George Church is a smart and interesting guy, and now he’s been featured on 60 Minutes. It’s a strange interview, though, and I don’t believe a lot of his claims.
A geneticist at Harvard Medical School is working on a dating app that matches users based on their DNA. The goal: to eliminate all genetic diseases. @60Minutes reports, tonight https://t.co/H3cLE2McsX pic.twitter.com/xEAVrtNFEl
— CBS News (@CBSNews) December 8, 2019
Yeah, right, a dating app based on your genes. I don’t believe it, except as an ambitious eugenics program to give scientists an excuse to do social engineering with fallacious premises. There is such a thing already, as in, for instance, screening in some Jewish communities for lethal alleles; beyond that specific use, though, I don’t see much point in caring about minor variations…unless you want to suppress them. That was only a small part of the program, though, highlighted by CBS because it is so radical and sensational. One thing he does go on at length about is his biomedical goals: “Today, his lab is working to make humans immune to all viruses, eliminate genetic diseases, and reverse the effects of time.”
I have two objections to his dream.
- I think he’s forgotten about this phenomenon called evolution. Viruses are going to be evolving much more rapidly than he can engineer humans; humans are going to mutate faster than he can tweak their genes.
He disregards multifactorial interactions, and seems to think there’s a straightforward linear scale of gene effects that can be optimized. We don’t know whether, for instance, increasing longevity genetically is going to have secondary undesirable genetic effects. It’s definitely going to have horrible effects socially, but those don’t exist in Church’s world.
None of that is an argument for stopping his kind of research, which I think has great benefits as well. I just don’t think he’s very good at thinking outside of an imagined linear progression.
Also troubling was his response to one question. On everything else, he’s glib and confident, and then he got asked about the ethics of accepting money from Jeffrey Epstein…and suddenly he’s hesitating and stammering and clearly trying to think of a way out of this question. His answer is that he can’t be expected to screen donors that rigorously, and that tainted money can be used for good ends, as, for instance, the way tobacco money was used to sponsor legitimate research.
Does he stop to consider that there’s a problem in a system that allows large corporations to thrive on lies and addicting innocent people to dangerous chemicals, and that maybe such organizations are not the best to control what sciences get funding? No.
His is a lab that thrives on huge donations from extremely wealthy people, and getting featured on 60 Minutes is going to raise his profile and probably bring in more donations from extremely wealthy people. That ought to be raising all kinds of concerns about the nature of a system that relies on excesses of wealth in certain classes of people who then have the privilege of distributing some of that wealth in a pattern of personal patronage. That he is the current recipient of such largesse apparently makes it impossible for him to see the flaws in that system.