It is W.B. Yeats, the Irish poet and revolutionary, who had that epic vision of everything being “changed, changed utterly” and a “terrible beauty” being born. He recorded his reflections in his poem, “Easter 1916,” referring to a bloody but defining moment in Ireland’s long struggle against British colonialism.
A contemporary “terrible beauty” has, literally, been born. Indeed, I should say two terrible beauties, for they are twin baby girls born in China. I call the girls beauties because I believe babies are mostly lovely, both in concept and in reality. But there appears to be something terrifying about these babies. Indeed, the man responsible for their birth is currently in court on criminal charges.
Dr He Jiankui, the Chinese researcher at the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, is the man in the eye of the storm raging around the birth of the twin girls. Since his case is before the courts, we should not let ourselves wax over-talkative about it.
But apparently Dr He Jiankui is charged with serious violations of medical ethics in the process of his “editing” of the genes of the embryos out of which the twins were born. Dr Jiankui claims that he did the editing to ensure that the babies would be born immune to HIV infection. Now, that sounds like a worthy and desirable intention, wouldn’t you say?
But not everyone thinks so, as evidenced by the fact that Dr He is now facing the scrutiny of the law, and he has, in any case, been under heavy censure from his fellow scientists since he announced his “success” in November last year. Where exactly is the discrepancy, and what implications does it have for all of us?
My first word is that we simply must strive to shake ourselves out of our blissful ignorance. Every educated person should have at least a basic understanding of all the major disciplines, ranging from theology to genetics, to mention but two of the huge number of items in the basket. It sounds like a gigantic assignment, but there are two main justifications for it.
The first is that, colossal and fast growing as the body of knowledge is, the means of accessing it and organising it are also impressively efficient. This is what the digital revolution is all about. With all this knowledge and information at the tips of our fingers, there is no excuse for those single-tracked “experts” who know more and more about less and less until they know everything about nothing. Equally importantly, meaningful survival today is not for lazylings, whose knowledge is limited to what they see on the (TV) “box”.
The second and more important imperative for our being well-informed is that we have to be constantly making crucial decisions in the face of the rapidly changing realities around us.
Game-changing developments are happening and will continue happening in our societies and our lives and we will have to decide how to cope with them. This is nowhere more obvious than in the biological and medical sciences. We have, for example, been living with genetically modified organisms (GMOs), of which the Chinese twins are a part, for decades now, despite all the noises about and against them.
I personally am fascinated by the scientific and biomedical feats with which our researchers and practitioners keep coming up. I was, for example, both amused and startled by a report about South African surgeons who advised their patient to keep strumming on his guitar while they performed a brain operation on him! This, the medics said, would reduce the risk of his memory being affected by the procedure. Then I heard of hens being genetically modified to lay eggs that could help boost our immune systems somewhere down the line.
As for “genetic editing”, you may remember that the human genome was described by its mappers as a kind of text arranged in certain patterns. You can, thus, put it in a computer, select, cut and paste on it as you want. That is what scientists like Dr He Jiankui might be doing to effect the development of babies like the twins mentioned earlier. This process of earth-shaking “engineering” is unstoppable, law courts and all that notwithstanding.
Yet, obviously, there is a “terror”, a threat to human life and society as we know them. That is where the aspect of ethics comes in. Is it morally acceptable to alter the genetic inheritance of a human being? On what grounds would it be acceptable and permitted? Who, ultimately, should make the decision? How can we be sure that changing one pattern of an organ’s genes will not drastically and unpredictably alter other aspects, possibly creating monsters like the proverbial Frankenstein terror?
Even more challenging is the prospect of the relationship of so-called “laboratory” produced human beings to society. We have, for example, heard for many years about the possibility of cloned human beings: produced directly through manipulated cell-divisions rather than any kind of sexual fertilisation.
Forget about the impact this would have on our soft-hearted, soft-headed notions of romantic and filial love. More seriously, contemplate the possibility and consequences of an amoral, greedy, dictatorial or simply demented scientist, or group of scientists, deciding to “manufacture” such creatures, maybe with the added intention of eliminating or “genetically editing out” all the other humans with undesirable genes. The Nazis tried that out, crudely, calling it “eugenics”, in favour of the so-called Aryan race.
Could that be the road down which those who yell about the promotion of sciences at the expense of the humanities want to lead us? For it is only the humanities, like theology, language, history, philosophy, social sciences and the law, that can help us formulate and define appropriate guidelines for the scientist and all of us on how to handle these developments.
Meanwhile, let us be grateful that we have not yet been genetically modified or “edited” somewhere down the line.
Prof Bukenya is a leading East African scholar of English and Literature. [email protected]