As Gods: A Moral History of the Genetic Age

Matthew Cobb

My review 2023-03-28

This book was prompted by three developments, says its author Matthew Cobb: Heritable human genome editing (so-called CRISPR babies), the gene drive technology that has the potential to modify or wipe out entire species, and the application of DNA technologies on (potentially) pathogenic organisms such as viruses or bacteria. It deals with the potential for use and abuse of DNA technology, and describes the history of the debate around this topic since the dawn of molecular biology in the 1950's. Cobb is an active researcher in fruit fly biology and the author of several books on different aspects of biomedical research.

The discussion is far-ranging and detailed, at times perhaps a bit too detailed. However, there are several topics and stories that are brought to life which I, having worked in related fields for a long time, did not know about. And for those topics which I did know about before reading this book, I have been unable to detect any factual errors.

Although the author is opinionated, I do not find this to be a problem in itself. He does not let his opinions bias the description in any substantial way. However, I am not entirely happy about the discussion. It is not very well structured, and at times feels like a record of the author's thinking, rather than a measured and considered argument. He argues that important developments must first be discussed and agreed-upon by consensus in the general public (what are the chances of consensus for anything?), at the same time as scientists should themselves assume responsibility for considering whether some new technology should be worked on or not. There seems to be no realization of the potential conflict between these demands; if scientists discuss among themselves whether a technology should be used or not, it can be construed as trying to decide things over the heads of the general public.

That DNA and biomedical technology have great potential is obvious. But as this book clearly explains, having potential is very far from actually delivering the goods. This is both good and bad. Bad because the hopes for new therapies and other useful applications so rarely pan out. Good when it means that the most dire predictions of the terrible power that the new technologies give us rather often turn out to be overblown.

The book ends on a rather down-beat note. Heritable human gene editing gets a well-deserved thrashing as basically a solution looking for a problem. The discussion about the potential dangers of DNA technology has waned during recent years. Are we becoming complacent? The success story of the mRNA vaccines against Covid-19, and the use of DNA sequencing for assisting in treatment of rare genetic disorders, are some examples of progress. Other advances such as CAR T-cell therapy may prove to be too expensive and difficult to be anything but niche applications.

In summary, Matthew Cobb's book is a useful overview of the history of the field, but its discussion and conclusions do not quite live up to expectations.