Genetic engineering is a real possibility but….

Genetic editing is one area of science that holds a great deal of promise for some on the one hand and yet is fraught with controversy and ethical dilemmas for others.

Put simply genetic editing is the act of fiddling with gene sequences to promote desired features or suppress undesired ones. The much talked about genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are the result of genetic engineering.

The benefits of genetic editing include the potential to eliminate genetically acquired diseases or vulnerability to such diseases. Blood cells, for example, can be genetically edited to prevent the development of sickle cell anaemia, a genetically acquired condition which afflicts a number of people, especially in Africa. Red blood cells are usually round in shape and move around quite easily within the blood system. In sickle cell patients some of the red blood cells are curved like a sickle (and hard). They therefore get easily stuck in the small blood vessels of the chest, belly and joints.

So far as I know there is no medication for sickle cell anaemia. The best that health facilities can do is to manage its symptoms. It is therefore quite a relief to learn that this condition can be dealt with before it manifests itself by editing the genetic of the unborn baby if it is established that the baby has a high probability of acquiring it. But wait a minute, there is a whole set of ethical dilemmas that scientists have to steer past before they perform anything like this on a real human embryo.

Genetic engineering also has many potential recreational applications. Take sports for example: if geneticists figured out what characteristics of genes result in athletic abilities, those characteristics could be promoted by genetic engineering to produce an army of athletes, or footballers, or indeed people adept at all manner of sports disciplines.

Other desirable traits can likewise be promoted through genetic editing, or so it seems. What should stop scientists from studying what it takes, at the genetic level, to make a good public speaker or an inspiring musician, for example, and editing the genes accordingly to promote the gene sequences that would achieve such?

Maybe the same can be said about intelligence. It is, however, understood in the science world that intelligence is a result of a complex array of genetic attributes. No single attribute would on its own impart any level of intelligence to an individual it seems. But let us assume for one moment that geneticists discover the manner of editing genes that would result in geniuses. Wow, we would so easily replicate minds like that of Albert Einstein, which minds we would rely on to refine all the technology we have so far invented to usher us into a super modern civilisation. The levels of achievement that genetic editing can take us to seem limitless.

That is far as the positive news goes. The negative news is that one cannot just wake up and get these things done. Society is just not ready for that and probably never will be. To begin with, there will be resistance from religious quarters. Genes are the handiwork of the creator who creates them as He sees fit. Editing or engineering them would be overstepping our mandate. Who is man that he should interfere with the work of his creator?

The second problem would be environmental. Releasing genetically edited organisms into the environment would, in my opinion, be risky in the sense that we would not be able to tell what environmental complications such organisms may introduce as no similar organisms would have lived in the environment before.

Then we have a huge problem at the social level. Genetic editing is likely to be expensive. Therefobre its benefits would only be accessible by the rich. There is already some discrimination here, yes, the type of discrimination that one Ras Chikomeni complained about when his presidential nomination forms were rejected by the Electoral Commission on the basis that he had not paid the prerequisite K2 million. In this country, we have seen the poor failing to access higher education because it comes at a premium. Unless there was a deliberate effort to bring down the cost of genetic editing, it would be beyond the reach of the poor and the marginalised and its benefits would only circulate among the elite.

Let us search within our societies to find out if we are ready for interventions like genetic engineering and everything they entail.

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