a reckless young rogue scientist. Just have a look at some of the people watching him from the sidelines as quoted in the CGS report, saying at worst he had a too-fast trigger finger. As Jordan Peterson loves to point out, plenty of Marxists were well intentioned, too. They were usually the first ones to be shot and replaced.

The Uncounted Cost

Dr. Jiankui’s experiment didn’t even succeed on its own terms. One of the twins was still vulnerable to HIV+ even after his attempt to edit her genome. This led some to question his choice to implant both embryos at all. “Why choose this [failed] embryo?” asked Seoul National University geneticist Jin-Soo Kim at the Hong Kong summit. “It just doesn’t make sense scientifically.” 

Translation: The “scientific” thing to do was to scrap the embryo, like all failed experiments. To quote Audrey Hepburn’s French cooking school instructor in the classic Hollywood movie Sabrina, “New egg!” The irony is rich: Here he was in fact cooperating with the parents in the one ethical element of this whole affair, taking responsibility for both the lives created in the process, and yet this in itself drew criticism.

But this shouldn’t surprise. After all, creating and disposing of “failed” embryonic experiments is already routine practice in our nation’s labs, at least up to 14 days when the neural system begins to grow, at which point scientists…are now allowed to keep experimenting, actually, as of last month. So there went that particular arbitrary barrier. One down, who knows how many more to go? (Of course, Nature assures us that new ISSCR guidelines will allow more extended experimentation on a case-by-case basis, subject to “several phases of review.” As Wesley Smith puts it at National Review, “Ri-i-i-i-ight.”)

Meanwhile, Forbes reports that the U.S. Senate has just killed legislation that would have banned taxpayer-funded human-chimera experiments. Whether “true” chimeras are an actual physical/metaphysical possibility is a fascinating question, deserving its own discussion, but what’s not in question is the fact that any such experiment beginning with a human embryo is unethical out of the gate. Yet it’s clear that enough scientists are eager to get experimenting that the pressure was enough to kill the bill.  But remember, Erika DeBenedictis assures us we can trust scientists. They’re only trying to help.

I am sure Dr. DeBenedictis is trying to help. I am far less confident that her conception of “helping” won’t lead to “hurting,” even on its own terms. And when it comes to the cost of playing with life in the lab, that tally counter isn’t stopping. It never has stopped. It never will.