A really weird story from the field of science (?) came out of a Sixty Minutes segment on CBS that was making the rounds this weekend. It dealt with Harvard geneticist George Church. He’s working on a project that proposes to “make humans immune to all viruses, eliminate genetic diseases and reverse the aging process.”
Ambitious but admirable, right? I mean, he’s talking about the long-sought but previously thought impossible cure for the common cold, along with all other viral diseases. And who wouldn’t want to get rid of genetic diseases so babies are born healthy? Granted, reversing the aging process might be problematic because of concerns over a population explosion or an elite upper caste of immortals if it’s not available to everyone. But still fascinating.
So what’s the problem? (You knew I wouldn’t be covering this for you unless there was a problem, right?) As it turns out, Dr. Church has been using the fruits of his genetic research to spin off some side projects. And one of them is a dating app for people to meet each other and hook up with the perfect partner based on a particular parameter. That would be – you guessed it – genetic compatibility geared toward ensuring that your children won’t have any genetic diseases.
Church is a role model for the next generation. He has co-founded more than 35 startups. Recently, investors put $100 million into the pig organ work. Another Church startup is a dating app that compares DNA and screens out matches that would result in a child with an inherited disease.
George Church: You wouldn’t find out who you’re not compatible with. You’ll just find out who you are compatible with.
Scott Pelley: You’re suggesting that if everyone has their genome sequenced and the correct matches are made, that all of these diseases could be eliminated?
George Church: Right. It’s 7,000 diseases. It’s about 5% of the population. It’s about a trillion dollars a year, worldwide.
If you managed to read that description and not have the word “eugenics” immediately leap to mind, you’re probably not very interested in history. What he’s talking about is a screening process where any prospective spouse out there with a bad genetic marker, no matter how compatible you might be, would be eliminated from contention. You would only be offered a choice of partners with the right DNA mix to assure that your kids didn’t inherit any genetic anomalies.
If Church was working on some sort of vaccination that everyone could be given that would eliminate the problematic genetic flaws and the resulting diseases would be wiped out in the following generation, I’d probably be okay with it. I say “probably” because, frankly, I still get very nervous about any processes that go messing around with our genetic code. Our genomes are so vastly complicated and this science is still in its relative infancy. I would imagine there are more things that could go wrong than you’d probably care to think about.
But that’s not what Church is talking about with this app. He’s not curing anyone of anything this way. He’s suggesting that we just wipe all of the defectives out of the gene pool. Am I the only one getting images of Hermann Goering flickering through their heads?
I don’t know what to think, really. I suppose if he’s offering this service and people want to partake in it, that’s up to them. At least I can’t imagine any legal barrier to such a plan. But even if I were suddenly young and single again, I don’t think I’d be comfortable limiting my future and my fate in that fashion. We’re imperfect beings and some of us have a few bum strands of genetic material built into our system. That doesn’t mean those people don’t deserve the chance to fall in love and start a family.
Perhaps Mr. Church could better spend his time working on a cure for everyone, as I mentioned above, rather than trying to simultaneously play both Cupid and Margaret Sanger.