Jamie Metzl on the Future of Genetic Engineering

Author of “Hacking Darwin,” Jamie Metzl, warns genetic engineering threatens the very things that make us human and could descend into a new form of arms race. He discusses what’s at stake with Hari Sreenivasan.

Read Transcript EXPAND

CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR: While the Democrats jostle to try and shape the future of their party, the world of science is shaking up something even bigger, and that is the future of humanity. DNA is becoming a commodity, one that can be written and hacked like a piece of IT. The futurist Jamie Metzl says, “Genetic engineering now threatens the very things that make us human.” In his new book, “Hacking Darwin,” he warns it could be harnessed for good or descend into a new form of a kind of an arms race. And he sat down to discuss this with Hari Sreenivasan.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Right now, when you are pregnant, there are screening tools available to figure out if there’s a horrible disease or hardship that you’re about to face. You have a tool in the book where you look forward into a fertility clinic 25 years from now.


SREENIVASAN: Can you kind of look lay out the scenarios? Help our audience explain what that could look like.

METZL: Right now, most people who are pregnant in the United States have non-invasive prenatal testing to learn more about the embryo that they are carrying. And if there are significant problems, those parents — those mothers are often faced with a very difficult choice. And the choice is to carry that embryo to term or to abort. And whatever anybody’s views are on the politics of abortion, that’s an extremely painful, excruciating decision for parents.

But we are moving increasingly toward using a technology that already exists for pre- implantation genetic screening. So rather than having to make that determination, once the mother is already pregnant, let’s say you have 15, fertilized eggs, also called zygotes, and you can screen all of those, and you can figure out which are the ones, which are perhaps carrying deadly diseases, and not implant those.

And then going forward into the future, because we’re going to have so much more information, so much more understanding about our own complex genomics. The choices that we’re going to make, that we will make in the context of decisions made at fertility clinics, is not just about disease states, but about all kinds of traits. And then beyond that, and certainly within that 25-year timeframe, we’re also going to be able to do something that we already can do, but not well, which is make a relatively small number of gene edits on these pre- implanted embryos, either to eliminate risks, or perhaps to provide enhancements.

SREENIVASAN: So let’s talk about that. There’s that “eliminate risk quotient” that I don’t think most people have a problem with.

METZL: Right.

SREENIVASAN: But then there’s this enhancement idea where people do have a problem with.

METZL: Right.

SREENIVASAN: But when you can start to say — selectively say, “Well, I want to go ahead and if I had figured out the gene combinations for longevity or for height, or for IQ, and personality.”


SREENIVASAN: “Well, I’d like to engineer my kid to give them an edge or at least make them baseline,” if that’s what everyone else is doing.

METZL: And a lot of people if you ask them, how do you feel about genetic engineering, will say exactly what you’ve said. They’ll say, “well, I’m comfortable with therapeutic applications and I’m not comfortable with enhancements.”

But when you push them, when you say, “Help me draw the line between where a therapy ends and enhancement begins,” it’s really, really difficult because there’s a gray area in many, many circumstances. Let’s say, somebody — it looks like a child is going to be three feet tall. People would say, “Well, that’s really short. It’s hard to live if you’re three feet tall. There’s a lot of discrimination, there are health issues.” Does it make sense to use some kind of genetic engineering to make sure that you have a child that is taller than three feet tall?

And I think, people would say, “Well, maybe that sounds right, because being three feet tall, that’s a difficult way to live.” Although — but not everybody would say that. And then you say, “Four feet tall.” Are we going to define like a specific height where that’s below that height; that is a therapeutic application and beyond that height is an enhancement? And you can go to many, many traits, but different societies will have different views.

In some societies will very legitimately say, “We only want to address the most dangerous genetic diseases,” and that will be fine. But other societies will say, “Hey, we recognize that there are benefits to be had, that we think – we think as this society, that maybe it’s better to have a higher average IQ among our population. We think that will make us more competitive. We think that will help us have new innovations that will make life better for everybody.” And so, there’s no right or wrong answer, but these will be real choices.

SREENIVASAN: Once you start describing kind of the aggregate impact of what these tiny genetic modifications can do, I think that gets very scary for people to say, “Well, this is, you know, what I read about in college Nietzsche in the Ubermensch. This is a world like, it was described in the movie “Gattaca.”

METZL: Right.

SREENIVASAN: All of a sudden, we have a society of haves and have nots, based on whether you had access to this technology. Is this more likely than not going to be equally distributed to all parts of the world at the same time, right. So we’re going to have a class or a country or a county of people that would have this access. And then a generation later, they’re perfect, you know, six foot tall, have every advantage, higher IQ. And then here’s a whole country or a continent that doesn’t have it.

METZL: Yes, well, I’m really sensitive to this issue. I come from Kansas City. The reason I come from Kansas City, is that my father and grandparents were resettled there after the war, as survivors of the Holocaust and victims of Nazism. And what the Nazis saw themselves as doing was applying Darwin’s principles.

And so for me, as a child, in many ways of the Holocaust – victims of the Holocaust, I’m very, very mindful that what I’m talking about could be interpreted as a form of eugenics. And that’s really a big deal. But on the other hand, when you talk to people and you say, “Would you, if you could choose from 15 of your pre-implanted embryos and you knew that two of them were going to have some kind of heritable genetic disease that was going to ensure that they die before they were 10 years old? Would you choose to implant those embryos?”

And most people say “no,” and that’s — whatever the word is, that’s a form of eugenics. So we are going to have to make choices. If you are worried about genetic inequality in the future, the best thing that you can do is worry about inequality now. Because if this is the we – the we who lives, the way we do, where we’re perfectly okay for people to be born with very little opportunity, or people who are born in places like the Central African Republic, who is in effect have brain damage, because their mothers are malnourished. And so, their chances of success in life are so much lower than our kids. If we’re okay with that now, how can we expect that we’re going to be different in the future?

SREENIVASAN: Are governments anywhere close to creating sound policy around this, given that not everybody even understands the underlying science?

METZL: So some governments are doing better, some governments are doing worse, and some governments are doing nothing. When I look around the world, I would say the United Kingdom is probably the best jurisdiction in the world where they’re addressing these issues very thoughtfully. They have national forums on issues like mitochondrial transfer, they have a very effective body called the Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority that oversees many of these issues.

The Houses of Parliament have had full body votes in both Houses on issues like mitochondrial transfer, and they have a National Health Service, which allows rational decisions to be made on a national level. Here in the United States, the FDA is certainly an excellent and world-class agency, but we don’t have that level of level of government-wide buy in, let alone population-wide buy in. We don’t have as informed of a public on these issues, and that certainly creates a danger.

And then there are some countries that have nothing. And the danger is that certainly in countries like ours, we need to do a lot more. But as these technologies become more widespread and become to be seen as more beneficial, even if they don’t prove to be, people will go to where they can get these benefits, if they perceive them as benefits.

SREENIVASAN: It seems like to me, there’s three groups that are likely to abuse this. One is dictators who want to create an army of super strong whatever people. Another is rogue scientists who don’t really care for the ethical standards. And we’re starting to see a little bit of that now. Three is parents looking for an edge.

METZL: So let me quickly dispel the first two and focus on the third. So I have advised the U.S. military on this. And I’ve talked to them as they brought a group of futurist thinkers together. And my feeling is the real competitive edge isn’t just super soldiers. I mean, maybe that would be would be possible, but it’s kind of a waste. It’s competitive societies. I mean, that’s the end in which leads to your second point of dictators. That if I was thinking — I’ve written a sci-fi novel, “Genesis Code,” about this about, if I were a country, let’s just call it China. And my goal was to be highly competitive in the future, and I wanted to use these technologies, what might I do?

So what I would do is first have a national genetic engineering program focusing on embryo selection made with a small amount of gene editing. Then I would sort people into categories based on their super capabilities based on their genetic profiles, but not just military, or sports. It could be business, it could be engineering, it could be math, it could be all sorts of things, and then put them into the equivalent of Olympic sports schools, but in all these different disciplines, and then see who does the best and have a pyramid of these people who are having a genetic likelihood of being great at something, and then get a number of superstars in those areas and invest huge resources in building national champions.

So that rogue scientists, we’ve seen that in China last year, He Jiankui, who is certainly a rogue scientist, doing extremely irresponsible work, in my view, of genetically engineering, what became these two to Chinese girls. But they won’t have the incentive to do — to make these kinds of changes on a population-wide scale. So they’re going to need some kind of mechanism behind them, which leads to your third category, which is parents.

Everybody would agree that the kind of state sponsored eugenics of Nazism or what happened in the United States is wrong. But this is going to be very different. Parents are going to demand these services, particularly once they see, if and when they see that there are benefits to be had, and these benefits would be reducing the roughly 3 percent risk that parents now have that their children will have some kind of harmful genetic abnormality, and that will be a big driver. But also conferring certain kinds of advantages.

I have a friend in Korea, his 11-year-old daughter has 12 tutors coming to the house every week. In Korea, they had to pass a national law closing their cram schools at 10:00 p.m. because people were having their seven and eight-year-old kids going to these cram schools seven days a week past midnight to prepare for college entrance exams that they were going to take a decade in the future.

And when I asked this friend, I said, “If you could select your pre-implanted embryos to give about a 15 percent IQ boost to your kids, would you do it?” And he looked at me like I was some kind of idiot? And I said, “How about everybody that you know, would they do it?” And again, he looked at me like I was — it was like, obviously, who wouldn’t do that? And so, I’m not saying it’s right or wrong. I’m just saying some people and parents are going to want to do this. And some parents and maybe countries won’t. But there will be real consequences for those decisions.

SREENIVASAN: One of the things you keep coming back to is pre-implanted embryos, which leads me to ask, will we just be having sex for pleasure, not for procreation?

METZL: Absolutely, I’ve written a number of articles on the end of procreative sex. And I believe that whatever the year, 30 years from now, 20 years from now, conceiving of a child through sex will seem as dangerous to people as not vaccinating your children is today. Because when you think about it, not vaccinating your children that’s very natural. Like, nature didn’t invent vaccines, we developed them. And again, conceiving of a child through good old fashioned sex is very natural, it’s actually been a great strategy for our species and for all sexually reproducing species. But there are dangers associated with sexual reproduction. And we are going to be able to reduce and in some cases, eliminate many of those dangers, and that will be a choice.

And so right now, people are carrying diseases that won’t exist 20 years from now or 30 years from now, just like when you see somebody with polio — if you see a child with polio, what do you think? You don’t think, “Wow, that’s terrible fate that that kid has polio,” you think, “Well, something went wrong because kids aren’t supposed to have polio.” And there’ll be lots of genetic diseases and disorders that in the future, if you see somebody with that thing, you say, “Wait, where did the system break down?” Because humans, in large part, aren’t getting those diseases anymore.

SREENIVASAN: You know, there’s going to be someone who’ll say, for example, who lives with a family member who has Down syndrome, that’s going to say, “Listen, that person is an incredible human being and they’ve grown up with these challenges.” And the way that we’re designing these systems in the future, aren’t we valuing that person’s life less than in a way that — you know, compared to a much more perfect or normalized person without any of the possibility of getting that, right?

METZL: It’s such a valid and it’s such an important question. And I’ve spoken with lots of Down’s families in preparation of this book. And certainly, for any child that exists with Down syndrome, they have the absolute right to be given every opportunity to thrive like everybody else. And many parents with Down syndrome, feel that their children are true blessings, greater blessings, than other children and they are they are right.

So I would hate for people to feel that that what I’m just talking about in the book and elsewhere, is any way, denigrating people with Down syndrome or other disorders. We have to flip the question, because the question that parents are going to be asking is, if you have 15 pre-implanted embryos, and you could pick to implant, any one of them, you have all of this information.

And you know, let’s say, that two of those embryos have Down syndrome. Would you, if it was a choice, would you affirmatively choose to implant the embryo with Down syndrome?

When Down syndrome — we know — we know all the high functioning children with Down syndrome, but there are lots of health risks associated with Down syndrome. The lifespan of people with Down syndrome is on average less than then everybody else. When I frame the question that way, to Down parents, it’s a different kind of conversation. But I’m really mindful that I — because if I’m saying, or if the implication of what I’m writing about is that we are going to have less incidents of Down syndrome in the future, which is just a fact, it’s already happening. What does that mean? What’s the message to people who already have Down syndrome, and we just really need to be incredibly sensitive on those issues.

SREENIVASAN: Who owns our genes? And one of the things underlying all of this is that we all have to be screened, we all have to have it in a lab, et cetera, et cetera. Who owns, I guess the parts of me that make me who I am, and how do I have some autonomy in giving that away?

METZL: So the easy answer, but it’s too easy is, obviously, you own your genes and no one can take them from you. And yet, we have 10 million people who’ve done their cheek swabs and signed a little form and sent their genetic material to companies, in many cases, with no protection, and that these companies are then selling your genetic information to big pharma, and that’s a real issue.

People don’t recognize that your genetic information is more valuable to you than your bank information or your credit card information. Because in the United States, we have Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act, which protects you against discrimination in your health insurance, but not in your life insurance.

So imagine if you sent in your cheek swab and your life insurance company buys it. And they know more than you know about when you may die, whether you’re likely to have a long life or a short life. That’s really valuable information. And so, a country like China, that has very poor privacy protections, could conceivably have a tremendous advantage in accessing these big data pools. And so, there’s a conflict between the personal need for privacy and the societal need for this information to be shared.

The reason why I’ve written this book is that we need to begin imagining where we’re going because we have huge decisions that we’re going to need to make now. And we’re really going to need — to think deeply about who are we? What are our values? How are those values expressed in the decisions that we are making today that will in many ways determine how these technologies play out in the future?

SREENIVASAN: All right, Jamie Metzl, thanks so much for joining us.

METZL: My pleasure.

About This Episode EXPAND

Christiane Amanpour speaks with Dimitri Simes in an exclusive interview; and New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham about withdrawing all National Guard troops from her state’s border. Hari Sreenivasan speaks with Jamie Metzl about genetic engineering.