Playing God


I am not alarmed by genetically modified soybeans. There are no movies about giant, mutant legumes attacking Tokyo so I feel safe.

But scientists in China have been up to something that at best sounds a little freaky, and at worst sounds like a blasphemy that will usher in the end of the world.

The controversial research happened at Guangzhou University, where scientists took human embryos and edited their DNA. Like teenagers borrowing the family car, they claimed to be really, really careful. All they did was modify a gene responsible for a potentially fatal blood disorder. Who could complain about that?

They also pointed out that they used a type of embryo that never develops to maturity, so if anyone out there is worrying about them unleashing a mutant human with evil superpowers, you can relax.

But many people refused to relax. In fact, two research journals wouldn’t even publish the Chinese research. The reason for their disapproval is that editing the DNA of an embryo is making a change in the germline—a multicellular organism that can pass on genetic material—therefore affecting the descendants of that human embryo. The consequences for future generations are impossible to anticipate.

Groups of scientists have urged a worldwide moratorium on manipulating the human germline. Says Michael Specter in The New Yorker, “Not since J Robert Oppenheimer realised that the atomic bomb he built to protect the world might actually destroy it have the scientists responsible for a discovery been so leery of using it.”

You may wonder why this concern about playing in the human gene pool has floated to the top of things to worry about, displacing fears of the planet being hit by an asteroid, global warming and male pattern baldness. The reason is a handy new genetic tool called the CRISPR/Cas9, which makes it almost as easy to insert or delete segments of DNA as correcting text on your word processor.

“Now it’s something that someone with a [science degree] and a couple of thousand dollars’ worth of equipment can do,” says Hank Greely, a bioethicist at Stanford University speaking to Wired. “What was impractical is now almost everyday. That’s a big deal.”

The idea of monkeying with the human race has given scientists pause, but they have moved ahead from editing the genes of actual monkeys. Twin monkeys born at a research centre in Nanjing, China, were the first with targeted mutations using CRISPR/Cas9. While these mutations had little practical use, other Chinese scientists have been making genetic changes with economic benefits. Goats have been raised with changes to the genes that affect muscle and hair growth—longer hair means more cashmere to sell, and more muscle means more meat.

Genetic editing has also made a micropig. About the size of a cocker spaniel, the cuddly pigs were originally created for medical research. But they were just too cute and are now being sold in China as pets for around $A2300. As a special bonus you can choose the coat colour and the patterns you want because those can also be genetically manipulated.

What else can gene editing do? Well, Harvard geneticist George Church can’t wait to get genetic material from a frozen woolly mammoth and splice it into an elephant embryo. It may not be as exciting as Jurassic Park, but it’s not as dangerous either.

Seeing a woolly mammoth at the zoo would be cool, but the really impressive possibilities come with treating human diseases. Specter says, “Working mostly with mice, researchers have already deployed the tool to correct the genetic errors responsible for sickle-cell anaemia, muscular dystrophy and the fundamental defect associated with cystic fibrosis. One group has replaced a mutation that causes cataracts; another has destroyed receptors that HIV uses to infiltrate our immune system.”

That’s all great. But what if you’re already in good health? What could gene editing do for you? Science says that with the right edits to our DNA, we could be living a thousand years and stronger muscles are possible. Jennifer Doudna, who co-invented CRISPR/Cas9, points out the incredible possibilities: “Imagine that we could engineer humans who have enhanced properties such as stronger bones. Or even to have properties that we might consider desirable such as a different eye colour or to be taller. Designer humans, if you will.”

And this is where you want to pull back the reins on science and say, “Whoa there, Nelly.” Did she just say “designer humans?” Are we going to be sitting down with an in-vitro fertilisation expert in a few years and ordering up baby options as if we’re taking delivery of a new car? Will there be a sports option if you want the kid to do well in football? Will they offer to edit out dad’s Roman nose for another $500? And maybe they can do something about inheriting mum’s freckles.

Of course, we want genetic enhancement for our own kids, but we don’t want everyone to be able to do it. It’s going to be hard to keep little Jimmy at the top of the class if everyone is slipping hundred-dollar bills to their geneticist to get a higher IQ. The whole thing sounds like a new version of Hitler’s attempt to breed a master race of people who sunburn easily. Are we crossing a moral line? Is this an affront to God? Are we saying, “Good job, Supreme Being, but we’re going to take it from here.”?

Some people wonder if this enthusiasm for genetic engineering is an attempt by humans to gain God-like powers. Is this the work of the Antichrist, who has been predicted will set “himself up in God’s temple, proclaiming himself to be God” (2 Thessalonians 2:4)?

Then there is the giant statue of metals in Daniel 2. As the prophet Daniel describes the giant image of a man that King Nebuchadnezzar has seen in a dream, he comes down to the feet: “And whereas thou sawest iron mixed with miry clay, they shall mingle themselves with the seed of men: but they shall not cleave one to another, even as iron is not mixed with clay” (Daniel 2:43, KJV; italics added). A few students of prophecy see this as a reference to mingling of the DNA of men with other animals. And from the context of the dream, this is something that will happen at the end of time.

But this interpretation is quite a stretch. While the prophecy did relate to events of the end time, there is a more straightforward and widely accepted interpretation—the feet of iron and clay referred to the time when the Roman Empire began to disintegrate and eventually fell to the invasion of barbarian tribes from the north and the east. Europe became a divided continent with a multitude of governments, cultures and languages. From these tribes, the nations of today’s Europe developed, which through the centuries have fiercely resisted all attempts to bring them together again as one great empire.

Prophecy does indicate that we are living in the times just before Jesus’ return to earth to end all pain and suffering, but genetic engineering is not a sign of the times. And while the Bible doesn’t appear to prophesy specifically about genetic engineering, there is a story in Genesis about how God dealt with out-of-control technology. After Noah’s flood, the most powerful people on earth planned to build a skyscraper that could never be covered by water: “Come, let us build ourselves a city,” they said, “with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves” (Genesis 11:4).

God thought they were getting a little big for their boots, so He did one simple thing that brought construction to a complete standstill. He gave different languages to the workmen. Nobody could understand anybody else’s memos and all the workers left to focus on more down-to-earth, individual pursuits.

If we’re going too far in genetic manipulation, God can deal with it. We can be like the citizens of Tokyo in an old Godzilla movie, running through the streets screaming, “What are we going to do about the micropigs? What are we going to do about designer babies?” But in all these situations, God’s message to us is “Trust me. I’m with you until the end of the world” (see Matthew 19:20).

In Psalms 139:13, 14, King David says of God, “You knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” The One who invented genetic engineering is on top of the situation.

To learn more about what the Bible has to say about signs of the end-time, go to

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