Historically, bright minds have questioned natural phenomenon, investigated materials, performed imaginative experiments and in the process made great discoveries and inventions. Science transforms to technology and eventually consumer products and services.
Early civilization was categorized by significantly lesser population. Post Industrial world that saw the plastic revolution, green revolution, expansion of capitalism and mass production, transport revolution still was in the midst of modest population. This afforded certain patience in giving the socio-legal systems reasonable time to come to terms with these new inventions and discoveries and decide what is moral, legal and taboo. Legislations and code of conduct were enacted. Safety protocols were put in place and orderly progress ensured.
Meanwhile in the financial sphere, capital markets were introduced. Joint stock companies and stock exchanges enabled further progress. Most transactions were simplistic by today’s standards. Capital markets enabled greater capital participation by the general public and provided ready capital to convert science into consumer technology and improve the lives of millions.
Since then, companies have been in search of greater markets to constantly improve the topline and aggressively pursue technology to improve the productivity and the bottom line. Meanwhile, the population growth continued unbridled. This also led to scarcity of materials and poorer working conditions. How ever progress continued in this backdrop driven by capitalistic vigour. The Computer age arrived and bought greater computing power to the masses while exotic financial products arrived to multiply gains and hedge losses. These developments introduced a great deal of complexity and the ability of the socio-legal and governance systems to anticipate and put safe guards in to place was severely compromised.
We now know the perils of plastic on both human reproductive systems as well as our eco-system. We know the perils of asbestos. We are starting to discover how there are plenty of people who will not hesitate to misuse the computing power to steal and cause other disruptions. We do not know yet what the release of GMO products into the eco system will do to humanity and the eco system. However, we march ahead with tap technology on credit card, mobile payment and most recently gene editing technology.
I am not saying that we should not have progress. I think it is time to re-think our socio-legal and governance systems to come up with a proactive regime that can harness the pace of scientific progress and at the same time ensure that we do not end up causing serious damage to ourselves because of the thoughtless act of a few, especially when these technologies getting more and more powerful are reaching the masses so quickly.
I was prompted to write this post to articulate my Perspective when I read about CRISPRs and how an easy technique has been found to deliver a guide RNA to target and edit DNA. There are already technologies in place to insert sequences into DNA. Around 1990, ZFN (Zinc Finger Nuclease protein) was introduced as a method for splicing DNA precisely at defined points however it was a more involved process. I do not claim to have any training or expertise in the field of Genetics. My thoughts are entirely from a lay person point of view.
I understand that the positive application of CRISPRs has the potential to intervene at the IVF stage to remove defective genes and liberate a family of inherited diseases. It also has the potential to help individuals to lose defective genes and rid of diseases. Aids the development of personalized medicine. As we have seen in the case of the Information Technology revolution, there were good uses as well as lot of malware and bad usage of technology. Why would the fall out of advances in DNA technology be different if we have no change in the governance approach?
On the negative side, there is potential for rogue elements to use the new DNA technologies to create genetic malware and to modify genome and accumulate lucrative restrictive patents. Today we have huge population and significant participation of the masses in the capital market. The pressure on capital to produce ever increasing returns is at an all time high. More than ever, we now need to have a governing class that has the required basic literacy to anticipate and proactively put safeguards in place. Put necessary controls to insulate the scientific progress from any capitalistic desire to deploy new technology for profit before its impact is studied in entirety. More so because a defective software or medicine can be recalled but any genetic payload inserted into the population will not be that easy to reverse.
We need to see more visible and active participation of governments to formulate a legislative framework to safeguard the rights of the vast majority of population that is unaware of these developments and their impact on their daily life. CRISPRs is just one of the man developments. A few other noteworthy development that come to mind are Nanobots and the Blockchain that will have impact on everyday life and disrupt many professions. It is essential for governments to simplify and disseminate such information to the general public so that future legislative framework to manage these development have informed pubic consent.
Check out scientists create stripped organism genome to see where we have reached with gene editing today.