Altered Inheritance: CRISPR and the Ethics of Human Genome Editing, by Françoise Baylis. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2019, 304 pages, $24.95.

The Code Breaker: Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing, and the Future of the Human Race, by Walter Isaacson. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2021, 560 pages, $35.00.

Hacking Darwin: Genetic Engineering and the Future of Humanity, by Jamie Metzl. Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks, 2019, 352 pages, $16.99.

The past few decades have witnessed astounding advances in understanding human physical nature. Scientists have mapped the human genome and learned how to edit human genes. This has already raised weighty and unprecedented moral issues, and more will follow. Many Christians are still only vaguely aware of all this.

The three books under consideration describe the dawning genetic revolution and grapple with the future it portends and the ethical problems it presents—although none of them from a Christian perspective. I will first introduce some historical background, then offer brief evaluation of each book, and finally reflect on some of the pertinent moral and theological issues that Reformed Christians would do well to consider as they prepare to engage these matters wisely.

The Genetic Revolution

The (independent) work of Charles Darwin and Gregor Mendel in the mid-nineteenth century is probably the best place to begin the history of the genetic revolution. (It is interesting that Darwin once studied for the Anglican ministry, and Mendel was an Augustinian monk.) Darwin theorized that all life on earth developed from common ancestors through random mutations and natural selection. But he did not know how hereditary traits are passed down from generation to generation. Mendel did groundbreaking research on what would later be called “genes,” although his work remained obscure until after his death. Although Christians must reject what might be called a materialist Darwinian worldview, it is clearly true that living creatures have genes and that genetic mutations produce biological changes over time.

Another crucial step in the history was James Watson’s and Francis Crick’s monumental mid-twentieth-century discovery that the structure of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) is a double helix. DNA encodes instructions for building all sorts of cells. Watson was also a crucial figure in the beginnings of the Human Genome Project of the late-twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, which mapped and sequenced all human genes.

Subsequent events bring us to the main concerns of the books under review. A number of researchers worldwide turned their attention to ribonucleic acid (RNA), which carries out the instructions encoded in the DNA. Their work led to the development, in 2012, of a gene-editing tool known by the acronym CRISPR (“clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats”). In this editing process, a single-strand RNA (the CRISPR) guides a Cas9 enzyme to a particular place in the genome, and this enzyme cuts the targeted strands of DNA. The DNA then seeks to repair itself, a process scientists can exploit to insert new code and change the DNA sequence. In the decade since, researchers have been applying this gene-editing technology to curing genetic diseases, developing better cancer treatments, and improving vaccines. Many people are dreaming of other ways to use it to improve human health, customize our descendants’ genetic inheritance in the process of human reproduction, and enhance human capabilities. Many also worry about the consequences. This brings us to the three books.

Recent Genetic-Engineering Literature

If I had to recommend just one of these books, it would be Walter Isaacson’s The Code Breaker. It is primarily a biography of Jennifer Doudna, professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and co-recipient of the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for her role in developing the CRISPR technology. Isaacson is one of the world’s most accomplished biographers, and he writes a clear, engaging, and informative study. Along the way, readers learn a lot of science, meet many of Doudna’s collaborators and competitors, witness battles over patents, prizes, and glory, and confront many of the pressing ethical issues. It is a good read.

Isaacson tries to keep an objective voice as he describes the exploits of Doudna and her frenemies in the international scientific community, and he largely succeeds. His book is not a hagiography, but he clearly admires Doudna. Accordingly, his moral judgments seem to track hers. Doudna is among the scientific elite who are fairly optimistic about the future and opposed to severe restrictions upon genetic-engineering research at the hands of governments or scientific ethics boards. Isaacson concurs: “I now see the promise of CRISPR more clearly than the peril. … All creatures large and small use whatever tricks they can to survive, and so should we” (480).

Françoise Baylis’s Altered Inheritance is a much slimmer volume which lacks the historical and biographical material. Baylis, a Canadian philosopher and bioethicist, provides some helpful description of the science behind gene editing but focuses primarily on the moral and public-policy issues it provokes. She aims to write an accessible book that will educate the public on this new technology and empower them to participate in coming debates about how to regulate it.

Like Isaacson, Baylis tries to maintain an objective voice. She regularly identifies the principle lines of ethical debates and describes both sides of the arguments. But her own inclinations seem to be consistently on the progressive left. She dreams of a world “where everyone matters,” without “unfair class divisions,” and with plenty of diversity, “solidarity,” and “social justice” (e.g., 8, 124, 220–21). These inclinations lead her, not necessarily predictably, to be warier of the future than Isaacson. She calls for a moratorium on germline editing (that is, edits that future generations will inherit), something Doudna has resisted. Although she is open to it in the future, she professes to have “a number of worries about its possible use” (65).

Jamie Metzl’s Hacking Darwin is an eyebrow-raising volume in several respects. Metzl admires and promotes himself throughout the work. He lets us know that his first book was “important” (though largely unread) (xviii), and he frequently mentions prestigious events where he spoke, prestigious groups he belongs to, and prestigious people with whom he collaborates. He even includes an interview with himself as an appendix. Metzl is also a “futurist,” which explains why he makes many confident assertions about what coming decades hold. (Alas, they include no insight on the financial markets.) He foresees a future of virtually unstoppable advances in genetic engineering. Healthcare, human reproduction, sports, war, and many other things will be radically different from today’s versions.

If Baylis’s work has a somewhat pessimistic aura, Metzl is, as he writes, “a technology optimist to my core” (xix). Although he disagrees with libertarians and transhumanists who want genetic researchers and entrepreneurs to have an absolutely free rein, Metzl believes the genetic revolution will only gain momentum. He advocates the development of “smart international regulation” (267) and “a globally harmonized regulatory structure” (269) akin to the international regulation of nuclear weapons, which has not been perfect but has prevented mass destruction.

Theological and Ethical Reflections

These books contain nearly one thousand total pages, and they raise a multitude of weighty issues. This review cannot be comprehensive, but this final section offers a few reflections on some important matters.

I first observe an interesting difference between the old theological liberalism that has challenged orthodox Christianity over the past two centuries and the ideology of the new genetic revolution. Theological liberalism is fundamentally Pelagian, rejecting the classical Christian belief that there is something deeply wrong with our human nature. Genetic revolutionists, in contrast, are motivated by the conviction that human nature is terribly flawed. They remind us of how many ways our bodies and minds fail us because of our genes and what misery this brings to so many. Reformed Christians might derive small satisfaction from this recognition that human woes are rooted in the deepest core of our being. Yet the old liberals and the genetic revolutionists are not so different in another important sense: both think that if we are persistent and careful enough, we can solve our own problems. Genetic revolutionists may think that our problem extends all the way to our genes, but human ingenuity has now found ways to edit them. It is a previously unimaginable form of neo-Pelagian self-salvation. Another similarity between the old liberalism and the genetic revolution also bears mention: both offer only an immanent, this-worldly hope. Metzl speaks of humans’ unquenchable desire for immortality (140)—also an unintentional confirmation of classical Christian belief—but the best prospect that even he sees is a considerably extended lifespan for future generations.

In short, genetic revolutionists tell us that our human problem is deeper than imagined, but now we understand not only how deep it is but also how to start fixing it—so that generations of people we will never meet will have healthier and longer lives with higher intelligence, better eyesight, and the like, provided that we do not create a dystopia instead. It is not much consolation for miserable people here and now. Even the best-case scenario makes for a pitiful gospel.

Related to this is the whole issue of human nature. Metzl claims that the “genetics, biotechnology, and longevity revolutions will challenge our current conceptions of what it means to be human beings” (171). That much is surely correct. For Christianity, there is something truly at stake in the idea of human nature. For the genetic revolution, however, human nature exists in a sense, but it is merely the product of innumerable random mutations over millions of years. Human nature may be fascinating, but it is not special. And if human nature is indeed just a blip on the screen of cosmic chance, there is no principial reason not to try to make improvements to it. Evolutionary forces will change it eventually anyway, so why not take whatever control of it we can? For Christianity, in contrast, God made humans uniquely in his own image, God’s Son took on human nature and was resurrected with a glorified human body, and his people will be raised and glorified one day with the same human nature as Christ’s. Christianity promises a truly human salvation. It offers not an escape from human nature to something else a little better but a perfectly blessed eschatological human existence.

I mention these theological issues first because they put the ethical issues in perspective. As serious as many particular ethical issues are which the genetic revolution raises, the most important things for Christians to keep before them is that we cannot save ourselves and that our hope is certain, eschatological, and fully human. We, our children, and grandchildren will surely benefit from precision medicine and other benevolent products of the new genetic science, and we should have a degree of concern about its great potential for abuse, but Christians should not be too exercised about this uncertain future. At its best, it is a pale comparison to our glorious Christian hope. At its worst, it is one more chapter in the long human history of hubris and rebellion, which God will bring to judgment one day.

When it comes to the ethics, it is also worth noting how difficult, even impossible, it is for our three authors to develop coherent moral arguments. The problem is not just that they ignore Scripture. They also have no teleological anthropology. If humans are simply the product of random mutations over millions of years, then we have no proper functions, purpose, or destiny. And apart from these, there are no truly moral reasons to pursue noble goals in this world or treat each other in benevolent ways. This does not stop our authors from making many moral claims.

Baylis, for example, appeals to a number of (genuine) virtues that ought to guide bioethics (174) and to “values” such as “innovation, responsibility, and accountability” as well as the “common good” (184), but she provides no basis for such appeals.

Metzl’s ethical discussions are particularly difficult to make sense of. He wants us to act “wisely” (176) and to be “mindful” (177) as we head into our inevitable genetically-engineered future, but where such wisdom comes from or of what we are to be mindful remains unclear. He condemns “repulsive” and “pernicious social biases” which tempt us to use gene-editing powers to ensure that our children are not dark-skinned or gay (188–90). Yet given his view of humanity, it is difficult to see why choosing light-skinned, straight children is any worse than choosing taller, faster, or smarter children, which he thinks will be fine when we can do so safely and equitably. In fact, if Metzl really wanted to be bold and consistent, he should probably argue for the abolition of ethics altogether. After delighting in the deconstruction of God, the sacred, cosmic purpose, and much else, Metzl’s dabbling in moral argumentation feels like an unprincipled attempt to stave off the worst implications of his larger philosophy—whether for his own psychological well-being or to appease his audience is not clear.

It is difficult to know how hard to push these points. Christians should remain thankful that God, through his natural law and common grace, continues to reveal his moral will and preserve the testimony of conscience among all human beings. Our authors express concern about the unanticipated harm that gene-editing might do to its recipients, about exacerbation of social inequality as the rich avail themselves of technology that the poor cannot afford, and about increasing lack of human diversity as the multitudes select all the same attractive features for their offspring. They wrestle with whether certain distinctions are morally relevant, such as that between somatic gene editing and germline editing (only the latter is inheritable) or that between treatment/therapy and enhancement. They agonize about the proper power distribution between private parties (i.e., the market) and governments. These are serious issues, and their resolution promises to have profound implications for our societies and cultures in years to come.

Christians too will have to think prudently about them, both for making their own godly decisions about participating in the genetic revolution and for engaging their unbelieving neighbors in intelligible ways. Christians also need to be cognizant of some other moral issues that are perhaps even more important than the above. One is the purpose of sex, in light of the fact that in-vitro fertilization followed by embryo selection (and embryo genetic manipulation) promises to be increasingly common in coming decades. More precisely, Christians need to consider carefully the (multiple) purposes of sex and the interrelation of these purposes.

Another issue is the mass and wanton destruction of human embryos in the development and practice of the genetic revolution, especially when it comes to reproduction. Baylis notes that “there are the thousands (if not tens of thousands) of embryos that will have been destroyed in developing the genome editing technology” (32). And Metzl refers to IVF and embryo selection as “the gateway procedures for heritable human genetic engineering.” These, of course, “nearly always entail the destruction or at least permanent freezing of unimplanted embryos” (215). Mass murder is accompanying and enabling the genetic revolution. While our authors occasionally note that some (religious) people are concerned about this, they themselves think little of it. I must admit that, although I learned many things from these books, their nonchalance about this moral travesty leaves a bitter aftertaste.

David VanDrunen is a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and serves as the Robert B. Strimple professor of Systematic Theology and Christian Ethics at Westminster Seminary California, Escondido, California. Ordained Servant Online, March 2022.

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Ordained Servant: March 2022

Current Issue: Francis Schaeffer—Reformed Evangelist

Also in this issue

Reflections on the Ministry of Francis Schaeffer

An Honest Appreciation of Francis Schaeffer

The Writings of Meredith G. Kline on the Book of Revelation: Chapter 9, God, Heaven and Har Magedon (2006)

Commentary on the Form of Government of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, Chapter 25

The Old Testament Use of the Old Testament: A Review Article

The Cottage by the Bridge by Ivars Fridenvalds

Marred Desires

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