And it came to pass, as soon as he came nigh unto the camp, that he saw the calf, and the dancing: and Moses’ anger waxed hot, and he cast the tables out of his hands, and brake them beneath the mount.
Just a few months ago now, twin girls were born in Shenzhen, China. There birth is the stuff of international news, over forty eight thousand children are born in the country everyday — but something else about LuLu and Nana is. LuLu and Nana’s CCR5 gene was disabled by a technique known as CRISPR/Cas9.
The girls will likely never be able contract to HIV.
He Jiankui, the lead researcher, has been ‘disappeared’ into state custody for months (and now may even face the death penalty). Public reaction has been no more kind — casting him as a reckless and vain terroristic actor. However, if CRISPR goes on to be successful on modifications greater than single genes, working for things possibly as human as height, or even intelligence, we will no longer cast it aside.
As one commentator joked; if all the Nobel Prizes start going to Chinese scientists we will stand-by and watch. Humans have been changing the very being of nature since we left the caves — and the outcry about CRISPR today may not sound entirely unlike the outroar caused by automobiles at the turn of the turn of the 19th century, or the steam engine at the start of the industrial revolution.
However there is one fundamental difference in todays innovation — and it is that they are exponentially more powerful. We are not only changing technology, but fundamentally altering human capacity. This is a power we’ve never had before, and it is as promising as it is terrifying.
In light of this, I can’t help but think back to one of the stories contained within Exodus; the Giving of the Torah. As told in Exodus, Moses climbs Mount Sinai and receives the Commandments on stone tablets— inscribed, literally, by the finger of God.
However, when he comes back down and sees the Israelites worshiping the Golden Calf he smashes the tablets in anger, thereby destroying the direct word of God. Moses then, again, climbs the mountain and on God’s instructions, carves the second set with his own hand.
For the past two millennia, we’ve lived by humanly crafted rules, based on (the tradition of) the word of God. As our technological ability grows exponentially, and our society increasingly secular, I’d like to suggest that we’ve broken the tablets once again — but this time our hand is writing the letters.
In all aspects, we have now gained the ability to modify the natural order — from things as large as our climate to those as little as single base-pairs of our genome.
The decisions that we make as a community, as a country, and even as individual scientists or entrepreneurs as to what exactly we will do with our newfound power will determine the fate of everyone else forever. So now is time to start thinking from first principles, and as we begin to write our new tablets, make sure it is some that is just and moral.