Your story in this weekâ€™s issue, â€œAre We Not Men?,â€ envisions a time in which CRISPR has gone mainstream, and animals and babies are genetically engineered. Do you foresee this actually happening?
Itâ€™s already here. Some of the fanciful creatures mentioned in the story actually exist, as, for example, the supercow and the micropig, not to mention many of the genetically modified crops we consume. Throughout history, weâ€™ve used selective breeding to bring out traits we find desirable in everything from corn to cattle to the pets that perch on our shoulders and curl up in our laps, a technique I applied to humans in â€œLos Gigantesâ€ (from the FebruaryÂ 6, 2012, issue of this magazine). All well and good, but the new CRISPR-Cas9 technology radically accelerates the time period in which modifications can occur and makes transgenic tinkering so much easier and more efficient. And it modifies not only a given iteration but the entire germline of the species, for as long as that species exists.
Is your title, â€œAre We Not Men?,â€ a reference to H. G. Wellsâ€™s â€œThe Island of Dr. Moreauâ€? Shorthand for the perils of genetic manipulation?
Wells was a marvellous futurist, who imagined submarines, lunar exploration, and, in â€œThe Island of Dr. Moreau,â€ a way around the slow Mendelian process of selective breeding. The not-so-good doctor surgically cobbled together various creatures in an attempt to transform animals into humans, long before Crick and Watson discovered the double-helix structure of DNA. (Just imagine what Moreau would have been able to do now.) The creatures, botched experiments all, were brainwashed to suppress their animal natures and bring out what was human in them. â€œAre we not men?â€ they ask rhetorically (and hopefully). Well, no. No, they are not. Perils, indeed.
What do you think about the morality of CRISPR? Of course, there must be some pros to a technology that could put an end to breast cancer or malaria.
What I think or you think or what concerned molecular embryologists around the world think really doesnâ€™t matter. The technology exists. It will be used, and used in ways we can barely conceive of at this juncture. Who could argue with editing out congenital diseases? What a boon to humanity! The problem is, what comes next?
The story is, in a way, a cautionary tale. (Those crowparrots are anyoneâ€™s nightmare.) But itâ€™s not all seriousness, of course. Was it fun to imagine the various things genetic engineers (and amateurs) might come up with?
Lordy, Lordy, yes! Fun to the tenth power! In a very early story, â€œDe Rerum Natura,â€ from my first book, â€œDescent of Man,â€ I imagined an inventor who used standard selective breeding to create, among other things, the shitless cat. He bred pairs of cats that didnâ€™t excrete all that much until he had a feline that didnâ€™t excrete at all, and this was hugely popular (except with the kitty-litter manufacturers), so then he bred cats with small limbs and small heads until heâ€™d eliminated the appendages (if a head can be said to be an appendage), and came up with the headless, limbless, shitless cat, a plump little furball that simply generated heat and purred. Another boon for humanity, by the way: no more shredded sofas and eviscerated songbirds.
The story is also a satirical look at parentingâ€”at parents who want their children to be status objects, and parents who want to control every aspect of their childrenâ€™s existence. Or am I misreading?
Given the lengths to which parents will go to provide their children with the very best and finest of resources, can anyone imagine anything different? Once the (forgive me) cat is out of the bag, we will all fight to give our progeny the sort of genetic advantages the tall girl in this story enjoys.
You leave the reader suspended mid-plot at the end of the story. What do you think the chances are of Connie and Royâ€™s marriage surviving the two births to come? Can you imagine a sequel about those two half-siblings, one engineered, one not?
For me, one of the pleasures of the short story (as opposed to the novel, of which I am now publishing my sixteenth, â€œThe Terranautsâ€), is that I can create microcosmic scenarios that become seeds that can germinate and bloom into something much larger in the readerâ€™s imagination. In this case, as you indicate, I could build a larger narrative by tracing the development of these two childrenâ€”and their parentsâ€”but that lies beyond the scope of what I hope to accomplish here. The question, both for the children and the man-made creatures, is this: Will we achieve harmonyâ€”or disarray? Once you introduce a genotype to the world, whether it be a natural child or a transgenic oneâ€”or a dogcat, for that matterâ€”you must accept the consequences. Truly, we are inhabiting a brave new world, one in which we have become the gods weâ€™ve so hungered for through all the generations of humankind. Creation in the fleshâ€”isnâ€™t that what weâ€™ve always sought, from Mary Shelley to Wells to the discoverers of the new gene-editing technology?
Iâ€™m pretty sure I know the answer to this, but, if offered the same choice as Roy and Connieâ€”between a naturally conceived child and a genetically manipulated oneâ€”which would you pick?
I should really leave this one for my wife to answer. You may know that I am the only male writer in history to have only one wifeâ€”which is to say that the accident of selection and mating in our case was a happy one and that our three children stand in testimony of just how our genes have aligned for the better. That said, I canâ€™t help thinking of the supercomputer that would find the ideal mate for each of usâ€”and Iâ€™m not talking about dating sites here but a sort of godlike overview of all people extant to find the exact best match, not only temperamentally but in terms of attraction, love, sex, the ideal lifelong bond. Some of us are perfectly happyâ€”or, rather, imperfectly happy. We take the luck of the draw. My wife and I? We met in the way of the primitives in the dim past, in a student bar, to the strains of rock and roll and the heady fragrance of rum, gin, and lust.