Remember When Genes Could Not Be Driven?

Gene driving, or “Operation Mosquito” as it was originally known by insiders, is the changing or elimination of a species by changing its genes. When this technology was first announced, the scientist leading the project used the elimination of mosquitoes as an example of what gene driving could do. This scientist later issued a public apology for the insensitive remark, but mosquitoes said the apology did not go far enough and called for the scientist’s resignation.

I remember when the the New York Times first reported on gene drive technology and that people were worried about the “unintended consequences” of introducing a gene drive into plants or animals.  Unintended consequences?  It’s cute out overcautious we were in those days.  The problem was that the professional worry-warts were just thinking about how introducing gene drives into animals and plants would effect humans.  The moment they started focusing on introducing gene drives in humans directly, people saw the positives of the technology.

The first gene drive introduced into human beings eliminated the habit of sniffling all day instead of blowing the nose. This was revolutionary.  Remember being forced to sit on a bus or plane next to someone who sniffled constantly? That was far worse than mosquitoes.  If you were seated next to a mosquito on a plane, at worst you’d lose a drop of blood and have to share an armrest.

Then scientists genetically eliminated the use of certain annoying phrases like “fair enough” or “at the end of the day” or “it is what it is.”  Communication became much more precise, although there were a number of people who once robbed of their vacuous phrasing had nothing to say.

Politicians, columnists, and writers of science fiction were always broadcasting their deepest fears about using genetics to produce perfect humans. Why did they always focus on the negative? Who was talking about perfect humans? The key was to use gene drive technology to make people a little bit better, like eliminating the desire to talk on your cell phone in public, or to chat with the register clerk at the supermarket when there is a line of people behind you, or the habit of breathing in while taking a bite of hot pizza, so that it sounded like you were slurping the pizza.

And the gene driving of humans did not always need to be negative. The scientists also added positive traits, like making sure that all newborn humans would be genetically driven to respond to Facebook direct messages within 24 hours and call their mothers at least once a week.

The issue was not too much gene driving, but too little. There were so many changes that could be made – so much room for improvement – and still leave us far, far away from the race of unloving super humans that Hollywood had fraudulently led us to believe would result. Like eliminating the habit of dance party disc jockeys who played “Livin’ on a Prayer” and then at the refrain turning the music off so that instead of Bon Jovi singing we hear just the other drunken guests. Or making sure that everyone has the gene of taking the shopping cart back to the the little shopping cart island shelter instead of just leaving it there in the parking lot next to the space your car just occupied.  Did Hollywood ever make a movie about a race of super humans who return shopping carts?  No – they would not waste studio time on the truth.

Recently, though, someone has suggested that they introduce a gene drive that eliminates the motivation to publish on the internet one’s own half-baked opinions of the world.  That clearly is going too far. We must learn to respect our own limitations. There are certain powers that humans simply should not have.