Repairing humanity: Ethics and Crispr-Cas 9

Dr Lynne Bowyer
Dr Deborah Stevens

The thinking that underlies the biological concept of human beings explains a person in terms of their physical parts, and how those parts function together to make up the whole. This explains being human in abstraction.  In this biological story, physical parts are ‘normalised’ according to their structure and function. This means that parts can be said to be working well or not when compared against standardised norms.  When a part is deemed to be outside normal functioning, attention goes to finding a ‘biological fix’ for that part.

In recent times, significant amounts of funding have gone into the biological science of genetics. With a focus on structure and function, many researchers in this field have pursued ways of altering genetic information in order to ‘normalise’, ‘enhance’ or ’fix’ a ‘genetic part’ that is seen to be a problem.

The current iteration of such genetic manipulation is CRISPR-Cas9.  Based on a biological system used for millennia by bacteria as part of their immune system, CRISPR-Cas 9 can recognise, precisely target and remove a sequence of DNA.  CRISPR-Cas 9 technology can be used to remove ‘ab’-normal heritable conditions and to select for certain traits.  The science and technology of gene-editing is here, but the ethical discussion about its appropriateness is lacking. 

There is little in our education system that is preparing our young people for the ethical dilemmas raised by rapidly developing technologies such as CRISPR-Cas 9. This is because the same sort of ‘scientific’ thinking and approach underpins our education system: young people are seen as functional parts that come together to form the structure of a whole society, that has been constructed and normalised in a particular way. The ‘parts’ of the society are judged against standardised norms to ensure that they are equipped to keep the wheels of the system turning. The ‘parts’ are not required to engage with and critique the system; they are just needed to maintain it.

In this presentation Lynne and Deborah will use gene-editing as an example, in order to broaden and deepen thinking about our human condition, what we are teaching and the way we teaching. In order to rehumanise education we must recognise that we do not live lives worth living in abstraction from communities of unique people who dwell in a particular place and time. We, therefore, should not teach in abstraction: whatever is taught in a school requires teaching and learning in a way that engages in a responsible way with the fragile and remarkable world we share with others.