Lucid study of recent efforts to alter the human gene to end hereditary diseases, a project fraught with ethical and medical implications.

Kirksey, an anthropologist who is often called upon to speak to humanistic, rather than strictly biological, views of human nature, explores a most human problem: the use of the new CRISPR technology to alter genes to remove undesirable features. “CRISPR is an enzyme that produces targeted mutagenesis,” he writes. “In other words, CRISPR generates mutants.” These mutants are not yet at the level of the famed X-Men, though they touch on a point in common. As Kirksey observes, the X-Men series “was created by two American Jewish men in 1963 as a parable about civil rights.” And what of the civil rights of the gene-edited babies produced recently in a Chinese laboratory? They have been carefully hidden away, for “the families desperately wanted to protect the identity of their children to prevent discriminatory treatment by society.” Kirksey’s primary narrative follows Jiankui He, the Chinese scientist responsible for the in vitro gene-edited procedure that produced a set of twins. Dr. He, a brilliant man who raised himself out of poverty through sheer effort, may have started with the best of intentions, but the gene-editing enterprise quickly became a profit center snapped up by excited corporations. Editing, writes the author, may not be the best metaphor: “CRISPR is more like a tiny Reaper drone that can produce targeted damage to DNA,” sometimes hitting precisely and sometimes inadvertently destroying good cells on either side. Whatever the case, scientists are already looking at eliminating existing mutations, “from primordial dwarfism to obscure conditions like CAMRQ (cerebellar ataxia, intellectual disability, and dysequilibrium syndrome),” a business without visible end and, of course, available first to those with the greatest financial resources.

A readable, provocative look at biological tinkering that will doubtless shape the future, whether we like it or not.

Pub Date: today


Page Count: 304

Publisher: St. Martin’s

Review Posted Online: Sept. 29, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 2020

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