Regulations on Human Innovation
By: Jim Virkler
The CRISPR/Cas9 genetic editing phenomenon receives much press in our current climate. Our government regulators solicit public commentary on lively issues of the day. Well they should, particularly when bioscientists develop novel processes which could impact human life negatively. In particular, when genetic experts deliberately alter in some way the human genetic heritage by modifying or changing DNA structure or function, we should take notice.
In review, we cite the recent movement toward GMOs—genetically modified organisms. The pioneering discoveries appeared during the last quarter of the 20th century. The first genetically modified organisms resulted from inserting genetic material from one organism into an organism of a different species. Antibiotic resistance was one of the first problems solved by genetic modification. Since then modified organisms have provided pharmaceutical benefits, more desirable and productive fruits and vegetables, and insect and herbicide resistant crops.
More recently, CRISPR/Cas9 technology has opened the door to genetic editing. An organism’s own DNA is modified by deleting, inserting, or transferring a subject’s own DNA to correct inherent deficiencies or diseases or enhance desirable physical traits. This process is the result of hundreds of research procedures far beyond the comprehension of most laypersons. In a general way the public may understand that processes of great import are being developed at our personal genetic level. This phenomenon is at once powerfully desirable, yet potentially frightening. The CRISPR/Cas9 biotechnology does not face the regulatory restrictions that GMOs face. No harmful effects from consumption of genetically modified foods have been discovered. Both technologies have been made possible owing to revelations of detailed DNA atomic structure since 1950.
There is a commonality across the genetics of living things. For example, biologists tell us that the annelid genomes (segmented worms such as common earthworms are examples) are more similar to humans than to genomes of arthropods and insects. The Creator of All Things has designed different body plans for each of the 33 animal phyla and 14 plant phyla. In reference to physical traits, animal phyla are similar to each other, but also different from each other in significant ways. The genomes of diverse phyla are also similar to each other and also different in significant ways. Bioscientists are fond of “connecting the dots” of genetic similarity among phyla in order to establish their hypotheses of common ancestry and fortify their evolutionary proposals. Common physical traits and common genetic traits could also signal a Common Designer origin. Common Design appears to be a more rational explanation to those people not ideologically driven to embrace evolution. It makes sense that the Creator would use successful designs and successful genetic patterns repeatedly.
The complex majesty of the genomes of living things is worth studying at an advanced level of personal study. It is unsurprising that objections to GMOs and genetic editing have achieved prominence. The public needs assurance that the procedures are safe. Throughout human history man has weighed the positives and negatives of his grand schemes and discoveries. However, over-caution or under-caution is equally harmful to human progress.
Government regulations have proliferated in our day. Regulations concerning personal health and safety have produced a generous share of our attention. This is warranted, but we could be vulnerable to misunderstanding and abuse. There is a difficult balance point to be achieved between protecting the population from harm, but avoiding ideological fears which may prevent genuine healing and benefits to personal wellness.
Edward Jenner developed the remarkable life-saving process of immunization by vaccination in the late 18th century before the onset of modern governmental obsession with regulation. Milkmaids working with cows infected with cowpox acquired that mild disease, but subsequently avoided infection with the often fatal disease of smallpox raging in society at the time. They had acquired natural immunity. Inoculation with similar cowpox organic material provided protection from the much more devastating smallpox. The subsequently developed vaccination process protected the population from the horrors of many diseases. Smallpox killed an estimated 300-500 million people in the 20th century, but aggressive action eradicated the disease from the planet by 1977.
We cite one historical example of opposition to medical innovation. The Australian media outlet The Conversation published an article in 2017 by Ella Stewart-Peters and Catherine Kevin entitled “A Short History of Vaccine Objection, Vaccine Cults, and Conspiracy Theories.” They state, “…there’s a long history of opposition to childhood vaccination.” The article further relates,”By submitting to compulsory vaccination laws, a parent was allowing the government to insert itself into the individual home and take control of a child’s body, something traditionally protected by the parent.” This quote reminds us that some modern residents value medical privacy over efforts to acquire potential personal healing. There are no right or wrong answers to such complex issues.
Complex questions surrounding personal genetic modification are intensely challenging. The battles over Jenner’s vaccination process and even suspicions leveled at early proponents of germ theory must be kept in mind in our day when so much benefit has already accrued. Incredible medical advances have enriched humanity. We return repeatedly to Genesis 1:28, “God blessed them and said to them, Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it…” This passage immediately follows Genesis 1:27 where God speaks of man’s creation in the Image of God. It is our belief that humanity’s fruitfulness and increase in population in the past two centuries is God’s gift to Earth dwellers still operating under the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics. The 2nd Law is the “operating system”of our cosmos. The “operator” is the God of Creation.
We do not abide in a perfect world. Where imperfections are prevalent, we are gifted with the opportunity for discovery of remedies for the imperfections. We may judiciously celebrate recent strides in genetic modification.
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Jim Virkler, a retired New Jersey public school science educator, now devotes his time investigating the harmony of scientific discoveries and Christian faith. He and his wife, Eleanor, now reside in the mid-west near their children and grandchildren.