How Much Free Will Do You Really Want?
What CRISPR has wrought
My mom used to give me a hard time because I was a prodigiously bad decision maker as a child. I could be paralyzed by whether to go play soccer or venture down to the creek behind the house. I can still see her shaking her head, a wry smile on her face, “Oh, Adam …” It was a bit ironic because the basic problem I had I inherited from her. She had an uncanny ability to see the good on both sides of everything.
It got so bad for me that I took a class in high school: Decision Making 101. Yes, it is absurd there was such a class. Had they known, taxpayers would have been outraged. All I remember from it was making long lists of pros and cons for whatever decision we were presented with. Then we got to the decision point where we had to make a leap, this way or that way. And after a semester of making lists, it was no different from before; both leaps looked pretty good to me.
I do remember the rubric of the class though: Decisions were considered good or bad depending only on whether you had enumerated all of the pros and cons at the time of the decision. By contrast, most people in the real world consider decisions good when they get good outcomes, which come long after the decision point. We want prescience, sure things, a fixed table. But the reality is decisions are an exercise in probability. The whole point is that you don’t have perfect information about the future.
Even though the stakes get higher, decisions, in a way, get easier as we age. As we become adults, our decisions are no longer made in a vacuum. Most of them are made in reaction to some driving force: circumstances or time. I did this because of that. If I hadn’t decided this, that would have happened. Our decisions are free to an extent, but there is usually a condition that frames your choice, steers it, stacks the probabilities, and, in a sense, makes it easier to move one way or the other.
But what if you had more—maybe even absolute—choice? What if your decisions were made in a vacuum, if just about any outcome was possible and certain?
I recently read a book by Walter Isaacson on gene editing, a technology dubbed CRISPR, which is a biochemist’s convoluted acronym for a complex process bacteria developed over three billion years to fight off viruses. The book, titled “The Code Breaker,” centers on Jennifer Doudna and a handful of other scientists who discovered a defense mechanism bacteria evolved to recognize and destroy invading viruses.
We tend to think of viruses—like the COVID-19 virus—as being just our problem, but they have been attacking other life forms, like bacteria, since the beginning.
Bacteria have been evolving for 3.5 billion years. Humans have been evolving for 2.4 million years. To put that in perspective, think about going back in time for all of human evolution— from homo sapiens (us) back to homo habilis, 4-foot versions of us using stones to cut things. Then do that a thousand more times and you get to the point at which bacteria appeared on the planet. That’s a lot of time to evolve, and, it seems, they used their time well.
Viruses are much simpler organisms than bacteria; they are little more than packages of genetic material—DNA or its cousin molecule, RNA. Still, they have learned to survive all this time. A virus’s sole mission is to inject itself into a living cell—whether bacteria, human, or other animal—hijack the cellular machinery of its target and replicate itself, sometimes killing the host cell in the process.
While scientists debate whether the virus or bacteria came first, safe to say, bacteria have been dealing with invading viruses for billions of years. So, when a virus invades a cell of bacteria, the bacteria takes note. It sends a specific enzyme (called Cas1) to chemically snip out a section of the invading virus’s DNA. It then chemically pastes the snippet of the virus’s DNA into its own DNA. In effect, it has taken a mugshot of a bad guy. What’s more, the bacteria will make a copy of that snippet (called crRNA), which then functions like a “guide,” or detective in this analogy, circulating in the cell looking for that particular virus. The next time a virus with that unique DNA signature injects itself into the bacteria, the bacteria recognizes the invader and sends a different enzyme (called Cas9) to chemically eviscerate the virus’s DNA, in effect ending the threat. It is a system in which the bacteria can remember a bad guy, then identify and destroy a bad guy—basically what we would call an immune system.
Over the course of about 15 years, Doudna and a colleague, Emmanuelle Charpentier, discovered how all of this works. They won the Nobel Prize in 2020 for their discoveries.
Researchers soon realized that they could also manipulate the “guide” molecule to find whatever stretch of DNA they wanted and cleave it off. They could then insert in its place a stretch of DNA of their choosing. Suddenly, scientists had a cut and paste system—a way to edit genes in bacteria. It wasn’t long before other scientists—primarily two fellows named Feng Zhang and Eric Church—figured out you could do the same in a human cell.
What are the implications of that?
The first implication is that a whole host of genetic diseases—cystic fibrosis, for example—could now be edited out of an embryo. The gene that causes this horrific disease would never appear again in the lineage of that embryo. If every family with the cystic fibrosis gene underwent this therapy, the disease would be eliminated from the human genome forever (or, at least, until a random mutation occurred). Short of that, the defective gene in an individual could be edited so that it functioned normally and he or she could live a normal, long life.
Cystic fibrosis is an easy example. But the world of genetic editing quickly gets complicated, as the distinction between treatment and enhancement gets blurry.
The question becomes: To what extent do our faults—say challenges or even disabilities—engender our strengths? I was never big as a kid, so I never played football. I spent all that time playing soccer and became better at that sport. If I were an uncoordinated soccer player, maybe I would have taken up the violin and become a world-class violinist—highly unlikely, but you get the point.
Isaacson, in “The Code Breaker,” tells the story reported in the Washington Post of a lesbian couple, both of whom were deaf. They wanted to have a deaf child, so they found a deaf sperm donor and subsequently had a deaf child. Was that morally right? Some say yes, some say no. To extend the example, with the help of CRISPR, a deaf couple could decide to edit out the hearing gene of their embryo, soon-to-be child. Is this inflicting a disability on a child or giving them an experience that the parents feel is valuable to their identities and that of their child?
Yet another complication is that many genes code for more than one trait, and those complexities are not fully understood. Some “bad” genes can confer other unrelated but beneficial traits. Sickle cell anemia is an example Isaacson raises. A person can inherit one gene for it—it requires two to develop this particular disease—and won’t get sick. That one gene, though, will give that person an immunity to malaria. That is a benefit; is it a big enough benefit to live with the risk of passing the gene on to a future child who might get a second sickle cell gene from your spouse?
Mental illness provides another conundrum. Though not definitively proven, many mental illnesses are associated with extraordinary creativity. If you knew that causal relationship existed, would you wish it upon your future child? Does society at large want those creative genes in the pool, and does or should society have a say in that?
What about intelligence? To make a sweeping generalization, I bet that most parents would want their kids to be smarter. But how much smarter and in what ways? Some genius kids have a very hard time—socially and culturally—in life. Would you choose that? Should you be able to choose that?
The decisions with CRISPR become almost infinite, and, at this point, they are basically unrestrained by law, convention, or moral guidelines—whether personal or social. This is free will of a different degree and kind. We can only hope that our wisdom has evolved to a degree commensurate with our intelligence.
It makes me think of an unrelated but similar kind of question: If you could choose the day on which you were to die, would you?
I don’t think I could, but then again, I never was good at making decisions.