He Jiankui, the Chinese doctor having set the world aflutter with his announcement that he has created the first genetically edited babies, has disappeared. He braved it out for the first few days, but skipped town when the outcry over his behavior grew too loud.
He was initially surprised at the outrage. For this case specifically, He said, he felt proud and if there was anything he regretted, it was that the news had slipped out prematurely.Even if we set aside the possibility that this may not be He’s first such experiment, what is important is that he did not see this as an act of evil, as has been deemed by his ilk in the West.
He believed he was saving life, freeing it from the evil of AIDS, not disrespecting it. But other scientists have said that by acting in haste, He has set the stage for the racial and social engineering of humankind. It is a slippery slope.
Quite clearly neither side has had the last word on a subject that has enthralled us since the beginning of time.The creation of life and what shapes it on earth, via divine and human intervention, has held peoples’ fascination across cultures.
For instance, the story of Ashtavakra, the sage whose body was bent out of shape at eight points. The boy was born to a sage,Kahoda, and his wife Sujata. While still in his mother’s womb, he grew well-versed in the Vedas, having heard his father and grandfather recite it ad nauseam to their students. One day, as Sujata sat under a tree and Kahoda coached a young batch of boys, they heard a small voice from her womb pointing out mistakes in his father’s rendition of the Vedas. He did this eight times and thus was cursed by his father to be born crooked in eight joints. Extremely cruel though it was, the myth was one of the early explorations into what caused a child to be born with physical imperfections.
There are many myths that developed around the mystery of childbirth. And almost every hero is associated with an unusual birth.The birth of Buddha is an example. Born as Prince Siddhartha, he is said to have emerged from the side of his mother who had a dream that the divine had entered her womb in the form of a white elephant holding a lotus in its trunk.
The Greek god Dionysus was born out of his father Zeus’s thigh. Zeus, disguised as a mortal, had an affair with the Theban princess Semele. When Hera found out, she persuaded Semele to ask her lover to show himself to her in his true form, knowing that no mortal could withstand the sight. As Semele was burnt to cinders by her wish, Zeus plucked the foetus out of the womb and stitched it into his thigh, carrying it till the end of term. Ram (and his brothers) were born when their mothers were administered a special mix of herbs and after a yagna had been performed by the ascetic Rishyashringa.
All mythologies were deeply preoccupied with the process of birth and life.Death too was a grave concern and gave rise to its own legion of myths. While the Biblical myth is well known about Adam, Eve and the serpent and the fruit of knowledge, other myths have other reasons for the curse of mortality. Among the Nigerian Yoruba group of people, who believe they were brought to life by the god Ifa, everyone has in his or her body, agents of disease. The disease is contained in various bags of worms that are present in different parts of the body. When human beings lose their balance in life (excess of anything) these bags burst and let the worms invade the body.
If the ancients knew that they could interfere with the genetic code, the bag of worms, would they have done that? And should we do it today?
This is not a question for science alone. Doctor-author Siddhartha Mukherjee has said in his books and interviews that there are moral red lines that Crispr, the science that lets humans redesign genes, lets us cross today. But morality is not a straight line, it curves and blurs at different points for different cultures.
For some life in the womb is sacred, for others life itself is sacred and ought to be made as disease resistant as one can. For some the ability to edit out disease is a sign of technological progress while for others, Crispr lets in the danger of editing in socially preferred characteristics (think Nazi eugenics). To navigate our way through this minefield, one needs to go back to what shapes cultural ideas about life and death and our identities as a people. Until then He and others like him are bound to keep pushing the boundaries.