Part II: Brave New World
Aldous Huxley was born in Godalming, Surrey, England in 1894. He was part of a famous English family with many illustrious relatives. Huxley’s mother Julia was the niece of critic Matthew Arnold. Huxley’s father was a schoolmaster and a writer. His grandfather, Thomas Huxley, was famed not only for his accomplishments in zoology, but also for his spirited defense of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, which earned him the nickname “Darwin’s Bulldog.” Huxley had three siblings. His brothers Julian Huxley and Andrew Huxley were both outstanding biologists, and Andrew shared the 1963 Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine for his discovery of the mechanism that governs the propagation of nerve impulses.
Huxley attended Eton College, where he contracted the eye disease Keratitis punctata. For a period of about three years, Huxley was almost completely blind. His extremely poor eyesight made Huxley abandon his ambition to become a doctor. For the remainder of his life he would deal with severely limited vision. In 1913 he enrolled in Balliol College, Oxford, where he studied English literature, and obtained a “first” in that subject.
Huxley then set out to become a writer. He was extremely prolific for nearly his entire life. At age 17 he had already written a novel (which remained unpublished). His first novels were social satires, such as Crome Yellow (published in 1921) and Antic Hay (published in 1923). Brave New World, which we will review below, was published in 1932, and was Huxley’s first dystopian novel.
Huxley eventually published some 50 books, of which some were novels and others were non-fiction works of social criticism. In addition, he wrote many essays and contributed to such journals as Athenaeum, Vanity Fair and British Vogue. Huxley was a staunch pacifist and wrote a book Pacifism and Philosophy.
Later in his life, Huxley would become interested in Eastern mystical thought. He became a friend of Jiddu Krishnamurthi, who helped introduce Huxley to Vedanta. By this time, Huxley had moved to California, where he joined the Vedanta Society of Southern California and became associated with its leader, Swami Prabhavananda. Huxley subsequently wrote The Perennial Philosophy, which discussed the contributions of a number of mystics throughout history.
Huxley also became interested in psychedelic drugs. In 1953 he had his first experience with mescaline. He then experimented with other psychoactive drugs. Huxley maintained that psychedelic drugs were potentially powerful facilitators that could lead to profound mystical experiences. Regarding his experiences with mescaline, Huxley wrote that “The mystical experience is doubly valuable; it is valuable because it gives the experiencer a better understanding of himself and the world and because it may help him to lead a less self-centered and more creative life.” He argued that the use of psychedelics could be very valuable in fields such as science, art and religion. This put him into opposition with others who claimed that experiences with mind-altering chemicals should not be confused with “true” mystical experiences.
In 1960, Aldous Huxley was diagnosed with laryngeal cancer. He spent the remaining years of his life being treated for this disease. In 1963, the disease had advanced so much that Huxley was unable to speak. However, he wrote a note to his wife Laura, requesting that she inject him with LSD. She complied by injecting him twice with small doses of LSD. Huxley passed away later on that day, Nov. 22, 1963. This was the same day that British writer C.S. Lewis also died. However, both of their deaths were completely overshadowed by U.S. President John F. Kennedy’s assassination on the same day.
Brave New World:
Aldous Huxley first began working on his novel Brave New World (BNW) after reading H.G. Wells’ 1923 novel Men Like Gods. In that book, Wells envisioned a future Utopia set in a parallel universe. In his society, religion had been replaced by a dedication to science and technology. Politics had also disappeared, and the governing principles were those of privacy, freedom of movement, knowledge, truthfulness and freedom of expression. The cynic Huxley was certain that Wells’ paradise was incompatible with human nature, and Huxley began to write a parody of Men Like Gods. In a letter, Huxley stated that he had “been having a little fun pulling the leg of H. G. Wells”, but then he “got caught up in the excitement of [his] own ideas.” Huxley then discarded his original intent to lampoon Wells, and instead created a detailed portrait of a dystopian society that took many of Wells’ ideas and extended them to what Huxley was convinced was their logical, and shocking, conclusion.
Aldous Huxley’s novel Brave New World is set 600 years into the future. While George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four describes a society that is governed by constant surveillance and repression, Huxley imagined a society that could potentially be stable without requiring brutal repressive measures. In his dystopian society, many of the touchstones of Western culture, such as marriage, family, and religion, as well as an authoritarian state have been abolished.
In Huxley’s Brave New World, individuals are created by cloning. Huxley presumably took this notion from the British geneticist JBS Haldane, who had first envisioned the process of cloning in his 1924 book Daedalus. Huxley takes Haldane’s idea to new heights. In Brave New World, millions of individuals are created through a process of cloning, which has been standardized to an enormous assembly-line procedure. The process called “cloning” in BNW is rather different from today’s cloning procedure. In BNW, eggs are taken from some of the females in the society. An egg is then fertilized in the lab by a sperm cell in the normal fashion of sexual reproduction. However, a chemical reaction is then initiated that produces many identical copies of the fertilized egg – this is analogous to the process that produces identical twins or triplets. This process produces many genetically identical copies of the same embryo.
By contrast, the modern process of cloning proceeds by taking DNA material from a donor. That material is inserted into an egg cell. After the egg cell begins to divide, it is implanted into a recipient; the resulting embryo then proceeds to viability. In this case, modern cloning avoids requiring the “normal” reproduction process of combining sperm and egg cells.
Huxley further imagined that a person’s intellectual capabilities could be determined by carefully regulating the chemicals provided to a fetus during its development. The intellectual capacity of an individual is carefully graded, from Alpha Double Plus for the most brilliant citizens to Epsilon Minus for those of most limited mental capacity. The Greek letters are taken from those used to grade papers in British schools. The five categories of human intellect, and the intelligence associated with each one, are listed in Fig. II.3. The lowest castes are designed for the most menial labor, while the planning and organization are given over to the Alpha Plus group. The careful regulation of intelligence ensures that individuals are “programmed” to be satisfied with their place in society. In fact, individuality is submerged in this society, with the motto “Every one belongs to every one else.” To further insure that citizens are happy with their position in society, infants are carefully conditioned by exposing them to hypnotic tapes that provide them with pride and satisfaction regarding their status. Although the resulting society is shocking to us (except for the highest class, citizens are basically brainwashed automatons), Huxley manages to persuade us, by describing the reproduction and conditioning mechanisms in detail, that such a society might be stable.
Huxley asserts that the motto of his society is “Community. Identity. Stability.” (Huxley implicitly contrasts this against the French Republic’s slogan of “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité”). And he imagines that the meticulous organization of his society has been planned to achieve these goals. With religion, science and literature essentially removed from Huxley’s society, the citizens live a hedonistic life. In a society where “childbirth” is relegated to the laboratory, the Brave New World society is one of recreational sex with multiple partners. Fertile women in this society are conditioned to constantly take birth-control pills lest they become pregnant. The populace is also stimulated with “feelies,” movies that provide sensory input; and they frequently ingest soma, a drug that relaxes them and puts them to sleep. Religion has been replaced with a commitment to technology – in conversation, references to “the Lord” have been replaced by “the Ford” (for Henry Ford, inventor of the assembly line), and Ford’s birthday is now the benchmark for keeping time (the novel begins in AF 632, or 632 years after the birth of Henry Ford).
Bernard Marx is one of the main characters in Brave New World. He is an Alpha Plus psychologist who is extremely short in stature; it is rumored that this was due to a chemical malfunction during his fetal stage. Unlike most citizens in this society, Marx is dissatisfied with his lot. He believes that he is unattractive due to his diminutive stature. He is attracted to Lenina Crowne, a lovely but mentally limited technician. (Huxley is having fun with Marx and Lenin of Bolshevik Revolution fame.)
In addition to the dystopian society of Brave New World, Huxley also imagines an outside world inhabited by Native Americans and other misfits; this is called the Savage Reservation. Marx persuades Lenina to accompany him in a trip to the Savage Reservation. Here groups of Native Americans still live communally in pueblos at a subsistence level; and the savages continue to maintain their cultural and spiritual practices from ancient times. The reservation conditions are shocking to visitors from the Brave New World, who are unaccustomed to seeing poverty and disease – in BNW, citizens who become ill are euthanized, a practice to which they have been hypnotically conditioned. Furthermore, the BNW dwellers are surprised by the strong family and tribal bonds present on the Reservation: a society devoid of families sees the pueblo life as seriously undesirable.
During their visit to the Savage Reservation, Bernard Marx locates Linda. She had originally visited the reservation with a high official from the new world, the Director of Hatcheries and Conditioning, otherwise known as the D.H.C. But Linda and the D.H.C. had become separated and she was left on the reservation. It turned out that she was pregnant with the child of the D.H. C, who has grown to be a young man called John. Having been conditioned to life in the new world, Linda is miserable with her life on the reservation. She hated the pain of childbirth, and is an outcast at the pueblo because of her promiscuous practice of sleeping with men on the reservation.
Bernard Marx takes Linda and John back to the new world. Marx has a motive for this act. He has received a tip that the D.H.C. is about to exile him to Iceland because of his anti-social views. Marx correctly intuits that once it is revealed that the D.H.C. is John’s father, he will lose his position since that society considers it a major transgression for a woman to become pregnant.
Meanwhile, John has been reading the plays of Shakespeare, from a book he encountered on the reservation. He finds the work puzzling, but at the same time he is fascinated by the actions and customs of the plays. Literature has been discarded in the new world, as it is felt that books could potentially introduce instability and unhappiness into the community. John struggles to comprehend the thoughts and actions expressed in Shakespeare’s plays, yet he also finds the language to be inspiring.
Linda is unable to adjust to the new world; she realizes that the new world citizens find her repulsive as she is aged, ill and unattractive. She consoles herself by taking soma almost continuously, and her dependence on that drug will lead to her death. Bernard travels around London with John at his side, and the public’s curiosity at this youthful savage makes Bernard a minor celebrity. At the same time, John’s initial wonder at this new world community has changed to serious disapproval, as he finds the populace shallow and their hedonistic lifestyle repellent.
John and Lenina are mutually attracted to one another. However, their responses to this attraction are more or less opposite. Lenina would like to have casual sex with John, whereas John is confused and conflicted. John’s upbringing on the reservation, combined with his fixation on Shakespeare, leads him to see sex as dangerous and objectionable. Lenina takes John to a “feely,” where John is both impressed and repulsed by the combination of video with sensations of touch and smell. Lenina is puzzled and upset when after the feely, John leaves her at her apartment without having sex with her.
Eventually, Lenina takes matters into her own hands. When she convinces John to come to her apartment, she strips and tries to make love to John. However, the savage is repelled: he calls Lenina a “strumpet” (repeating a phrase he has borrowed from Shakespeare), and he slaps her. John’s violent reaction to this sexual scene also stems from his confusion over watching the abuse his mother suffered from men in the pueblo.
Eventually John has a confrontation with Mustapha Mond, the world Controller. Mond is in a more or less unique situation in the new world. He has been instrumental in enforcing the conditions of this new society; at the same time, he is familiar with the religion and literature of the old world, so he can debate these with John. The debate allows Huxley to frame the dichotomy he has constructed for his Brave New World.
Mond argues that religion has no place in the Brave New World. Religion, he argues, is necessary for people in a society where they are faced with deprivation, poverty, and death in circumstances beyond their control. However, in BNW the citizens are provided with physical comforts and are conditioned to accept euthanization. Therefore, they have no need for religion. Note that Huxley’s imagined world has solved the “problem of happiness.” He asserts “…that is the secret of happiness and virtue – liking what you’ve got to do. All conditioning aims at that: making people like their unescapable social destiny.” With intelligence matched to one’s occupation and the citizens provided with free sex, drugs and recreation, Mond argues that religion is superfluous. He refers to soma as a form of “Christianity without tears.”
Mond also argues that community and stability are superior to freedom and suffering. He claims that fine literature must be sacrificed, since it would cause people to become dissatisfied and thus introduce instability into society. Mond defends the “inhuman” actions where intelligence is regulated at the fetal stage and where infants are subjected to hypnotic conditioning. Mustapha Mond asserts: “The world’s stable now. People are happy; they get what they want and they never want what they can’t get.”
John, on the other hand, argues that pain and suffering are essential ingredients of a truly human society. He states that the New World culture, with its casual sex and drugs, is trivial and sub-human. He maintains that confronting suffering and pain will lead to a noble human life. Here, Huxley sets up a dichotomy: one either has to choose a stable society free from pain and suffering by resorting to “degrading” treatment of individuals; or one can choose our current society where citizens are “free,” but they experience pain and suffering.
Eventually, John retreats to an abandoned lighthouse on the outskirts of London. There, he seeks atonement. From his experiences living amongst the Native Americans, and his reading of Shakespeare, he tries to atone for his treatment of Lenina and for the death of his mother. He fasts and whips himself. But because of his recent celebrity, reporters and curious onlookers converge on the lighthouse. Lenina, who still harbors feelings of love toward John, accompanies the crowd; but John attacks Lenina with his whip. This causes a riot to break out; the riot eventually turns into an orgy that John takes part in. The next morning, when John awakens and realizes what he has done, he is overcome with despair, and he hangs himself.
Huxley’s vision of the future is quite astonishing, and we need to consider the fact that it was written in 1932. At that time, although JBS Haldane had coined the term cloning, no one had ever cloned an animal. But Huxley describes in great detail how individuals might be cloned (perhaps more precisely, “twinned”), and he describes a situation where this process has been converted into an assembly-line operation, churning out millions of similarly endowed individuals in sets of multiplets involving up to 96 siblings with identical genes. In fact, Huxley even anticipated chemical techniques that could affect the development of a fetus. As we will see in the next section, such techniques have been discovered only in the past decade.
In addition, Huxley had brilliant insights about sex and reproduction. Although birth-control pills would not be developed for another 20 years, Huxley presents a world where women carry birth-control pills around with them. Birth control has allowed us to have some separation between sex and reproduction, which was not reliably present in Western society at that time. In addition, Huxley imagines a psychoactive drug called soma that would relax people and remove their cares. Huxley would later experiment with psychedelic drugs and would study indigenous cultures that used substances such as mescaline and psilocybin in spiritual practices. Once again, he was far ahead of his contemporaries in his purposeful study of Eastern cultures and mind-expanding drugs.
Because Western society was so unfamiliar with the vision presented by Huxley, it may not be surprising that a novel now considered one of the greatest of all time received many dismissive reviews when it was first issued. Perhaps the most striking review was from the New Statesman and Nation, whose reviewer said “This squib about the future is a thin little joke … the fact is that Mr. Huxley does not really care for the story – the idea alone excites him … There are not surprises in it; and if he had no surprises to give us, why should Mr. Huxley have turned this essay in indignation into a novel?” No surprises in the book?? What was the reviewer thinking?
Other reviewers were put off by Huxley’s emphasis on sex and drugs. The idea of sex being treated as a recreational activity seemed shocking and immoral to some reviewers of the book. In similar fashion, the casual use of drugs in the novel was seen as irresponsible. As a result, it is not surprising that Brave New World was frequently banned when British or American protesters attempted to restrict the use of “anti-social” literature. Efforts were made to remove Huxley’s book from libraries or from public school curricula. It is perhaps more surprising that Brave New World is still the subject of attempts to ban it in U.S. schools and libraries even today.
Brave New World and Nineteen Eighty Four continue to be among the most-cited dystopian novels of our past century. In fact, after Nineteen Eighty Four was published in 1948, Aldous Huxley wrote a letter to George Orwell. He began by praising Orwell’s vision. “I need not to tell you, yet once more, how fine and profoundly important the book is.” But Huxley then contrasted Orwell’s future vision with his own from BNW. “The philosophy of the ruling majority in Nineteen Eighty Four is a sadism which has been carried to its logical conclusion by going beyond sex and denying it. Whether in actual fact the policy of the boot-on-the-face can go on indefinitely seems doubtful. My own belief is that the ruling oligarchy will find less arduous and wasteful ways of governing and of satisfying its lust for power; and those ways will resemble those which I described in Brave New World.” The reader can choose whether they find Orwell’s or Huxley’s description of a future dystopia more likely.
Critic Neil Postman provided an insightful comparison between the dystopias of George Orwell’s and Aldous Huxley’s novels. Postman wrote: “What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture. In 1984, Huxley added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.”
Brave New World in American culture:
Aldous Huxley’s interest in psychoactive drugs pre-dated the explosion of the drug culture in the 1960s. His 1954 book The Doors of Perception described his experiences with psychoactive drugs such as mescaline and psilocybin. In 1960, when Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert began research on psychedelics with the Harvard Psilocybin Project, Huxley was on the board of that project.
My colleague John Woodcock argues that Huxley’s experiences with both Eastern mysticism and psychoactive drugs makes him a person who “broke through to the other side.” On that topic, here is the 60s rock group The Doors performing their song “Break On Through To the Other Side.” This took place at the Isle of Wight Festival in 1970.
Apart from the subject matter that ties the Doors to Aldous Huxley, there is another fascinating link between the rock group and the author. The Doors took the name of their band from Aldous Huxley’s book The Doors of Perception. And the title of Huxley’s book is taken from the 1793 book The Marriage of Heaven and Hell by mystical poet and artist William Blake. Huxley wrote a second book on psychedelic drugs called Heaven and Hell, once again taking his title from Blake’s book.
Brave New World, 2021:
One of the most striking features of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World is his description of children being produced by a process that produces numerous identical offspring (as we have described earlier, we will call Huxley’s process “twinning,” to distinguish it from the modern process called cloning). In Huxley’s novel, fetal development is controlled by the application of chemicals to the fetus. This is just one example of Huxley’s genius in being able to foresee the future. In 1932, when Huxley wrote BNW, the idea of cloning had been first broached by JBS Haldane. However, at that time no one had ever cloned an animal. Furthermore, Huxley came up with the idea of chemically altering the human germline decades before the double helix structure of DNA had been discovered, and a half century before the Human Genome Project to map out the complete structure of the human genome.
It is even more remarkable that new techniques to manipulate the structure of RNA and DNA were discovered some 70 years after the publication of Brave New World. These come under the heading of CRISPR, an acronym for “Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats.” Our blog site contains articles on gene drives and on the “CRISPR arms race” to exploit the possibilities that CRISPR provides for manipulating genes. (We repeat some sections of the latter post below to clarify the discussion.) In Brave New World some genetic predisposition of embryos toward the intended caste is presumably ensured by selective breeding, i.e., by combining sperm and egg cells contributed by members of the appropriate caste. But in today’s brave new world, genetic predispositions can also be engineered in principle via CRISPR editing of the sperm or egg cells or of the resulting embryonic genome. In this sense, modern biotechnology is making some version of Huxley’s vision even more realizable.
CRISPR was first discovered in genomic studies of bacteria and single-celled organisms known as archaea. Genomes of these organisms were found to have clusters of repeated DNA sequences separated by short DNA segments called spacers. The spacers were found to match DNA sequences found in certain viruses. Bacteria that contained CRISPR sequences with spacers which matched genomic segments in a particular virus were found to be immune to infection by that virus. It was further realized that the acquisition of particular spacers by bacteria and their effectiveness in resisting viral infections relied critically on an enzyme protein, Cas9. When Cas9 was removed from the bacterial DNA, the resistance to viral infection was lost.
These discoveries led to a race to understand the detailed structure of the CRISPR complex, the mechanism by which it could disable invading viruses, and if these techniques could be expanded to human cells. Crucial advances were made by researchers Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier. It was known that the Cas9 protein served as the “molecular scissors” that cleaved the genetic material of an invading virus. Charpentier found that a small segment of RNA, known as CRISPR RNA (crRNA) matching one part of an invading virus’ DNA, “guided” the Cas9 to cut at the desired location within the viral genome. Together with Doudna, Charpentier showed that another critical piece of the complex was a second RNA section, trans-activating CRISPR RNA (tracrRNA), which assembled the crRNA and also served as a kind of handle that supported the entire complex as it latched onto the invading virus. The crRNA could then direct the Cas9 to cut the viral genome at the desired location.
Charpentier and Doudna published their results in 2012. At the same time, they realized that their discovery offered wide-ranging, revolutionary possibilities for manipulating genes. In particular, they recognized that they could use the CRISPR-Cas9 assembly methods for other purposes. They could program a different crRNA, so that it would cut any different DNA sequence at a desired location. Furthermore, Doudna’s group were able to engineer a single RNA molecule, called single-guide RNA (sgRNA) that combined the functions of crRNA and tracrRNA. Finally, they noted that the CRISPR-Cas9 complex with a tailored sgRNA would be a powerful and easily applicable alternative to existing gene-editing techniques in humans.
For their contributions, Doudna and Charpentier shared the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry “For the development of a method for genome-editing … This technology has had a revolutionary impact on the life sciences, is contributing to new cancer therapies and may make the dream of curing inherited diseases come true.” However, their initial experiments had been on bacteria. It remained to be demonstrated that the CRISPR techniques could work on targeted human cells. Within the next year, several different groups had been able to extend the CRISPR methods to human cells. A schematic of the technique is shown in Fig. II.8. The Cas9 protein cleaves a double-strand break at both ends of a targeted DNA section. The break is then repaired in one of two ways: either the two ends are joined, “knocking out” a gene; or a nearby DNA segment is copied to “replace” the knocked-out gene.
DNA editing by CRISPR techniques has opened up a vast set of possibilities for human gene editing. One example would be to make changes in somatic cells that are not involved in reproduction. For example, one could imagine treating an individual with sickle-cell disease. This disease results from a genetic mutation that leads to a distortion in the shape of red blood cells in the body. One could treat this by extracting blood stem cells, editing the cells, and re-injecting the edited cells so that the body would then produce healthy hemoglobin. As somatic cells are not involved in reproduction, the individual would benefit from the treatment, but the benefit would not be passed on to future generations.
Editing of germline cells, on the other hand, can produce changes that would be passed down to all descendants. Thus germline editing has the potential to eliminate a genetic defect that would cause disease from an entire line of descendants. This opens up incredibly powerful possibilities. One could imagine eliminating entire classes of human diseases. One could also imagine germline editing that might, for example, make mosquitoes that cause malaria sterile, so that they could not reproduce. Or one could utilize these techniques to produce new drought-resistant crops, or healthier and stronger livestock.
At the same time, the powerful possibilities of germline editing could also be applied in ways that appear dangerous. One could use these techniques to introduce desired “enhancements” in humans. For example, one could alter genes to produce “CRISPR babies” with increased strength or intelligence; or one could produce children all of whom had blond hair and blue eyes. This is not necessarily mere speculation – there are persistent rumors that the Chinese are currently working on an “enhancement” program that could produce a generation of soldiers with increased strength and resistance to pain.
Also, at present gene editing is not sufficiently precise to eliminate the possibility that unplanned off-target DNA modifications might introduce adverse side effects. As we will see below, the one CRISPR gene-editing experiment we know of that was performed on humans gave rise to some unplanned “off-target” genetic effects. In the course of eliminating some unwanted genetic defects, we can readily imagine that one might introduce new genetic disorders in the process.
Furthermore, it is unlikely that germline editing would be available to everyone, so it would not be a case of the entire species undergoing accelerated evolution. The price of such editing and in vitro fertilization procedures would mean that it is the prosperous or the military, or other classes useful to governments, who get “enhanced,” not poor or middle-class citizens. Also, note that these editing techniques could also be used to produce offspring with diminished capabilities. This brings us back to our experience with eugenics, where some citizens were involuntarily sterilized under state laws that discriminated against the poor or impaired. And it should be obvious that this raises a host of thorny ethical and regulatory issues nearly identical to those portrayed in Huxley’s Brave New World.
The issues surrounding human germline editing make it clear that regulation is necessary. Apart from the scientific consensus supporting “defining a responsible pathway for clinical use of heritable human genome editing” when it is deemed to be both safe and medically necessary, there is not yet much in the way of international regulatory guidance. These are not just hypothetical questions, as we already have at least one example of the use of CRISPR techniques in humans.
Chinese researchers had carried out tests of human germline editing; however, they restricted themselves to research on non-viable embryos. But in 2018, Chinese researcher He Jiankui announced that he had successfully produced two “CRISPR babies,” whose germlines had been edited using these techniques. Jiankui had recruited Chinese couples with a husband who tested positive for the HIV virus and a wife who was HIV-negative. Jiankui removed the HIV virus from sperm cells donated by the husband, and then edited fertilized eggs from the mother after they were fertilized in vitro by the cleaned sperm. The CRISPR editing targeted and removed the CCR5 gene that serves as a receptor for the HIV virus. Jiankui’s goal was to produce offspring that would not be susceptible to HIV infection.
The edited, fertilized eggs were then implanted in the mother. The procedure resulted in the birth of twin girls. In one of the twins the edits had affected only one of her two chromosomes, so her body was still capable of producing the CCR5 protein. Furthermore, in both girls there were undesired “off-target edits,” and also some unedited cells. Apparently, He Jiankui believed that he would be hailed as a national hero in China for this feat. But his work violated a Chinese regulation against germline genome editing in humans.
As a result, He was prosecuted for violating this law. The Chinese court declared “In order to pursue fame and profit, [he] deliberately violated the relevant national regulations and crossed the bottom lines of scientific and medical ethics.” In Dec. 2019, He Jiankui was sentenced to three years in prison, fined $430,000 and banned for life from working in reproductive science.
In the wake of the He Jiankui “CRISPR babies” announcement, the World Health Organization established a commission to look into creating a global regulatory framework for germline editing. As Christiane Woopen, chair of the European Group on Ethics in Science and New Technologies (EGE) puts it: “But (with CRISPR technology), it would be good to have [global regulations providing] assurance that no one country will step ahead and create gene edited human embryos for reproduction. But I can’t see this happening yet. At least there is the WHO expert panel developing international governance.”
Around the world, there is a patchwork of regulatory policies regarding human genome editing. Ethical quandaries and cultural differences abound in any discussion of potential regulations on gene-editing in humans. Is it even possible to make a clean distinction between therapeutic and enhancement purposes? Can different groups agree about conditions to be considered as genetic disorders for therapeutic treatment? The ethical situation is complicated by the currently available in vitro fertilization approach of preimplantation genetic diagnosis. In this technique couples who produce multiple fertilized eggs can choose which one(s) to implant in the womb, discarding the rest, based on their preferences among genetic characteristics of the various embryos. Is germline editing, whether for therapy or enhancement, a radical step beyond this technique already in use? In other words, is human choice among random chromosomal pairings OK, while engineering to impose such preferences in the genome of embryos is not OK?
It is not exactly the future Huxley envisioned, but we are clearly on the threshold of a “brave new world” where we are confronted by serious ethical questions. And the aggressive funding of CRISPR research by military and defense organizations in several countries may force us to accelerate our learning curve.