A Few Notes on Tomorrow's Holiday Special with Sci-Fi Writer Kim Stanley Robinson on the Gene Edited Baby Story

Theral Timpson

It was the headline of the decade in genomics. Humans had monkeyed with their own gene pool.

When Chinese scientist He Jiankui came to the podium at the 2nd International Summit on Human Genome Editing in Hong Kong last month, journalist Kevin Davies, author of “The $1,000 Genome” wrote that he hadn’t seen as much press coverage of a genomics event since the announcement of the sequencing of the human genome. Genomics journalists have been in a tailspin.

Not to mention genomics podcasters.

Who could we have on the program here at Mendelspod to talk about such a story?

A scientist?

You mean another voice in the chorus of condemnation? Hasn’t STAT News just about croaked out every crier?

A journalist?

The Times’ Carl Zimmer reminded us of the history of three parent babies. Should we ask on the Genome Whisperer?

How about Antonio Banderas who dragged up the villainous story from the shadows that Sunday evening? Will it be Twitter's own Zorro?

“This story is getting more sci-fi every minute. Michael Crichton couldn’t have made this stuff up.” tweeted Eric Topol of the Scripps Institute when he learned the most outlandish part of the story--that He Jiankui’s PR person was co-author on a scientific paper with Jiankui. (Because that's never happened before in science. Gasp!!!!)

Dr. Topol is right though.  This is a story for the sci-fi writers. But which one? Michael Crichton, the king of gene editing gone wrong didn't bother hanging around long enough to see it working in humans. Like so many sci-fi writers today, he wrote for the kid in us, not the adult.

Who could we talk to that could be a grownup about this? Who could imagine the designer baby story gone right? What if He Jiankui had done a better job? Surely it will be soon someday. And again. And again. Where are we headed? NIH Director Francis Collins says we cannot alter the "essence of humanity." What does that even mean? Is this a Christian view of the genome or a Darwinian view? Who will challenge this thinking? Should we challenge this thinking?

Calling all utopian science fiction writers!!

“Hello Stan, is that you?”

“Hello, Theral, yes it is.”

“Hi, are you out in your garden at your writing desk? Is your Ursula Le Guin rock there next to you?”

“Well, Theral, actually, there was construction on the street. So I’m inside this morning. But, yes, my Ursula K. Le Guin rock is out still out there next to my writing chair.”

It’s Kim Stanley Robinson, author of the Mars Trilogy and such recent novels as New York 2140 and Red Moon. He’s agreed to talk with me for the gene-editing story, and I’m stoked. A sci-fi writer is the one for this interview. Stan will be able to “fly.”

You see, through all the shock, condemnation, and stuttering over the past month about the rogue Chinese scientist, He Jiankui, I’m quite convinced I’ve detected that at least half of the scientists out there are, if not overtly, then secretly thrilled. Have we passed a threshold? Have we crossed a red line? They know that we've come up to what has been a wall called "designer babies" and now, rather than turning back as always before, we're writing on that wall.

One scientist who went through the motions of showing over Twitter that He Jiankui’s own data showed that his experiment failed also ran some fancy statistics showing (scientists are big "show offs") that this mutation had a 15% chance of appearing as a de novo or inherited mutation naturally.

Now how does the utopian sci-fi writer see the designer baby story unfolding?

Well, we were ready for a ride, but we weren't quite ready for this.

Coming tomorrow . . . .