'The controversial questions that confront us are not for the future; the technology is already at our doorstep,' Kenneth Cukier tells us in a recent episode of the Economist podcast, on 'the genetic revolution'. In this episode, Cukier explores the ways that human genetic testing, selection and genome editing are impacting our present and our future.
Whenever I consume content that discusses biotechnology, I always look for three things: an accurate depiction of the science, a discussion of its ethical implications, and thoughts on how society will change as a result. I was pleased to discover that this podcast covered all of these bases throughout the interviews. We hear from scientists, a philosopher and the writers of both novels and plays. Each interview offers a different take on how genetic testing in humans could benefit or harm society.
The podcast begins with a scientific perspective, starting with interviews from Steven Hsu of the USA-based genetic testing firm Genomic Prediction, and then American futurist author Jamie Metzl. Each discuss the science of these technologies and how they can improve humanity's health and wellbeing.
I was glad that this discussion made a clear distinction between technologies currently in use and what is not possible or permissible at the moment. For instance, we are able to select some traits in future children by screening IVF embryos before implantation, but the newer and more powerful genome editing approaches are not yet widely approved for use in humans, and using them to make heritable changes is illegal in many parts of the world.
The podcast then moves into ethical issues and the potential impact that these technologies could have on society. At this point, the podcast starts to lean into visions of the dystopian, as it questions whether the science is moving too fast, and if we will be able to prevent these technologies from being abused.
The host then interviews Ella Road, writer of the London play, The Phlebotomist, who imagines a future where society is stratified according to a genetic rating. The podcast also featured the reflections of the play-goers, with many discussing how the play's world – where people are separated along genetic lines – was particularly powerful when we consider that these technologies are already here.
Dr Gulzaar Barn, a philosopher from King's College London, aptly explains that ultimately, how these technologies will be used is question of our values, and that some of our current values need to be questioned rather than reinforced. I thought that this was a hugely insightful point. As a listener with a background in bioethics, I was thrilled to hear it being discussed. We may value health and intelligence, which on the surface seems reasonable, but if we start selecting against low IQ (see BioNews 976) or disability (see BioNews 926), what message or impact does this have on society?
I was very pleased by how these topics were addressed by this podcast. The science was clear, the current ethical and social issues of interest were relevant and discussed well, and the benefits of these technologies were considered in addition to the concerns, even if the latter was slightly more of the focus.
This podcast managed to convey a decent amount of information in a short time, and I thought that it was engaging, well-structured and that the content was accessible to an audience who may be new to these topics. I recommend it to anyone who is new to understanding 'the genetic revolution' more so than those who do research in these fields. But either way, the conversations with interviewees from very different backgrounds may still offer a new perspective.