So my hope for the book is that it shows the mix of competition and cooperation that is at the heart of science. And the fact that even though these are real humans with egos and ambitions, they—more than most people—realize, correctly, that they’re a part of a noble endeavor that has a higher purpose. I hope everyone in the book comes across as a hero in their own way, because they are.
You were in the middle of reporting this book when something seismic happened in the world of Crispr. In 2018, a Chinese scientist named He Jiankui revealed he had not only edited human embryos but started pregnancies with them, leading to the birth of twin girls. How did that affect the trajectory of the story you were trying to tell?
That really became a crucial turning point in the narrative. Because now all these scientists were forced to wrestle with the moral implications of what they’d helped create. But then things changed again when the coronavirus struck. I wound up working on the book for another year to watch the players as they took on this pandemic. And that actually caused my own thinking about Crispr to evolve.
I think I felt a visceral resistance at times to the notion that we could edit the human genome, especially in ways that would be inheritable. But that changed both for me and for Doudna as we met more and more people who are themselves afflicted by horrible genetic problems, or who have children who are suffering from them. And when our species got slammed by a deadly virus, it made me more open to the idea that we should use whatever talents we have in order to thrive and be healthy. So I’m now even more open to gene editing done for medical purposes, whether that’s sickle cell anemia, or Huntington’s, or Tay-Sachs, or even to increase our resistance to viruses and other pathogens and to cancer.
I still have worries. One is I don’t want gene editing to be something only the rich can afford and it leads to encoding inequalities into our societies. And, secondly, I want to make sure we don’t reduce the wonderful diversity that exists within the human species.
Do you have any ideas for how to do that?
I spend the last few chapters of my book wrestling with that question. And I hope not to preach, but to allow the reader to go hand in hand with me and Jennifer Doudna and figure out on their own what their hopes and fears are about this so-called brave new world we’re all stepping into together. I once had a mentor say there are two types of people who come out of Louisiana: preachers and storytellers. He said, “For heaven’s sake, be a storyteller, because the world’s got too many preachers.”
So by telling the tale of Crispr in all its scientific triumphs and rivalries and excitement, I hope to turn people on to the science. But I also want to make them more qualified to wrestle with one of the most important questions we’re going to face as a society over the next couple of decades: When we can program molecules the way we program microchips, what is it we want to do with this fire that we’ve snatched from the gods?
Want more Crispr? Add these titles to your reading list
Editing Humanity, by Kevin Davies
In this deeply researched book, Davies deftly recounts the full history of Crispr going back to the 1980s, before narrowing in on the academic and economic forces that enabled He Jiankui to pull off his now infamous experiments. The executive editor of The Crispr Journal, Davies tends to linger where the science and business of gene editing intersect, bringing vital context to the Gold Rush mentality that has surrounded Crispr’s commercialization.