CRISPR-Babies and the Case for Left Transhumanism

The international bioethics community was taken by storm this November, when Chinese researcher He Jiankui announced that he had brought the first ever CRISPR-edited human embryos to term—twin girls, named Lulu and Nana. At the recent International Human Genome Editing summit in Hong Kong, already embroiled in scandal, He doubled down on his work, and announced a third pregnancy in its early stages.

The heated embroglio kicked up in the dust of the experiment points to a real need to examine existing regulatory frameworks, to see whether they are doing what they ought to do. Moreover, it impinges on us to raise the normative question of what we think it is that they ought to be doing in the first place. Yet, underlying the normative question, there seems to be a deeper seated anxiety or sense of moral revulsion triggered by the creation of the first gene-edited humans, not altogether dissimilar from the sense of uncanniness triggered by artificial intelligence.

It is important to situate both the experiment and this resultant moral queasiness in context; in so doing, we must firmly reject the liberal democratic consensus that what went wrong morally in He’s experiment is reducible to his contravention of the established ethics protocols of globalized biomedicine. Many have commented that existing regulatory frameworks simply failed in this case, while others—including CRISPR founders Feng Zhang and Jennifer Doudna—are calling for a global moratorium on human germline gene-editing. This apparent anxiety, I argue, cannot be accounted for by mere ethical transgressions (although it is important to take these transgressions seriously, as I go on to discuss). Rather, it is over the specter of our transhuman future, which under the horrors of late capitalism can only take the shape of something monstrous.

Transhumanism is a position that advocates the use of our best technologies for the enhancement of human beings. The genetic sciences have been coupled with transhumanist thought nearly since their inception, the term itself having been coined by evolutionary biologist and eugenicist Julian Huxley—brother of Aldous Huxley, author of the dystopian sci-fi classic Brave New World (1931), which envisions future society as a totalitarian genetic caste system in which the lower castes are sublimely placated by the drug soma. Such gothic horror points to a real anxiety about the existing social and political contexts into which eugenics is being (re-)introduced, which cannot be divorced from the haunted history of the Holocaust, colonial genocides, forced sterilizations of the mentally ill and racialized minorities, etc. However, writing off gene therapies and gene-based medical biotechnologies would be ill advised, a knee-jerk reaction to the capitalist transhuman monster. Such technologies have made, and will continue to make a huge positive impact in our lives, provided that they are equally accessible, and their use democratically accountable to those that live in the political community (what Aristotle called the bios politikos).

Before moving on, it is important to provide some explanation of the experiment in question. CRISPR/Cas9 is a biotechnological tool that allows researchers to insert synthetic DNA into living organisms by reverse engineering the immune systems of bacteria. He’s objective was to disable a gene called CCR5 in embryo, so that the girls might be born resistant to potential infection by the HIV/AIDS virus. Scientists have pointed out that the actual editing was poorly executed, that little is known about the possible new mutations that may inadvertently result from the deletion of CCR5, and that there were clear problems relating to informed consent with respect to both the girls and their parents. The results of He’s experiment have still not been peer reviewed, and those that have examined his data reportedly found it too sparse to draw any definitive conclusions. Finally, He’s experiment fails to treat a real medical issue, since the girls would have been unlikely to contract HIV using regular IVF techniques (despite the fact that their father is a carrier), and effective drugs to counter the virus are already widely available. All of these are real problems that stronger regulatory frameworks would help to address. Unfortunately, in a booming global biotech sector, where innovation is based on competition, there are perverse incentives for researchers not to share results, especially with the international community.

He has been described as a rising star in the Chinese biotech sector, having secured as much as 41.5 million yuan in government funding for past research. But the twin girls experiment was carried out in secrecy, during an unpaid leave, without the knowledge of He’s institution, the Southern University of Science and Technology. At the same time, He allegedly hired an American PR consultant, Ryan Ferrell, and launched a small publicity campaign on YouTube to explain the rationale behind his work. It seems evident that He was fully aware of the controversial nature of his work, and that he consciously acted so as to create a spectacle magnifying that controversy. The question remains, why would an upstart young researcher, at great risk to himself and his career, deliberately skirt controversy, practically flaunting his transgression of ethical norms?

While the international backlash to He’s experiment has been summarily damning, some scientists have been cautiously optimistic that it may trigger more serious discussions about existing regulatory frameworks around the globe that currently forbid bringing germline edited human embryos to term. Scientists and science advocacy groups in western countries such as the US, the UK and Canada have been lobbying their federal governments in recent years to loosen restrictions on human germline editing, with an increasing consensus in the scientific community that such experiments can safely proceed. Arguments in favour are typically couched in economic terms, appealing to the imperative of remaining competitive in the international marketplace of globalized biocapitalism, and often singling out China as if Shanghai was predestined to become the new New York of twenty-first century reproductive futurism. The biotech sector in China has scored a number of crucial “firsts,” including the first application of CRISPR in monkeys, and in non-viable human embryos.

Such cognitive dissonance points to a strange paradox in western capitalism. China is held up as an ambiguous symbol, on the one hand representing the fantasy of unparalleled productive power, untrammelled by the progress-stifling strictures of western humanism and regressive state intervention, while on the other hand it is repudiated as an evil communist regime, antithetical to the ideals of justice, freedom and democracy. This official repudiation of the communist evil works wonders for western liberal democracies, which can incorporate the pure capitalist real of hyperexploitation and dehumanization from the Chinese model all the more surreptitiously while officially rejecting it.

Apparently nobody has yet mentioned the obvious fact, the elephant in the room, that the twins Lulu and Nana are girls, in a country with historically high rates of feminine infanticide, due in no small part to the legacy of China’s own notorious eugenic legal experiment in the form of the White Paper Policy. Those who point out that He failed to uphold established ethics norms by first performing tests of the desired mutation on mice or other lab animals make a grave point: the implication is that female gendered babies are nearer to lab mice than human beings. Of course we can never know whether Lulu and Nana would have been brought to term had the fetuses been gendered male. However, read against the broader social and political context, He’s experiment would appear to add to an existing climate of abjection and dehumanization of Chinese girls.

This points towards the real historical situation of capitalist hyperexploitation of women in the global bio-economy, which is in no way restricted to China. James Marion Sims, a nineteenth century physician and American slaveowner known as the “father of modern gynecology,” performed his experiments on enslaved black women without anesthesia. The case of Henrietta Lacks and the trade in HeLa cells points to the exploitation of racialized women in cellular genetics. These harrowing chapters, plus the infamous Tuskegee syphilis experiment and the first testing of contraceptive pills on women in the former American colony of Puerto Rico, together describe a long colonial, racialized and gendered history of biomedical exploitation in the US. Today in the US, access to reproductive technologies are dogmatically attacked by the religious right, while women’s bodies increasingly become sites of commercialization and exploitation.

These problems cut across the globe. As Jyotsna Agnihotri Gupta writes in Bioethical Inquiry, “female students in the US and Spain sell their ova to pay their way through university […] a woman in India decides to rent her womb to pay her invalid husband’s medical bills.” This is not even to speak of the mass industrial labour force of women in poor countries working in consumer electronics factories and call centers in for the global tech and telcom industries, which overlaps with biomedical exploitation in an era when information technology and digital networks increasingly converge with molecular genetics and the human body.

When Marx speaks of the “feminization of production” in Capital, Volume I, his argument is both figurative and literal. Dated gender assumptions aside, Marx’s view was that automation would naturally lead to an increased presence of women and children in the workplace, as the skill of manual labour is displaced from man to machine. This also tends to emasculate the masculine worker, whose only pride is in the value of the products of his labour, thus engendering a double significance to the meaning of feminization. Needless to say, what Marx had in mind was very much the becoming-woman of the factory, and not the becoming-factory of the woman. When I say hyperexploitation, I mean a regime of capitalist exploitation that scrambles bodily boundaries, commodifying the inside, and increasingly equating life itself with abstract labour.

Thus, there is a certain castration anxiety at play in the Marxist theory of automation, which Marx also maps on to the struggle between living and dead labour—in other words, the embodied labour of the worker and abstract labour as embodied by the machinery of production. This anxiety is not altogether dissimilar from that described by Freud in his 1919 essay, “The Uncanny [Das Unheimliche].” In his most paradigmatic case, Freud describes the uncanny as the anxiety one feels when presented with automata, or “living dolls,” which appear to exhibit an intelligence that unsettles our sense of mastery over objective reality. Freud raises the psychoanalytic cure of an eight year old girl, who fails to achieve healthy sublimation by repressing her sense that “her dolls would be certain to come to life if she were to look at them in a particular way.” Freud’s uncritical adoption of the erotic and gender norms of a late nineteenth century Viennese bourgeoisie would characteristically prevent him from diagnosing the deeply asymmetrical power relations that could have led a young girl to identify more with the hidden life of her dolls than with the social world of the father. Still, the experience of uncanny anxiety in everyday life for Freud points to what he calls a “repetition-compulsion” in the unconscious mind to impose order on the world. Connecting this back to the struggle between living and dead labour, one could argue that the whole Oedipal scene plays out over the unnameable fear of a machine more intelligent than we are, an artificial life more alive than a historical humanity almost completely assimilated to the machinery of capital, an alien force that gobbles up our agency and represents the conquest of death over life: in other words, a monster in every sense of the word.

The technological metaphor carries over profoundly to the context of human gene editing. We are disturbed by the anxiety over “artificial” humans, humans who could easily lord over the genetic proletariat of the future with their superior intelligence and designer physiology: in other words, the Gattaca (1997) scenario. In the existing political and economic milieu, the strong likelihood is that genetic enhancements will only be made available to those of significant means, virtually guaranteeing that abstract capital will be directly fungible as genetic or bio-capital. Meanwhile, the poor will continue leasing their wombs, cashing in on bodily parts or fluids, or selling access to their genomes to bioinformatics firms and private insurers, while the rich slowly evolve into a new species. Over an even lengthier span of time, the poor, too, will become unrecognizable. If the twin girls experiment has taught us anything, it is that abject humanity may be subjected to unforeseeable mutations as a side effect of private profiteering.

In spite of all that has been said, it is important to remain realistic about the dismal state of the capitalist economy, which seems to be teetering on a knife edge over yet another crisis. The gluttonous financial sector remains bloated at the heights of the capitalist economy, while stagflation and a crisis of overproduction have hindered capitalism from creating new markets able to absorb its commodities. In the past, capital has exhibited remarkable ingenuity in the creation of new markets, elevating itself beyond national borders as globalized neoliberal capitalism, and now beyond the borders of human bodies, as global medicalized biocapitalism. However, in spite of the discourse of disruption routinely employed by tech entrepreneurs, capitalism in its present stage is simply unable to stomach any technology that would significantly disrupt the means of production, due to the fragility of global markets. In the case of CRISPR, technological advancement has already been hampered due to lack of profitability compared with a combined strategy of hyperbolic publicity and predatory patenting. The sad irony is that the small (but noisy) transhumanist milieu within Silicon Valley and the wider tech community can only imagine humanity as the bootloader for a techno-capitalist AI singularity, ceding absolute sovereignty to a machine intelligence ruling monarchically over a planet of corporate serfs operating as cogs or bits of information parasitized by its mass distributed cybernetic vampirism. Suffice it to say that the liberal democratic consensus in the field of bioethics has affirmed that the figure of the transhuman can be allowed to emerge if and only if it does not simultaneously explode the global capitalist mode of production.

The liberal democratic consensus touts ‘humanism’ and human rights, but their arguments are easily defeasible. Currently no international body exists that could enforce adequate bioethical protections for the “human being” considered in the universal sense as an abstract rights holder. On the final day of the summit in Hong Kong, scientists released a joint statement with over 100 signatories imploring governments and the United Nations to impose moratoria on human germline experimentation, but no global consensus has been reached, and it is doubtful whether the UN could enforce such restrictions across the board. In the national context, pronouncements of human rights generally operate to the exclusion of those that fall outside of the community of rights holders. The supposed moral sanctity of the liberal democratic subject can be upheld from afar when certain of its indefeasible rights are not protected, such as the right to full prior and informed consent in medical experimentation. But one must not raise how the abstract notion of the human “subject” as a rights holder operates along the lines of a gendered exclusion (in the Chinese context), which moreover itself cuts across a broader dynamic of gendered and racialized exclusions in the economy of global medicalized biocapitalism. There is a pattern of exploitation here only thinly covered up by the ideology of liberalism, pointing to a hypocrisy at the heart of the liberal democratic consensus of the bioethicists.

The human as rights holder can be seen as an extension and secularization of the Christian soul. We need only mention once again the bizarre hypocrisy of the religious right in the US, which assaults reproductive freedoms under the guise of upholding the supposed moral sanctity of the human subject as a Christian soul, while remaining utterly complicit in the systemic dehumanization of real human beings daily through the machinery of global capitalist production. The human as rights holder, like the Christian subject, seems to default to a religious and geographic nationalism. We cannot catalogue the reasons for the slow erosion of the liberal democratic consensus as it affects the field of biotechnological production, except to suggest that one decisive reason may be the failures of global medicalized biocapitalism to reabsorb its excessive re-production of bodies and bodily parts, and to maintain leaps in biotechnological advancement within the acceptable limits of metastable profitability. The only way to positively affirm humanist values in this context is to ensure that there is equal access to gene therapies and other gene-based medical biotechnologies across the board, and to steer the market in reproductive and gene-based biotech away from profitability and towards social need and accountability. This can only be accomplished if we decommodify human bodies and bodily parts, obliterate the capitalist model of global biomedicine, and transition towards a democratic, patient-based model with truly international reach.

In the bioethics context, considerations of the autonomy of the patient and fiduciary obligation of the practitioner are paramount. These should not be brushed aside. In my view, autonomy and fiduciary obligation do not conflict with a broadly pro-experimental transhumanist stance, one that encourages a regulatory apparatus which recognizes that a potential, immortal or abstract self is non-identical with an actual self, meaning a self that is approximately the sum of its social relations (as Marx argues in the sixth of his Theses on Feuerbach). We ought not to let metaphysical fictions impose restrictions on our ability to responsibly experiment with life, including human life. Of paramount importance in, say, bringing gene-edited human embryos to term—in addition to the autonomy and full prior and informed consent of the parent(s)—would be the ability of the gene-edited person to live a satisfying existence, as well as the community’s positive response in integrating said person. The ethical relation travels in two directions, from individual to community and back again. This in fact strengthens and is strengthened by a certain robust core of liberal bioethics, consisting of the principles of autonomy and fiduciary obligation. Moreover, this conception of community naturally includes the international and scientific community, which—as we have seen—appears increasingly to be entering into conflict with both capitalist globalization and the liberal democratic consensus.

But left transhumanism is no bland parochial egalitarianism. Left transhumanism is radically committed to the flourishing of the individual and the community as a whole. The future need not be a monster, and we should not be afraid of affirming the future. The future only appears as a monster because the present is quickly spinning out of control, and the past is a rubble of tragedies. The future seems to want to gobble us up, because the capitalist mode of production reigns in the power of death over life, of the machinery of production over the body of the human person. Life can be affirmed only if this machinery is placed at life’s disposal, as death transforms from decay into generation when it gives form to new life.

Questions of which genetic enhancements we choose to advance, whether to rejoice in sophisticated immunizations and the eradication of heritable chronic conditions like Huntington’s and Tay-Sachs disease, whether to indulge in designer babies, or revel in the post-human aesthetic of transgenic body modifications—such choices are entirely secondary to the question of democratic control over the machinery of (re-)production, as are the questions of accountability in research practice and efficacy of ethical oversight. In my view, bioethics cannot responsibly situate itself outside of this ambit of material feminist and Marxist critique if it wishes to rise above the hypocrisy of the liberal democratic consensus under capitalism.

In affirming the future, in working towards the future by working on ourselves, in unshackling ourselves towards the future, Marx would say, humanity finds its Promethean ambition. My only doubt is whether the concept of the “human” will hold for very long in the context of a political community that is responsible towards life as a whole, having appropriated the living as its machinery and its mode of production.