Fertility expert Robert Winston: ‘if we make super humans, what value is human life?’

PUBLISHED: 12:35 02 March 2017 | UPDATED: 13:03 02 March 2017

Lord Professor Robert Winston oversees Gabriel Littler aged 11 from Malorees Junior School in Brent. Photo: PA Images

Lord Professor Robert Winston oversees Gabriel Littler aged 11 from Malorees Junior School in Brent. Photo: PA Images

PA Archive/PA Images

Anna Behrmann talks to Lord Robert Winston about the practical and ethical implications of editing our genes

Lord Professor Robert Winston rejects new techniques to change babies’ genes, whether to attempt to eradicate hereditary diseases, or to create “desired characteristics”.

The Hampstead Garden Suburb resident, professor of science and society at Imperial College London, was speaking ahead of a talk at Jewish Book Week on fertility and the ethics of changing our genes.

When we talk on the phone at lunchtime just after Lord Winston gets off the tube, the 76-year-old has already given two lectures that day.

While he says impatiently that he cannot outline his talk at Jewish Book Week, as he “never writes his speeches before giving them”, he goes on to warn that “as a society we are completely obsessed with our genes”.

Lord Winston is not impressed by the latest scientific technique of editing babies’ genes to “wipe out” hereditary diseases, which gained some official backing in the US last month.

Under the new techniques, scientists hope to stop diseases such as cystic fibrosis and Huntington’s disease being passed down from parents to child, by “gene editing” embryos.

The research has been criticised as an attempt to create “designer babies”, but the techniques were endorsed last month by the Royal Society and the Wellcome Trust in the UK.

Lord Winston argues it is impossible to wipe out hereditary diseases through gene editing, as new diseases arise all the time.

He also believes there will inevitably be mistakes when genes are edited, which would be passed down the generations.

“First of all, you can’t wipe out hereditary diseases, because of course, new hereditary diseases arise all the time.”

“Therefore you would not know that the family is going to have a child with a hereditary disorder.”

The scientist adds that nearly all hereditary diseases are recessive, meaning that “you might have to have four children or more before you realised you actually had that disease”.

Lord Winston is even more strident when he criticises the separate idea of editing babies’ genes so that they grow up with “desired characteristics” - such as blue eyes or intelligence.

As well as the ethical questions it throws up, he also believes that it is entirely impractical and will not work.

“Of course I’m opposed to modifying the human genome, because if you make super humans, then what value is human life? We run the risk of losing humanity.

“But more importantly of course, it’s not merely a philosophical question.

“The fact is that mistakes will be inevitable, and the effects of the mistakes would be completely irreversible, not just for that generation, but for generations to come.

“The other issue is that you’re making an experiment on a baby that hasn’t been born and that foetus can’t give consent.”

He adds later: “If you did experiments on a few humans you might make them more intelligent but there’s no guarantee you’d make them wiser.”

Lord Winston believes that his Judaism does help him evaluate scientific questions.

“As (former Chief Rabbi])Jonathan Sacks said, you don’t have to be religious, to be ethical, but it can help,” he explains.

“I’ve never understood this bizarre notion that science and religion are in conflict.

“I don’t think they are at all, they are different systems which are both useful for understanding our environment and understanding ourselves.”

Lord Winston is working to improve science education as part of his role with Imperial College, and he believes the most work is needed in primary schools.

“I’m afraid primary school teachers are not respected enough or valued enough.

“We don’t really make sure that they have a decent science education themselves, and most people teaching science to primary school kids have not done science even at A-Level, let alone university.

“All the evidence shows that when we are youngest, our brain is most apt at learning.

“That’s when we should get people to debate.

“That’s when we start to form our ethical attitudes.”

- Robert Winston is speaking at Jewish Book Week on March 5. Book tickets here.


Welcome , please leave your message below.

Optional - JPG files only
Optional - MP3 files only
Optional - 3GP, AVI, MOV, MPG or WMV files

Please log in to leave a comment and share your views with other Hampstead Highgate Express visitors.

We enable people to post comments with the aim of encouraging open debate.

Only people who register and sign up to our terms and conditions can post comments. These terms and conditions explain our house rules and legal guidelines.

Comments are not edited by Hampstead Highgate Express staff prior to publication but may be automatically filtered.

If you have a complaint about a comment please contact us by clicking on the Report This Comment button next to the comment.

Not a member yet?

Register to create your own unique Hampstead Highgate Express account for free.

Signing up is free, quick and easy and offers you the chance to add comments, personalise the site with local information picked just for you, and more.

Sign up now

Latest Hampstead & Highgate News Stories

Holocaust survivor Anita Lasker-Wallfisch who played in the women’s orchestra at Auschwitz will join other survivors at an event to commemorate this year’s Holocaust Memorial Day at JW3, the London Jewish Cultural Centre,in Hampstead.

Yesterday, 10:16

Students from Portland Place School have demonstrated their support for anti-bullying by winning first place in the ‘odd socks day challenge’.

On Monday January 15, the BBC featured the enforcement of council tax in its Inside Out London programme.

January is well underway but it’s not too late to wish everyone a Happy New Year!

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Letters, contributions and comments sent in from Gazette readers this week.

Friday, January 19, 2018

The Board of Deputies of British Jews has called for the dismissal of Inner North London’s senior coroner Mary Hassell after a “deeply disappointing” meeting with community leaders to discuss her refusal to respect Jewish burial requirements.

Friday, January 19, 2018

Andrew Dismore AM, Labour London Assembly Member for Barnet and Camden, has added his voice to the calls for the resignation of Inner North London coroner Mary Hassell.

Friday, January 19, 2018

Dinny Hall has designed women’s jewellery for more than 30 years. Described as a ‘little British Tiffany’, she lives in West Hampstead.


For people who suffer with feet problems, it is often difficult to find footwear that is both comfortable and stylish. There is a shop in the West End dedicated to changing that.

Toni Krok, who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2007, has set up a charity to help people living with the condition and their families adjust to the challenges it brings.

Newsletter Sign Up

Sign up to the following newsletters:

Sign up to receive our regular email newsletter

Most read Hampstead & Highgate news

Show Job Lists

Digital Edition


Enjoy the
Hampstead & Highgate Express
e-edition today


Education and Training


Read the
Education and Training
e-edition today

Read Now