Early in The Texas Pilgrim’s life, almost twenty years ago, I wrote an essay entitled “The Post-Human Century?” in which I said this: “As the issues of war and peace and the defeat of totalitarianism were the dominant global themes of the century just past, there is a good chance that the war on terrorism, properly executed, with all of its repercussions, including the transformation of the Middle East, the reformation of radical Islam, and the reconfiguration of America’s role in the world, will be the dominant theme of the century just begun. Certainly, these issues will dominate the headlines for at least the first decade or two. There is, however, in my opinion, an issue that will trump even those of worldwide war and peace. It is the looming cultural, philosophical, and religious conflict on the question of human nature. The advances in the biosciences and neurosciences have for the first time provided man with the capability to transform his very nature. As a result, we will be forced to return to the questions of who are we? and why are we here? in a way that has been too long absent from public discourse.”
I still feel the same way and, in fact, due to developments since then, both in the biosciences and bioethics, even more strongly than when I wrote this essay, and my thoughts have recently been further collected and solidified by the new book by Walter Isaacson, The Code Breakers, which after less than two weeks has reached #1 on the best seller lists. This book fills several roles, first, as a history of the past couple of decades of the drama in the search for what became known as CRISPR, an enzyme and a tool that can edit human DNA, as witnessed through the eyes and the career of its lead discoverer and Nobel Prize winner, Jennifer Doudna; second, the reporting on an in-depth and ongoing debate on the future of bioethics in the wake of this monumental discovery of the capability that man can now transform his very nature; and three, a discussion of the mounting evidence that this discovery and its by-product in vaccine development (think COVID) have already ushered in what I have called “the fourth wave”, the life science revolution succeeding the information/digital revolution.
There will be political debate and decisions on these developments and issues of enormous impact and complexity under deliberation over the next several years, and to hope that these decisions can be made in a utilitarian or morally neutral vacuum is a delusion. And further, to delegate these decisions exclusively to the scientists and professional bioethicists or, worse, the judiciary, is a dereliction of duty in a democratic republic. So do your homework, and this book is a great place to start.