Gene Editing: A CBC Interview of Margaret Somerville and Julian Savulescu

The following is a transcript of an interview conducted by Jim Brown from Canadian Broad Casting Corporation’s program, The 180, on 3 December between Margaret Somerville and Julian Savulescu

Margaret Somerville is the Founding Director of the Centre for Medicine, Ethics and Law, the Samuel Gale Chair in Law and Professor in the Faculty of Medicine at McGill University, Montreal. She’s also the author of the new book ‘Bird on an Ethics Wire: Battles about Values in the Culture Wars’.

Julian Savulescu is Uehiro Chair in Practical Ethics and Director of the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics at the University of Oxford.

JB: Julian Savulescu, if I could begin with you. You argue that there is a moral imperative for us to pursue gene editing research. Briefly, why do you think it’s so important for us to embrace this technology?

JS: Genetic engineering has been around for about 30 years, widely used in medical research, and also in agriculture, but gene editing is a new version of genetic engineering that is highly accurate, specific, and is able to modify genomes without causing side effects or damage. It’s already been used to create malaria-fighting mosquitoes, drought-resistant wheat, and in other areas of agriculture. But what’s currently being proposed is the genetic modification of human embryos, and this has caused widespread resistance. I think there’s a moral obligation to do this kind of research in the following way. This could be used to create human embryos with very precise genetic modifications, to understand how we develop, why development goes wrong, why genetic disorders occur. It could also be used to create embryonic stem cells with precise changes that might make subsequent stem cells, cancer-fighting stem cells, or even stem cells that fight aging. It could also be used to create tissue with say, changes to understand the origins of Parkinson’s disease or Alzheimer’s disease and develop drugs for the treatment of those diseases. This is what I’d call therapeutic gene editing, and because it stands to benefit millions of people who die every year of painful and debilitating conditions, we actually have a moral imperative to do it. What we ought to show more concern for and perhaps ban, is what might be called reproductive gene editing – editing embryos to create live-born babies that are free of genetic disease or perhaps more resistant to common, late-onset diseases or even enhanced in various ways. If we’re concerned about those sorts of changes in society, we can ban reproductive gene editing, yet also engage in the very beneficial research using genetically modified human embryos to study disease.

JB: And Margaret Somerville, what concerns you about this technology? 

MS: Well, I’m interested in the division that Julian makes between the reproductive gene editing and what he calls the therapeutic gene editing. I’m a little surprised that he might not agree with the reproductive gene editing – that is, you would alter the embryo’s germline, so that it wouldn’t be only altered for that embryo, but all the descendants of that embryo would be changed in the same way. And up until – actually, up until this year, there was almost universal agreement, including in some important international documents, that that was wrong, that was ethically wrong, it was a line that we must never step across, that humans have a right to come into existence with their own unique genetic heritage and other humans have no right to alter them, to design them. Julian uses the term genetic engineering – to make them, to manufacture them. Where we would disagree completely is with the setting up of what can be called human embryo manufacturing plants, that is, you would create human embryos in order to use them to make products that would benefit other people, you would use them for experimentation, for research. And Julian’s right, we could do a great deal of good doing that – but there’s a huge danger in looking only at the good that we do. And what we’re doing there is we’re using human life as a product. We’re transmitting human life with the intention of killing it by using it as a product, and I believe that’s wrong. I think that human embryos have moral status that deserves respect, which means they shouldn’t be treated just as products.

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Guest Post: Performance enhancers and smart drugs in e-sports

Written by Toni Gibea

Research Center in Applied Ethics, University of Bucharest

My aim is to show that the decision made by ESL (Electronic Sports League) to ban Adderall in e-sport competitions is not the outcome of a well-reasoned ethical debate. There are some important ethical arguments that could be raised against the ESL decision to ban Adderall, arguments that should be of great interest if we are concerned about the moral features of this sport and its future development.

In the first part of this post I will explain why and when doping became a primary concern for e-sports and I will also sum up some of the officials’ reactions. After that I’ll present the main arguments that could be raised against the idea that the use of Adderall is an obviously impermissible moral practice. My conclusion is that we should treat this subject matter with more care so that in the future decisions in this area will have a stronger moral grounding. Continue reading

Less cooperation, please

Written by Joao Fabiano

Since the idea of enhancing human morality was proposed – and perhaps long before then – there has been a great deal of scientific research directly or indirectly inspired by the goal of improving human moral dispositions. Manipulations which result in increased levels of cooperation, prosociality or altruism are often seen as promising discoveries towards the path of developing moral enhancement technologies. The fact that increasing cooperation between individuals would be going in the wrong direction seems to be ignored. The problem moral enhancement proposes to fix is large-scale cooperation – cooperation between groups of individuals – not between individuals inside a group. Issues like global warming and nuclear disarmament arise primarily in the interaction between large groups of individuals, not in the interaction of individuals within the same group.

In actuality, humans already cooperate well inside small groups. We have evolved many emotional and cognitive mechanisms which enable us to function quite satisfactorily in the context of small cooperative groups such as the ones more frequently prominent in pharmacological research. Many have proposed local economies as the ideal design for producing sustainable management of common resources[1]. There is not that much room for improvement there.

On the other hand, when it comes to interactions between groups of different religions, nationalities and morals we can fail spectacularly. What’s more, our ability to cooperate well inside groups seems to be directly correlated with our inability for cooperation between groups. Continue reading

Is this really me? Parasites and other humans’ cells in our brains change our psychology

Many people are suspicious about being manipulated in their emotions, thoughts or behaviour by external influences, may those be drugs or advertising. However, it seems that – unbeknown to most of us – within our own bodies exist a considerable number of foreign entities. These entities can change our psychology to a surprisingly large degree. And they pursue their own interests – which do not necessarily coincide with ours.

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Effort, psychological continuity, human enhancement and superintelligence

One argument against human enhancement is that it is cheating. Cheating others and oneself. One may be cheating oneself for various reasons; because one took the easy path instead of actually acquiring a certain capacity, because once one enhances one is no longer oneself, because enhancements are superficial among others. I would like to try to develop further the intuition that “it is not the same person any more”. I will concentrate in forms of enhancement that involve less effort, are considered easier, or faster than conventional means because the cheating argument seems directed at them. In fact, most forms of non-conventional technological enhancements being proposed seem to be easier routes towards self-improvement. I will also explore how my considerations might mean trouble for any type of disruptive technology besides radical human enhancement, such as superintelligence or whole-brain emulation. Continue reading

Dogs on drugs

drogs, by weegeeboredThat people in all cultures around the world use plant drugs to heal, intoxicate, or enhance themselves is well known. What is less well known – at least to me – is that many cultures give drugs to their dogs to improve hunting success. A new paper in Journal of Ethnopharmacology by B.D. Bennett and R. Alarcón reviews the plants used in lowland Ecuador, Peru and elsewhere.

They find a wide variety of drugs used. Some are clearly medicinal or just hide the dog’s scent. Others are intended as enhancers of night vision or smell. Some are psychoactive and intended to influence behaviour – make it walk straight, follow game tenaciously, be more alert, understand humans, or “not become a vagrant”. Several drugs are hallucinogenic, which may appear bizarre – how could that possibly help? The authors suggest that in the right dose they might create synaesthesia or other forms of altered perception that actually make the dogs better hunters by changing their sensory gating. Is drugging dogs OK? Continue reading

Why do we like our artist on drugs, but not our sportspeople?

inspiration-is-for-amateursThe internet and print media are happy to herald that movie director Lars Von Trier can’t work without alcohol. He reports that he tried to be sober and went to AA meetings for half a year, but has now started drinking again in order to be able to work. This is a victory for those who believe that artists are more creative on drugs. As Von Trier himself ranted late last year, before going in rehab, he thinks that going clean will probably mean the end of his career. He probably won’t be able to make movies at all, and what he will produce, will be ‘shitty’. ‘There is no creative expression of artistic value that has ever been produced by ex-drunkards and ex-drug-addicts. Who the hell would bother with a Rolling Stones without booze or with a Jimi Hendrix without heroin?’ He states that he wrote the screenplay for Dogville during a 12-day drug binge, but working on the screenplay for Nymphomaniac, while sober, took him 18 months. Continue reading

Treatment for Crime Workshop (13th – 14th April) – Overview

Practical ethicists have become increasingly interested in the potential applications of neurointerventions—interventions that exert a direct biological effect on the brain. One application of these interventions that has particularly stimulated moral discussion is the potential use of these interventions to prevent recidivism amongst criminal offenders. To a limited extent, we are already on the path to using what can be described as neuro-interventions in this way. For instance, in certain jurisdictions drug-addicted offenders are required to take medications that are intended to attenuate their addictive desires. Furthermore, sex-offenders in certain jurisdictions may receive testosterone-lowering drugs (sometimes referred to as ‘chemical castration’) as a part of their criminal sentence, or as required by their conditions of parole.

On 13-14th April, a workshop (funded by the Wellcome Trust) focussing on the moral questions raised by the potential use of neuro-interventions to prevent criminal recidivism took place at Kellogg College in Oxford. I lack the space here to adequately explore the nuances of all of the talks in this workshop. Rather, in this post, I shall briefly explain some of the main themes and issues that were raised in the fruitful discussions that took place over the course of the workshop, and attempt to give readers at least a flavour of each of the talks given; I apologise in advance for the fact that I must necessarily gloss over a number of interesting details and arguments. Continue reading

Editing the germline – a time for reason, not emotion

Gyngell, Douglas, Savulescu

There are rumours in the scientific community that the first studies involving the genetic modification of a human embryo are about to be published.[1] If true this would be the first case of an experiment in which genes in germ cells (sperm and egg cells) have been intentionally modified.  This has caused some concerns in the scientific community due to the fact that these modification are potentially heritable.  A commentary in Nature, (written by four leading scientists and one philosopher) published an appeal that we “Don’t edit the human germ line”.  Science meanwhile published a commentary which outlines “A prudent path forward for genomic engineering and germline gene modification”. The fact that two of the world’s most prestigious journals are publishing commentaries on human genetic modification shows just how powerful gene editing techniques have become. The rapid speed with which these technologies have developed has taken the scientific community, and everyone else, by surprise. Just three years after the DNA cutting nuclease Cas-9 was first used to modify DNA, scientists have been able to make heritable modifications to yeast, plants, mice, rats, pigs and even primates. It has been claimed that experiments conducted in China, currently under review, have used these same technologies to modify the DNA of human embryos.[2] Continue reading

Success, Self-esteem, and Human Enhancement

The philosopher turned theologian Jean Vanier was recently awarded the Templeton Prize for his work on behalf of the mentally disabled, and he spoke eloquently of the damage done to that group in particular by our culture of individual success.

Vanier’s point — that we judge people by what they do — is well taken, and it has some broad and important implications. Even those usually thought mentally and physically able may be unable to achieve enough to win the esteem of others, or to gain self-esteem. Of course, success has its benefits for those who succeed and often for others. But because of the close relation in our culture between self-esteem and accomplishment, many are left unsatisfied or even depresseed because of their ‘failure’.

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