Josiah Zayner is a former NASA scientist who recently gained notoriety after becoming the first man to modify his DNA.
In the beginning of his review of the 1997 film Gattaca, Roger Ebert compares genetic engineering with plastic surgery. By doing that, he reminds us that we’re coming dangerously close to the imaginary scenarios of dystopian science fiction. In Gattaca’s case, what we’re quickly approaching is a society where humans artificially attempt perfection through the genetic modification of their children and choosing a person’s features before they’re born. Of course, everyone goes for perfect health, which is totally understandable, right? Everybody wants to have a long life. But they also choose good looks and high intelligence, and that’s the tricky part. Who gets to decide what’s beautiful? What does high intelligence mean? Is it mathematical skills? Does it include artistic tendencies? Is intelligence rebellious or obedient? These questions might sound fanciful and irrelevant now, when humans don’t get to choose, but we’re getting there, so we need to prepare and ask them now.
Some people prefer to ask questions and think carefully before acting. Others want things to move faster, seeing the new results and solving the new problems as they appear. Josiah Zayner belongs in the second category. He’s a former NASA scientist who calls himself a biohacker, and he recently gained notoriety after becoming the first man to modify his DNA. He did so quite casually in front of a camera, live-streaming the whole thing on his blog. He simply grabbed a syringe and injected the content: a combination of DNA and other substances designed to block a protein on his forearm. The protein, as he explained, inhibits muscle growth, and the expected results (bigger muscles) will become evident about six months after the procedure.
With his demonstration, Zayner wants to show people that everyone can easily acquire the necessary tools to genetically modify themselves. Basically, he wants science to be free from the restrictions of institutions and regulations. Of course, not everybody loves that idea, as it could lead to a big mess of inexperienced people hurting themselves on impulse because they don’t know what they’re doing. Zayner is well aware of that possibility, but he believes that everyone has the right to do as they please, even if it entails more than a few accidents. To help prevent those accidents, he encourages people to educate themselves and offers free guides about basic genetic engineering techniques.
Zayner exemplifies how one person can hold many contradictory ideas, and there’s nothing wrong with that. On the one hand, he wishes that people were less afraid of this kind of changes and experiments. On the other, he admits that none of it is truly simple, and that risk is a big factor. In his interview for The Guardian he explains that if a person were to imitate the procedure that gave him popularity, making the mistake of blocking the protein in the whole body instead of just the forearm, they could cause damage to their heart muscles. But even with that in mind, he believes that those tools could help way more people rather than harming them.
What does the future look like for a person like Josiah Zayner? Like a sci-fi movie, of course:
“To me it’s like Blade Runner, where he goes into that back-alley science lab and there’s the guy making eyes. I imagine people going to some place like a tattoo parlor, and instead of getting a tattoo they pick out some DNA that makes them muscly, or changes the color of their hair or eyes.”
Do we actually find that future appealing? I’ve seen Blade Runner, and things don’t go so great in that movie.
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