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Podcast Review: Humanity's Awesome, Terrifying Take-Over of Evolution

10 May 2021
Appeared in BioNews 1094

This is something of a meta-review, it would seem, as the podcast I'm reviewing here is purportedly a review of a book. But in reality it is primarily a gently meandering discussion, of almost an hour, between Ezra Klein, prolific podcaster and new wave journalist, and author Walter Isaacson, a giant of journalism whose accolades include, amongst other things, being editor of Time magazine and head of CNN.

It is also, confusingly, titled twice: on Apple's distribution service, it goes by 'Humanity's Awesome, Terrifying Take-Over of Evolution', but on Spotify's podcast platform, it goes by the tagline 'Should We Edit Our Children's Genes? Would It Be Cruel Not To?'. Spotify's title is far more accurate to the source and nature of the hour-long conversation at hand. During this time, they primarily consider CRISPR and its implications for society. The content is far from the sensationalist exposé suggested by Apple, but instead a nuanced discussion between two well-informed journalists, clearly both possessing a deep interest in the subject. 

Klein is speaking to Isaacson primarily because he has recently authored a book titled 'The Code Breaker: Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing, and the Future of the Human Race', a biography, but not really of Professor Doudna, but instead CRISPR itself. It is part of a large back-catalogue of popular science titles by Isaacson, covering Einstein, Da Vinci, and the internet. No knowledge of the book in question is necessary to enjoy the podcast. In fact, it is hardly covered or referenced to at all, at least directly. Instead it forms the backbone of a standalone discussion. 

They begin in familiar territory: how CRISPR works, and where it is currently actively being used. Here I find their explanations and use of metaphors muddled, particularly their comparison with COVID-19 vaccine technologies. I understand the logic of using these as a jumping off point for lay audiences, but here it seems to fall flat as a useful explanative tool. I suspect that those listening without much biological background might be at risk of conflating the two distinct technologies.

At this point I will say that this initial 15 minutes or so of the podcast may not be of much interest to the BioNews readership. I suspect many of you are probably well-informed about CRISPR by now and may find this an un-useful re-hash of the basics. While I would like to say that those who aren't should persist with this section, I feel the explanations given are somewhat confusing and other documentaries, (see BioNews 1036) better capture and inform about CRISPR's underlying science.

The second half of the podcast, however, is far more worthwhile, as Klein and Isaacson explore the bioethics of CRISPR. They toy with several ideas, from the practical question of whether we can even cure genetic diseases, to the ethical question of whether we should. Much time is spent exploring the morality surrounding using CRISPR for human improvement as well as treatment. This is familiar territory, but I feel Isaacson and Klein are deft and insightful rather than clunky and muddled, and their broad, journalistic viewpoint comes into its own. 

While listening, I do find myself feeling that Isaacson is perhaps a little too optimistic about what CRISPR could potentially achieve in the not-too distant future – such as, 'faster firing neurons' and 'better memories within 25 years' (ethical considerations aside). I feel both men perhaps miss that the reality of working with biological systems is intensely complex, and that once we move from simple reversal of single bases in the genetic code then the unpredictability of systems may prove to be stymieing. But this is a small criticism, and as a biologist I likely tend too hard towards the pessimistic and skeptical regarding the reality and limitations of implanting biological technologies. You may just as well approach the subject with this same optimism as Isaacson.

The conversation in the podcast peaks for me in the final 20 minutes or so, which forms a cautiously optimistic consideration of CRISPR's place in a capitalist system. Their views on regulation through policy, and current examples of successes in other fields, such as distribution of COVID-19 vaccines give me hope that CRISPR can be implemented responsibly. While in previous segments I found Isaacson's optimism cloying, here I find it infectious. It provides a refreshing counterpoint to a debate that can often be dominated by more negative voices.

Much of the conversation had in this hour-long podcast is not new, and covers familiar ground explored in other media. But this debate is important and one that requires the consideration of many voices. Klein and Isaacson's are certainly valuable contributors here. I would cautiously recommend this as a listen for BioNews readers. The second half of the podcast is very worthwhile, but if you are time poor, or your commute is short, skip the first fifteen minutes.

Humanity's Awesome, Terrifying Take-Over of Evolution
New York Times |  2 April 2021
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