Advances in medicine often outrun advances in ethics. Scientists are constantly discovering new techniques, procedures and treatments that can alter certain conditions or, in some case, eradicate disease—yet, does the potential of the discovery outweigh its inherent risks? Asked another way, just because we can prolong human life, should we? What, for example, are the long-term risks of the way chemotherapy changes human cellular structure? What are the consequences of genetic editing (cloning, genome mapping) to create and shape human life? With scalpel-like precision, anthropologist Eben Kirksey carves away at these questions in The Mutant Project: Inside the Global Race to Genetically Modify Humans.
The book opens in Hong Kong in November 2018 at the Second International Summit on Human Genome Mapping, where Chinese researcher Jiankui He breaks the news that he has manipulated the genes of freshly fertilized eggs, creating the world’s first “edited” babies. At the conference, Jennifer Doudna, a pioneer in the use of a new genetic engineering tool called CRISPR (clusters of regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats), comments that she knew this day would come but imagined it to be far into the future. Drawing on conversations with Doudna and other scientists, as well as with medical doctors, corporate lobbyists and biotechnology entrepreneurs, Kirksey follows CRISPR around the world, seeking to discover the ways that genetic engineering will transform humanity.
Various questions fuel his search. Who is gaining access to cutting-edge genetic medicine? Are there creative ways to democratize the field? Should parents be allowed to choose the genetic makeup of their children? How much can we actually change about the human condition by tinkering with DNA? In the end, Kirksey concedes that human bodies are ongoing mutant projects, evolving over time in response to various diseases and treatments. We can control our biological destiny to some extent, but he urges caution, prudence and care as we make “new personal and political choices about the future of human biology.”
The Mutant Project might provoke and disturb as it raises unsettling questions about the nature of human life, technology and corporate and personal greed, but Kirksey’s entertaining and fascinating combination of detective story, medical history and ethics is a must-read.