By Chet Yarbrough
As Gods: A Moral History of the Genetic Age
By: Matthew Cobb
Narrated by: Joe Jameson
Matthew Cobb gives listeners a zoologist’s view of genetic sciences’ promise and risk.
His book “As Gods” is a skeptic’s view of cellular science and Recombinant DNA. Cobb infers science is as far away from understanding genetic function as it is about how the brain works.
However, from Cobb’s perspective, a lack of understanding genetics poses greater danger to the world than understanding the brain. Science seeks understanding of brain function to improve technological productivity. On a much wider stage, the science of genes deals with the ecosystem of life. The danger of genetic science is pinpointed by historian and author Yuval Noah Harari who suggests human history “…will end when men become gods.”
To change the hereditary characteristics of life is a giant step toward becoming godlike because it takes evolutional heredity out of life’s equation.
Cobb begins his book on genetics by reminding listeners of the discovery of the double helix by Watson, Crick, and Rosalind Franklin (though he doesn’t mention Franklin). The discovery of the double helix opens a new field of research. DNA is first discovered by Fredrich Miescher in 1869 but it is not until the 1950s, with discovery of the double helix, that science reveals the form in which DNA exists. The double helix model makes it possible for scientists to study the elemental structure of life.
The first test of a Recombinant DNA human experiment is in 1990. Two unrelated girls are diagnosed with adenosine deaminase (ADA), a symptom of which is low white blood cell count which usually becomes fatal in childhood. One of the two girls is alive today (according to a May 1, 2021, report). Cobb notes this result is positive but not definitive because the patients’ treatment is an early human experiment in Recombinant DNA therapy. It relies on an early form of gene therapy where a virus is used to allow molecular invasion of aberrant cells. And of course, one of the young girls in the experiment dies.
Cobb’s point is that the tools of this first Recombinant DNA’ uses a foreign virus to invade a human cell and experimenting with an untested treatment should be weighed against the effectiveness of known treatments.
With the helix model discovery of human DNA, science could study heredity and variation of inherited characteristics at a molecular level.
Yoshizumi Ishino (Japanese molecular biologist and discoverer of CRISPER.)
When CRISPR is discovered by Japanese scientist, Yoshizumi Ishino, in 1987, observation and sequencing of DNA could be changed by the medical and industrial communities. Without being too hyperbolic, the scientific community enters the realm of mythological gods with the availability of CRISPR. Scientists now can change the course of life on earth with direct modification of DNA, rather than use an accompanying virus to modify the patient’s DNA.
With the power to manipulate life, one hopes human history does not end but becomes more peaceful and less disease ridden. Cobb details successes and failures of Recombinant DNA. He confirms his skepticism by raising concern about intentional blindness of self-interested scientists. Some patients have been improved by Recombinant DNA, some have died for the wrong reason.
In 2020, OSHU in Oregon uses CRISPR to successfully provide a treatment for blindness in a patient with a genetic mutation. Sickle cell anemia, a genetic abnormality that deprives oxygen to red blood cells, is shown to have cured a young woman in a recent “60 Minutes” program.
Agricultural crop production has been improved by genetic modification, but Cobb notes ecological consequence of genetic modification is often not fully researched or explained to the public for wide approval. Cobb argues resistance to GMO products is largely due to a failure to communicate with the public. He also argues that a consequence of genetic modification of species has potential for eco-system collapse.
The example Cobb offers is modification of genes in mosquitoes that eliminate malaria. What is not fully explored is the consequence to predators that feed on mosquito progeny. If that source of food is lost, what is the consequence to mosquito predators. Do they change their diet, or do they die?
The point Cobb makes is that genetic manipulation that eliminates one species may start a spiral of species distinction. It is not to suggest malaria carriers are not worthy of genetic modification but that any change in a gene that eliminates one species may have wider ecological consequence. That consequence needs to be researched and understood.
One other aspect of Cobb’s story is the morality of patenting Recombinant DNA that enriches discoverers.
Unlike the discovery of a polio vaccine by Salk, many academic and industry scientists are focused on patenting their discoveries for personal gain, not public service. He raises the question of industries and some scientists who scramble to patent genetic therapy based on Recombinant DNA despite its questionable benefit. A tangential issue is industry, educational institutions, and scientists who benefit from getting patents for genetic research funded by public dollars. If public dollars are used, who should own the patents?
Cobb touches on biological warfare from weaponized viruses that accidently escape or are purposely deployed from labs designed to produce vectors of disease. There can be no mistake. Recombinant DNA has been and is still considered by many as a governments’ tool of war.
Recombinant DNA can become a weapon of mass destruction.
The ramification of Cobb’s history is a warning and benediction for the science of genetics. Genetic research is a sword of Damocles hanging over human society. It can kill if not properly secured and understood as a threat to life as we know it. Removing the sword is not possible because the genie of Recombinant DNA is out. It cannot be put back into Pandora’s box. Hope for honest, fully understood, and explained science is all that is left to humanity.
Cobb’s perspective on the path for science, in this case genetic science, is skeptical but seems hopeful.