Science Corner: Designer Genes

Photo of mosquito

Don’t worry; no one is trying to make human/mosquito hybrids. (Yet.)

It’s been a busy week in the world of applied biology. Genetically modified mosquitoes were released in the Cayman Islands in an effort to disrupt Zika virus transmission; Florida is considering a similar intervention now that infections have occurred there. While the FDA approved the use of such mosquitoes, Congress has prevented it from even considering any procedures that intentionally modify human embryos in an inheritable way. Meanwhile, the NIH is preparing to fund research involving human-animal hybrids (think pigs with organs suitable for human transplant, not centaurs or werewolves). And that’s not to mention the ongoing conversation about the use of genetically modified organisms for food which factors into the political landscape this election season.

Having mentioned all of these stories together, I actually want to emphasize how these various lines of research differ. Releasing mosquitoes to control the mosquito population is a bit counter-intuitive on its face and evokes our long and not-always-successful history of trying to control animal populations in “the wild.” Genetic editing of human embryos and the creation of human-animal chimeras certainly have ethical considerations, but we generally have different standards for research on human subjects and animal subjects. Not to mention that the techniques involved are completely different, which means they have different risks and different rewards. GMO crops are a different story yet again with implications not only for what we eat but also the ecological consequences of our agricultural practices. All of these topics warrant policy conversations, but what applies to one may not carry over directly to another.

Maybe the differences between these biological innovations is obvious. But when I see language of “playing God” come up again and again in major media coverage (not to mention headlines about “freaks of nature“) and sarcastic “What could possibly go wrong?” replies all over the comments of those stories, I wonder if they are all being filed under “Dr. Moreau, The Island of.” As a Christian, I absolutely think theology and philosophy should be involved whenever questions of stewardship and treatment of vulnerable individuals arise. As a citizen of a democratic republic, I think everyone is entitled to engage in the conversation of how we spend our finite research dollars. As a biologist, I want to encourage a rich understanding of the science involved. Yes, it can get complex at times and the little details can matter, but it’s not impossible to understand the key concepts. Your friendly neighborhood biologist would be happy to help; go ahead and ask! And be encouraged; our collective understanding of science is better than some polls and tests of individuals might suggest.

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Andy Walsh

Andy has worn many hats in his life. He knows this is a dreadfully clichéd notion, but since it is also literally true he uses it anyway. Among his current metaphorical hats: husband of one wife, father of two elementary school students, reader of science fiction and science fact, enthusiast of contemporary symphonic music, and chief science officer. Previous metaphorical hats include: comp bio postdoc, molecular biology grad student, InterVarsity chapter president (that one came with a literal hat), music store clerk, house painter, and mosquito trapper. Among his more unique literal hats: British bobby, captain's hats (of varying levels of authenticity) of several specific vessels, a deerstalker from 221B Baker St, and a railroad engineer's cap. His monthly Science in Review is drawn from his weekly Science Corner posts -- Wednesdays, 8am (Eastern) on the Emerging Scholars Network Blog. His book Faith across the Multiverse is available from Hendrickson.

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    Daniel Chen commented on August 10, 2016 Reply


    Thank you for your posts. I’m curious: What are your thoughts on expertise in these discussions? The question applies to all of your hats — Christian, citizen, and biologist — and the hats of others. It seems to me that certain kinds of expertise (lay, scientific, theological, etc.) are needed, but then we bump into the problem that said kinds of expertise become barriers to entry. If true, how can fruitful deliberation be possible? Even if we could raise the temperature of lay expertise in science, how then do we navigate the power hierarchies between systems of expertise?

    Daniel C.

      Andy Walsh commented on August 14, 2016 Reply


      These are great questions; thanks for raising them. I personally think I have a fairly high view of expertise and its value. I think differentiation and specialization allow complex multicelluar organisms like ourselves to accomplish feats our rugged individualist relatives the bacteria could literally never imagine. And so I think the same applies to human societies. Nevertheless, implementing that vision is challenging.

      For one, it’s not terribly democratic. The barriers to entry you mention matter partly because liberal democracies believe in authority derived from bottom-up consensus rather than top-down fiat. Consequently, we want everyone to “buy in” to proposals from experts rather than just trusting them. To some extent, that will always be an inherent tension that we will just have to live with if we want to benefit from liberal democratic values and also from specialist knowledge. We probably will just have to pay a sort of communication tax, investing time and money towards public awareness and education that might otherwise be spent on further expert research. In fact, perhaps we need to formalize this a bit more. Just as academic research grants include overhead for university administration and infrastructure, maybe we should also set aside some part of research funding for public communication. In the short term, it might feel like a drain on already tight budgets, but in the long term it might be a valuable investment in continued funding overall. And while I’m most familiar with scientific research, I could imagine something similar applied across many disciplines.

      Another challenge is that people in increasingly pluralist societies have less and less in common. All the cells in your body are working from the same genome which provides common goals and a level of coordination. Humans are not guaranteed to share values and goals to that same extent. When we do try to communicate and deliberate, we can talk past each other without even realizing it because we fail to appreciate the differences in our starting perspectives.

      Relatedly, humans are much more susceptible to the myth of self-sufficiency than our cells are. Americans in particular highly value this kind of individualism. And as observations like those of Dunning-Kruger remind us, we are not very good at recognizing areas where we aren’t experts. Thus we tend to believe we each on our own can achieve sufficient expertise in any given field to decide for ourselves what is best without input from others.

      Ironically, I think science popularization and skepticism movements have only enhanced this tendency. A popular refrain from such movements is to question everything; nothing should be accepted on authority. Of course, taken to the extreme but perhaps logical conclusion, this includes doubting scientific and other experts. I suspect the death of the author and other post-modern developments in the humanities have a similar effect.

      And then we get to the power dynamics between disciplines. Cellular functions are largely distinct, but areas of expertise overlap quite a bit. And so we’ve seen recent examples where scientists and science popularizers would like to subsume philosophy into science, or to go even further and have science declared as the only legitimate source of truth.

      One solution that I think addresses all of these challenges is to re-emphasize and update the concept of a liberal arts education. Too much discussion of higher education presently centers on economic value; any given course or degree is only deemed worthwhile if it demonstrably imparts job skills that translate to greater earning potential in a specific field. Lost in that conversation is the value of education in preparing people to function in complex, pluralist societies. Perhaps the scope of areas covered needs to be reconsidered for the modern world, but the basic concept of exposing students to the breadth of human knowledge if worthwhile.

      A liberal arts education helps address pluralism by exposing us to the different perspectives that other people might be starting from. It helps with the Dunning-Kruger effect by giving people enough knowledge in different fields to at least appreciate how much they don’t know. That in turn should help balance out extreme skepticism by making the pragmatic need to sometimes trust authorities more apparent. And it might cool power tensions between disciplines by showing practitioners of all disciplines a taste of what their colleagues are doing and what value it provides.

      Does any of that at least begin to address your questions? What is your take on the role of expertise?

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