LA Review of Books: In a Universe which Keeps Bifurcating - Martin Rees

02 February 2019
by Andy Fitch

Lord Martin Rees was interviewed by the Los Angelese Review of Books:

"How might billion-year cosmological horizons get shaped by decisions human make in the next few decades? How might future-oriented scientific engagements best address present-day social disparities? When I want to ask such questions, I pose them to Lord Martin Rees. This present conversation focuses on Rees’s book On the Future: Prospects for Humanity. Rees, a cosmologist and space scientist, is based in Cambridge, where he has been a Research Professor, Director of the Institute of Astronomy, and Master of Trinity College. He was President of the Royal Society (the UK and Commonwealth’s academy of science) from 2005 to 2010. In 2005, he was appointed to the UK’s House of Lords. He belongs to numerous foreign academies, and has received many international awards for his research. He writes and lectures extensively for general audiences, and is the author of nine books, including: Before the Beginning, Just Six Numbers, Our Final Century, Gravity’s Fatal Attraction, and Our Cosmic Habitat.


ANDY FITCH: I find particularly useful On the Future’s attempts to articulate the most constructive balance of “accelerating some technologies but responsibly restraining others.” So in terms of the book’s Prospects for Humanity subtitle, could we take, as one example of an emergent technological capacity combining both promising and ominous prospects for humanity, possibilities for targeted gene-editing to combat specific diseases, but also for more comprehensive genetic recoding to produce “designer babies”? And could we start to talk through the types of public discussions we do have, and the types of public discussions we should have, in advance of technological developments forcing our hand and reshaping human society without adequate reflective deliberation? How might such deliberation best help to reduce risks that scientific advancements can bring, without “putting the brakes on technology”? How might such deliberation in fact enhance our prospects for directing technological innovation all the more urgently?

MARTIN REES: Bio-tech will be a hugely vibrant field in the coming decades. But already it has raised problems of both ethics and prudence in how we apply this technology, and how we regulate it. Already we have the ability not only to sequence the human genome, but to start editing and synthesizing genomes. This has led to important ethical questioning. Recently a Chinese scientist modified a human genome to make babies less vulnerable to HIV. Critics roundly attacked this project, complaining that the benefits didn’t counteract the risks. These critics considered that experiment quite different from earlier cases, where scientists had edited out a single gene making babies vulnerable to a particularly damaging condition like Huntington’s disease. So already we have seen cases where genetic editing seems appropriate, and where it does not.

Going back 10 or 20 years, we had debates over genetically modified crops, with different outcomes in different countries. In the US you stayed fairly relaxed about this, whereas in Europe a much greater reluctance to allow GMOs emerged. In Europe the precautionary principle (the idea that one should do nothing unless one can ensure no serious downsides will occur) carried far greater weight. There was a standoff between environmental campaigners on the one hand, and Monsanto (an aggressive bio-chemical company) on the other. That led to a polarization of public opinion before any consensus could be built. And today Europe still has a strict regime opposing GMOs, even though you in the US have performed a huge controlled experiment on over 300 million people for a decade or two, with no manifest great harm emerging. So on that particular case I believe Europe has been overcautious.

We also have seen bio-ethics debates around the treatment of human embryos. A celebrated 1984 report by the philosopher Mary Warnock guided the UK towards a broadly acceptable system for regulating experiments that use human embryos. We had a good dialogue between parliamentarians and the public and medical experts, leading to a consensus to allow experiments on embryos up to 14 days old, but not beyond. That compromise still stands. And obviously it doesn’t satisfy all Catholics, but I still think we did a fairly good job.

Geneticists are now acquiring much greater insight not only into single-gene human characteristics, but into characteristics determined by many, many genes. By analyzing many thousands of human genomes, we will learn which combinations lead to intelligence and other desirable traits. It also will become possible to synthesize a genome that replicates these characteristics. So, in principle, one can see the prospect of so-called designer babies in our future. This clearly will raise all kinds of ethical issues. To what extent should we allow such modifications? We need to start these discussions long before the technology for these modifications actually becomes feasible.

And bio-tech raises other worries. For example, in 2011, at the University of Wisconsin and at Erasmus University in Rotterdam, experiments showed a surprisingly easy method for making the influenza virus both more virulent and more transmissible. These so-called gain-of-function experiments did not get funded further by the US government after 2014, on the grounds that such dangerous knowledge could be misused, either by error or by design. Those conducting such experiments had argued that understanding the influenza virus well enough can help us to stay one step ahead of its natural modifications. But others advocated putting the brakes on this and other bio-technologies.

In my book I contrast that 2011 situation with an important meeting held in Asilomar, California in the mid-1970s, in the early days of recombinant DNA. At this meeting, experts discussed whether to impose a moratorium on certain kinds of potentially risky experiments. They took a rather cautious line, and the limited number of groups active in the field at the time obeyed this moratorium. But things look quite different now, with new technologies studied all over the world, with strong commercial pressures, and the relevant equipment widely available in laboratories. It will be near-impossible to enforce regulations globally (just think of our problems enforcing drug laws or tax laws). So I worry that anything that can be done will be done, somewhere by somebody, whatever the regulations say."

Subscribe to our mailing list to get our latest updates