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We Can Control Our Genetics—But We’re Not Ready

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about where we’re headed as humans, which is probably unsurprising, given our current political climate here in the U.S. I have to admit to a fair amount of news-related depression these days. Donald Trump’s bizarre brand of nationalism and white supremacy, echoed in daily assassinations of black men by those we (the society of Americans) pay to protect them are only the tip of a rapidly melting iceberg, symptoms of a disease that is slowly rotting us from the inside out. I can’t help feeling, most days, that the species we fondly refer to as homo sapiens, and most especially that subspecies known as american has doomed itself to a very efficacious extinction.

Because I am me, I’ve been throwing my attention toward the future—using my generally optimistic view of our capabilities as a hedge against the pessimism I hold regarding our general nature, especially as a group. That means a lot of science (what we could do) and a lot of history (what we have done and—possibly more important—how), seasoned with generous doses of psychology, sociology, and cultural anthropology. I draw hope from the belief that we are absolutely capable of digging ourselves out of this hole we’re in, and that the first step in doing that is knowledge (science).

Which is to say, when the Gee gets down, the Gee goes full egghead.

And all of that is really just serving as background for my having seriously mixed feelings this morning when I discovered two seemingly disparate, yet completely connected things in my news feed.

The first is a report from New Scientist announcing the birth of the first baby conceived via a new technique that uses the DNA of three individuals as biological parents.

The idea behind this technique takes advantage of one of the cool things about cells and DNA, that is, that we have two types of DNA in each cell: most of it in the nucleus (core) of our cells, and some in the mitochondria (energy factories) of the cell. These two DNA strands are different, and some genetic disorders are specifically linked to one or the other type. These disorders are passed down maternally in a woman’s egg cells.

In this situation, the scientists circumvented a deadly mitochondrial DNA disorder by placing the mother’s healthy nuclear DNA into the eggs of a donor, one who had healthy mitochondrial DNA. In this way, the baby is still primarily related to both mother and father, but does not receive the damaged mitochondrial DNA. So far, the technique seems to be working.

Now, the scientist and optimist in me is really excited about this. It offers a unique way to circumvent weaknesses in our genetic makeup, and I like the idea of a stronger genetic code on principle alone. Given that my pessimistic side is pretty convinced we’re doomed as a species, I’m all for giving the kids of the future as big a helping hand as we possibly can.

Additionally, there are interesting implications for those of us who believe in an expanded definition of the two-heterosexual-parents-only definition of “family.” While the genetic link to the mitochondrial donor is fairly weak, it is a link, and that is, well, kinda nifty.

The flip side is, of course, that the more we have the ability to choose what our kids look like, how their brains function, how their bodies perform, the more we have the ability to make mistakes, to be biased in favor of an ideal that might not, in reality, be so ideal. After all, evolutionary benefit often comes from something that looks like a genetic mistake. And we are extremely vulnerable in this area. Over and over again, we prove that we cannot tell the difference between “different” and “broken.”

Case in point: the study referenced in this story on NPR, in which researchers discovered inherent racial bias in preschool teachers.

Yeah, you read that right. Preschool.

There’s a lot of folks these days that want to pretend that systemic racism—and a lot of other bigotry and bias—doesn’t exist in our society. Or even that it’s somehow justified, that there’s a “correct” social order and that it’s topped by white, heterosexual men.

Studies like this counteract that. Studies like this show that we stack the deck against certain people from the very beginning. And this on top of the news from San Diego of yet another fatal shooting involving our police and an unarmed, black man.

In the face of all this, how can we possibly hope to evolve? How can we be trusted with the power to change our own genetic code?

I want us, as a species, to be better. Help me out—where do we go from here?

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