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