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Transcript: Jamie Metzl talks with Michael Morell on "Intelligence Matters"

INTELLIGENCE MATTERS - JAMIE METZL

CORRESPONDENT: MICHAEL MORELL

PRODUCER: OLIVIA GAZIS

MICHAEL MORELL:

Jamie, welcome to the show.

JAMIE METZL:

Thank you. Thrilled to be here.

MICHAEL MORELL:

You wrote an amazing book that will hit the bookshelves next week. It's titled Hacking Darwin: Genetic Engineering and the Future of Humanity. I will tell our listeners that I received an early copy and I literally could not put it down. I read it in an entire sitting on a Saturday, from, I don't know, 9:00 in the morning until 2:00 or 3:00 in the afternoon. It's just fabulous.

JAMIE METZL:

Good. It's music to my ears. That's what every author likes to hear.

MICHAEL MORELL:

Excellent. Jamie, you say that most of us think about genetic engineering in terms of healthcare, but you argue in the book that we're setting about to change the way that we make babies, and that is arriving faster than most of us are prepared for or that most of us understand. Can you unpack that a little bit?

JAMIE METZL:

Sure. So right now, when most people think about the genetics revolution, they think about healthcare, because that is how genetics touch us. And so people are very familiar with this idea of the future of precision medicine, that we're going to use genetic information to make sure we get the right sourcing of drugs. People are starting to hear about things called "gene therapies" and other ways that genetic science is going to be used to improve our healthcare.

But unlocking the secrets of the genome tells us so much more, not just about our disease states but about who and what we are. And so while we're going to learn more about genetics through the experience of healthcare, once we understand how our genetics work, there are going to be other applications that are much broader than healthcare. So, the first is going to be through direct-to-consumer genetics. Right now, many people send their cheek swabs in to companies like 23andMe, and you get some interesting information about your--

MICHAEL MORELL:

I've done that.

JAMIE METZL:

Yeah, you--

MICHAEL MORELL:

I've done that.

JAMIE METZL:

So I'm sure you learned, looking at you, that you're part Neanderthal?

MICHAEL MORELL:

Yes. Exactly. (LAUGHTER)

JAMIE METZL:

In the best sense of the term. People learn about some actually very important information about their carrier status for what are called Mendelian disorders, where there's a single gene mutation, kind of an on/off switch for some diseases and disorders, and whether you're a carrier for that is actually useful information.

But that's kind of about it. The ancestry information is interesting. It's not that relevant to people, in terms of you're not going to live your life; I mean, I'm .01% Yakut. It's fun. I have new Yakut brothers and sisters, and I hope--

MICHAEL MORELL:

Exactly.

JAMIE METZL:

--they're listening to this--

MICHAEL MORELL:

Exactly.

JAMIE METZL:

--podcast.

MICHAEL MORELL:

I found out that I'm .1% or .01% Ashkenazi Jew.

JAMIE METZL:

Shalom.

MICHAEL MORELL:

Isn't that something?

JAMIE METZL:

Yeah, it's great.

MICHAEL MORELL:

That's great. So, we just got some additional listeners, the Yakuts--

JAMIE METZL:

--and the Ashkenazi (LAUGHTER) Jews. So, that's really interesting. But as we unpack more of what our genome is, and the way we're going to get there is because in not too long, maybe a decade from now, we're going to have billions of people who've had their whole genome sequenced. And when we use big-data analytics to compare this genotypic information, what the genes say, to the phenotypic information, which is how those genes are expressed over the course of people's lives, which will be realized through information in their electronic health and life records, we're going to know more and more, not just about simple genetics, on/off genetics, but complex genetic patterns.

And that is going to move us into a world of predictive genomics. So, one of the applications will be that from your early childhood, your parents will know about how certain aspects of your life are likely to play out. What are your greater-than-average disease risks? What are potentials that you may have, and whether it's potential to live a long and healthy life or maybe potential to be really great at abstract math or sprinting or all these kinds of things that right now we see as--

MICHAEL MORELL:

That have a genetic basis to--

JAMIE METZL:

That have a genetic basis. And not all traits are entirely genetic. Some are partly genetic, and we'll never know 100% about that genetic basis, but we'll know a lot, and it will be predictive in many, many ways. But then the next step, as you mentioned, is how is this going to influence the way we make babies and the nature of the babies we make?

Right now, there are many people around the world who have used IVF to have children, in vitro fertilization, and a newer technology called pre-implantation genetic testing, which is basically embryo screening, based on sequencing the pre-implanted embryos. And again, right now we know a little bit. We know about these single-gene mutation diseases and disorders and chromosomal abnormalities like a Down's syndrome.

But in the future, in the not-distant future, we're going to have all of this predictive information about pre-implanted embryos. And that's going to allow parents, prospective parents, to select among pre-implanted embryos based on optimizing health or optimizing other traits.

MICHAEL MORELL:

So, I remember 40 years ago, the cover of Time or Newsweek, I forget what it was, had a test tube, right?

JAMIE METZL:

Right.

MICHAEL MORELL:

And it had a baby in it--

JAMIE METZL:

Yeah.

MICHAEL MORELL:

--right? And I just read somewhere that that first test tube baby just turned 40 years. So, what's different between that and what you're talking about?

JAMIE METZL:

Sure. So, yes, 41 years ago now, Louise Brown, the world's first test tube baby, was born. As a matter of fact, we had a birthday party for her, she didn't come, in my apartment here in New York, and we served eggs. And 40 years ago, 40+ years ago, it was a really big deal.

The Catholic Church condemned it. Many people said, "This is a slippery slope that will lead us toward playing God and designer babies." And so IVF is one absolutely essential tool in the application of genetic technologies to baby-making, because what it allows us to do is take conception outside of the human--

MICHAEL MORELL:

Human body?

JAMIE METZL:

And that allows for a much greater degree of surveillance and ultimately of manipulation. So IVF was one piece of the puzzle. But then other pieces have been added. Pre-implantation genetic screening; that's another one. Now, with very low cost, genome sequencing is allowing us to unlock the secrets of the genome in ways that would have been absolutely impossible 40 years ago.

And then on top of that, there is precision gene editing, that allows us first to understand the genome better by knocking out genes in animals like mice and fruit flies to try to figure out what various genes do, but also to begin to actually make edits to pre-implanted embryos, which is what happened in China last year.

MICHAEL MORELL:

So, let's dig into this a little deeper. But before we do that, so you spent a good chunk of your career doing international relations--

JAMIE METZL:

Yes.

MICHAEL MORELL:

--right? Doing the kind of thing that I did?

JAMIE METZL:

Yes.

MICHAEL MORELL:

So how did you go from that to this?

JAMIE METZL:

It's a really great question. So, more than 20 years ago, I was on the National Security Council, and I had the great fortunate of working for someone who I love and admire and a friend of mine, and I believe a friend of yours, Richard Clarke.

MICHAEL MORELL:

Yes.

JAMIE METZL:

And Dick, in those days, I mean this was the second term of the Clinton administration, he was jumping up and down and fighting with people, saying, "We have to focus on these two issues that nobody is paying any attention to." And they were terrorism and cyber. And as you know, Mike, when 9/11 happened, Dick's prescient memo was on President Bush's desk, and nobody had paid attention to it.

And Dick always used to say that, "If everyone in Washington is focusing on one thing, you can be sure there's something much more important that is being missed." And so for me, 20 years ago, I thought a lot about that. I thought, "What are those issues?"

And I kept coming back to the genetics and biotechnology revolutions. And this was a long time ago. It wasn't nearly as advanced as it is today. So, I just started reading everything I could, and started just calling people, saying, "Hey, I know you're a scientist. You've never heard of me. I want to come by. I want to talk to you. I want to pick your brain."

When I felt like I was ready, I started writing articles, in the kinds of boring policy articles that you and I read. And I got a call one day from Congressman Brad Sherman, who'd read one of those articles, and said, "Hey, this is really important. Nobody's talking about it. I want to do a hearing based around your article. Will you come and be the lead witness?"

So, I did. Started doing a lot more. But then I realize unfortunately, not enough people are reading these kinds of memos. So then I had the idea to write science fiction novels, to tell the story of the genetics revolution, but in a way that could be more absorbable to people. And I did that, but in my book tours for my novels Genesis Code and Eternal Sonata, when I explained the science to people the way a novelist would explain science, which is often different from the way a scientist would explain science, all of a sudden I saw people's eyes getting wide and they realized, "Well, that's what this is?"

And we'd heard the words "genetics," "DNA," "IVF." They'd heard it all, but they didn't really know how the pieces fit together. That was when I knew I needed to write the story to tell the history and the story and the future of the genetics revolution, the way that everybody could absorb it.

MICHAEL MORELL:

That's great. 

So maybe this is a little bit unfair, but as you look out at all the new technologies, right, from AI to robotics to quantum computing to these revolutions in biotechnology [we're] talking about, do you think bio is the most important? Or is that hard to say, because they're all linked together at the end--

JAMIE METZL:

Yeah--

MICHAEL MORELL:

--of the day?

JAMIE METZL:

--so what I would say is first, the essential point is this super-convergence of technologies. Like, the biotech revolution can't happen without the AI revolution, because the ability to analyze the unbelievable complexity of the human genome within the complex systems biology of humans within the ecosystem of the environment around us, and then compare that to this very complex information in our electronic health and life records, that's so far beyond what any human or even all human brains together could do.

So, we are coevolving with our machines, and you need all of these technologies together. And yet, we can say of these technologies that are entirely interlinked, which are the ones that are going to change our lives the most? And certainly, in my view, the biotech and the AI revolutions are the most significant in that area.

MICHAEL MORELL:

So Jamie, you use a very interesting tool in the book to give people a glimpse of how fast and how significant things are going to change in the world you just talked about. And that tool is the image of a woman, the same woman, right, visiting the same fertility clinic and seeing the same doctor at ten-year intervals, right? And having her doctor at each of those intervals explain her choices, right? Walk us through a couple of those. You know, certainly where we are today, and then the furthest out that you've thought about?

JAMIE METZL:

Yeah, and I did that because I wanted people to realize how imminent this is. I mean, I write science fiction. And I realize it's pretty easy to say, "We're going to be flying around in Millennium Falcons and there are going to be Wookiees everywhere," but I really want people to read this book and to say, "Hey, wait a second. This is about me. This is about my kids," because I really think it is.

MICHAEL MORELL:

And that's what struck me when I read it.

JAMIE METZL:

Yeah, good--

MICHAEL MORELL:

Right, I was thinking about my kids having children and what choices they're going to have that I never even thought of. Right.

JAMIE METZL:

And every one of your listeners, for some of them, their experience of having children will be different, but anybody listening to this, your children's experience of baby-making will be different than yours. And so right now, if you go into a fertility clinic in a permissive country, the United States certainly is one, what are the things that you can do?

So, you can go through IVF, as a woman. You can have your eggs extracted. You can have your eggs fertilized with the man's, either your partner or whoever, a donor's sperm. And then you can grow those early-stage embryos for about five days, and have cells extracted from each and sequenced. And when that happens, the things that you can select for are single-gene mutation diseases and disorders, chromosomal disorders, and then some very simple traits like hair color and eye color.

MICHAEL MORELL:

So today you can do that--

JAMIE METZL:

That's today. Ten years from now, there are going to be way more diseases that you'll be able to screen out, way more disorders that you'll be able to screen out. Some of them will be these relatively simple genetic diseases and disorders, but increasingly, there'll be more information about complex diseases and disorders, which are implicated by hundreds or thousands of genes. And because it's not binary, there won't be a yes/no, a 100% yes. It may be a 50% greater chance of X or a 70% greater chance of Y--

MICHAEL MORELL:

And what would one of these diseases be?

JAMIE METZL:

Like heart disease, early onset familiar Alzheimer's. Lots of these diseases, most diseases are complex diseases. A small number are just these single-gene mutation diseases. But on top of that, as I was mentioning before, this predictive genomics will tell us about so many other traits.

You'll be able to rank your pre-implanted embryos on likely tallest to likely shortest, likely having the highest at least genetic component of IQ to the likely lowest genetic component of IQ, likely more outgoing personality to likely less outgoing personality. Again, these won't be absolute predictions, but there is going to be a lot of information, because ten years from now--

MICHAEL MORELL:

So this is in ten years?

JAMIE METZL:

Is in ten years, because we're going to have billions of people who have been sequenced. That's a lot of information. So that's ten years.

Twenty years from now, come back. Then what are the things that we may be able to do? So right now, I don't know how old your listeners are, but I'm gonna go for it. Average woman undergoing IVF has about 15 eggs extracted.

MICHAEL MORELL:

Today?

JAMIE METZL:

Today. Average male ejaculation has about a billion sperm cells. So, sperm is dime a dozen, but human eggs are actually very precious. And going through the IVF process, the number goes down. And so the number of fertilized eggs you have, let's say it starts at 20 or 15, and then when you have the ones that look good and have all the proper attributes, maybe you're down to ten.

Now maybe you want to have a boy or a girl, so now you're down to five. And now maybe you want to screen out certain genetic diseases that you're particularly afraid of. Now you're down to two or three, and so you don't have that greatest set of options.

But what if you could expand the number of eggs? And that's where we're going with a process, technical term is "in vitro comedogenesis." But basically what it means is you take a skin graft, although any adult cell will do.

You then use a process developed by Shinya Yamanaka, who won the 2012 Nobel Prize for this, to induce these adult cells, these skin cells into stem cells, stem cells into egg precursor cells, egg precursor cells into eggs. And because there are millions of cells in a small skin graft, let's just say now you have 10,000 eggs. And this works with animals. Hasn't yet been tried on humans. Let's say you have 10,000 eggs. You fertilize all of the eggs--

MICHAEL MORELL:

--you have the sperm to do that?

JAMIE METZL:

You have the sperm to do that. You grow these 10,000 now fertilized eggs for about five days, use a machine to extract a few cells from each one. You sequence them all, because the cost of genome sequencing has gone down from about a billion dollars in 2003 to about $800 now, to basic negligibility a decade from now.

And now you have 10,000 choices. And then the range of what you can pick is much greater. And then 20 years beyond that, then we're going to be able to do more of the kind of gene editing that actually happened in China last year. And I don't think we're going to be doing tens or twenties of gene edits, but I do think it will be possible and common to go in and make one, two, three, four, five gene edits to either reduce a risk or provide an enhancement.

MICHAEL MORELL:

So how did you come up with these predictions? What level of confidence would you put on them, right, thinking as an analyst now? And at the end of the day, would you be surprised if this ends up being faster than you currently think or slower than you currently think?

JAMIE METZL:

So, I'm quite confident that what I am describing will happen. I'm very confident that humans are going to increasingly move away from sex as the way--

MICHAEL MORELL:

You do have a chapter called "The End of Sex"--

JAMIE METZL:

"The End of Sex."

MICHAEL MORELL:

--which is quite troubling, I must tell you.

JAMIE METZL:

Well, it's the end (LAUGHTER) of sex for procreation.

MICHAEL MORELL:

Yes.

JAMIE METZL:

I mean, sex is very important for many reasons beyond procreation and conception, but I do think that we are going to increasingly move away from using sex as our primary means of conceiving children. And that's going to have huge implications, and I do think that we will move along the trajectory that I've described.

I have less confidence that it will be exactly ten, 20, and 30 years. And for me, I figure even if I'm wrong by five years, by ten years, this is a fundamental shift that is taking place in billions of years of our evolution. And I feel absolutely confident that somebody having a baby ten years from now, 20 years from now, 30 years from now will have a fundamentally different experience than people having babies now.

I have absolute confidence that our species is moving in the direction of conceiving our children in laboratories and not through sex. I certainly believe that the scenarios that I describe are very real scenarios. Whether I'm off by a few years in one direction or another, even a decade, it's important, but the real story is that after 3.8 billion years of evolving by one set of rules, which we call Darwinian evolution, random mutation, and natural selection, we are now beginning a future process of evolving by a very different set of rules.

MICHAEL MORELL:

Okay, Jamie, so now we come to the implications of all of this. Let's start with the positives. Let's start with the upsides. What do you see as those?

JAMIE METZL:

There are incredibly great upsides. Whenever I speak about this topic, I could speak for an hour, and I could spend 58 minutes talking about the upsides and the positives, and then in the last two minutes, I'll say, "But there are some potential dangers and here's what they are." And then people will say, "We're all gonna die." (LAUGH) And it's the way our brains work, that when you hear a story like this, our brains just go right to the negative. It's like you see a beautiful--

MICHAEL MORELL:

Well, we're gonna get to those. (LAUGH)

JAMIE METZL:

You see a beautiful painting. It's like, "Hey, there's a fly on that painting." So, here's the upsides. We have this terrible suffering in this world, and we attribute it to fate. How many young people are dying from terrible diseases that we can cure, we will be able to cure, and nobody says that eradicating smallpox was some kind of terrible thing because it was against nature.

Like, this is great. This is the history of our species, is that we use our technology to help more people live longer, healthier, more robust lives, and these powerful tools will certainly help us do that. And that's really great and really exciting, and we should embrace them for that reason. But that doesn't mean we should support a free-for-all.

MICHAEL MORELL:

Okay, the downsides?

JAMIE METZL:

Very real downsides. One is everything I'm talking about is hubris. I mean, we are humans. We have limited knowledge. We have our technology. Our technology is incredible, but we always know less than we think that we know, and it's always in life. I mean, for me, every year I think, "I'm pretty smart now." And then a year from now, I think, "God, I was really dumb a year ago, but now I'm really (LAUGH) smart," and the cycle goes on. So, we know so little about how our complex biology works, and with any complex system, when you go in and you start making changes, some good things can happen, and I think will happen, but some bad things will happen. And not all of those bad things are expected, and you know that from your time in the Agency. So, that's one.

Certainly if these technologies work as I believe they will, they will potentially confer tremendous benefits on people. And if we aren't mindful about all of the issues of equity and access, we run the very real risk of bifurcating our communities, bifurcating the world into the genetic haves and have-nots.

And the technology doesn't even need to be real for this bifurcation, for this division to happen. People in India have maintained their caste system for thousands of years, based on no genetic differences whatsoever. And so what I always say about this downside is it's really important that we focus on the equity issues, but the way to focus on them is maybe to imagine the problems in the future. But let's say that addressing the equity and division, if that's what our values are today, let's realize those values in the world around us.

And then third area is diversity. We all tend to think of diversity as a strategy to make our workplaces more productive, to enhance our education, but diversity is so much more than that. Diversity is our sole survival strategy as a species. If we didn't have diversity, we would still be single-cell organisms, and we probably wouldn't even be that, because the single-cell organisms would've died out when the--

MICHAEL MORELL:

--it's the basis of evolution?

JAMIE METZL:

It's the basis. When we say "random mutation," that is diversity. And if we start making decisions based on what we think is good, and what I mean, "what we think is good," doesn't mean making super soldiers. I mean we may think it's good for people to not be carriers of deadly genetic diseases, but what we know from simple genetic diseases like sickle cell disease is sometimes they can confer a benefit. So if you have sickle cell disease, you'll die young. If you're a carrier, you have an increased resistance to malaria. And so there's no such thing as "absolute evolutionary fitness."

MICHAEL MORELL:

So by going down this road, we'll naturally reduce our diversity?

JAMIE METZL:

There's a danger of that, if we aren't mindful. And that's the thing; things that just happen to us. Diversity just happened to us for the last four billion years. Now we have these Promethean tools that will increasingly allow us to manage not just our own biology, but all of biology. And if we don't do this by incorporating a set of positive values to guide our actions, these technologies could become very destructive.

MICHAEL MORELL:

So, the national security implications of all of this, right? This is Intelligence Matters.

JAMIE METZL:

Yes.

MICHAEL MORELL:

This is a national security podcast. And when I heard "have and have-nots," right, I'm not thinking of have and have-nots in a society, although that's critically important. I'm thinking of have and have-nots in terms of nation-states.

JAMIE METZL:

Yep.

MICHAEL MORELL:

So how do you think about the national security implications of this?

JAMIE METZL:

I think they are huge. And this is a topic that gets so little attention in the national security world, and I think that's wrong. There are the obvious ways where this technology is going to show up. There are many people in intelligence services around the world who are well aware how we could have synthetic pathogens that could wreak havoc.

How many millions of people died from smallpox, but not everybody knows that a team of researchers in Canada used synthetic biology to reconstitute a very deadly strain of horsepox last year, and it cost them $100,000. That same technology to do that is widespread and dispersed, and the costs are going down dramatically.

So those are the kind of more obvious and traditional national security challenges. But there are also some other ones, that accessing these technologies is very divisive. And when you look at how animated, how passionate some people have become on the issues of genetically modified crops, of GMOs, and many people have become violent on GMOs, on abortion; imagine how people are going to feel when the issue isn't genetically modified carrots but genetically modified humans.

MICHAEL MORELL:

People.

JAMIE METZL:

And imagine what happens if some societies decide to entirely opt out, and I think an opt-out is a very legitimate position, and other societies decide that they want to go forward. What do you do if you are the society that decides you don't want to genetically engineer your population, maybe for some very good reasons, but some other society is doing it?

Do you try to stop them? Do you try to make it illegal for your citizens to procreate with citizens from those other places? When you walk down that path, it gets very, very tricky. And when you think of all the reasons why countries have gone to war even with other countries, they've done it over history for a lot less than this.

MICHAEL MORELL:

Right, right, right. So, the Chinese. Where are the Chinese on this? How are they thinking about it? You know, you get this image of maybe the Chinese using this to build an army of the future, right? How do you think about what the Chinese are doing?

JAMIE METZL:

Yeah, asking about the Chinese is absolutely essential, because with all of these technologies of the 20th century, when the United States and Europe were the dominant powers, and especially when these big technologies like nuclear power required the State, the issues were bounded by geography.

With these issues of biology, we'll get the Nobel Prize for developing technologies like CRISPR gene editing, but once the formula exists, right now high school kids are using CRISPR in really significant ways. And so China is embracing not just genetics and biotech, but so many of the technologies of the future with a very coherent national plan to lead the world in these technologies by 2050.

And there is a very aggressive attitude that China needs to make up for lost time. And they're putting a lot of money, they're bringing scientists and others back from other parts of the world. And first, Chinese researchers are not bound by the same regulatory structures and cultural and ethical constraints as often is the case in other parts of the world, including the United States and Europe.

But second, the government is a big push behind taking the lead. And that's why we're seeing all of these things that couldn't happen in the United States, whether it's the most aggressive research on primates or whether it's the first application of genetic engineering, of gene editing on human embryos, most of that is happening in China, and it's no accident. Yeah, go ahead.

MICHAEL MORELL:

And you mentioned earlier that last fall, right, we had the birth in China of the first ever gene-edited human. Can you talk about that a little bit?

JAMIE METZL:

Yes, and I'll connect it to my book. So in November of last year, my book was already in production, and in the book, I talked about the culture in China, how there was a wild West culture around science, and particularly around genomics, how the technologies existed for editing human embryos, and how the first experience of this editing of human embryos was very likely going to be in China.

Then in November, it was announced it had actually happened, sooner than most anybody would've predicted. And so I fought my publisher. I love my publisher, Sourcebooks. I fought the book back out of production. (LAUGH) I said, "Look, I predicted this, and now it's happened."

MICHAEL MORELL:

"I have to write about it." (LAUGH)

JAMIE METZL:

"I need to." But I didn't have to change very much, 'cause I had said, "This is coming." So this Chinese biophysicist, not a straight biologist, not a medical doctor, he very secretly had edited the embryos. I mean, the parents knew about it but they were not well educated and certainly not well consented. Had secretly edited the three pre-implanted embryos, and two of these children were born in October of last year.

And this shocked the entire world, because the scientists had gotten together before repeatedly and called for a certain set of standards to be applied to human genome editing, and those weren't applied, and that's what really shocked everyone. I'm actually now on a World Health Organization international advisory committee on the future of human gene editing, and that was created in the aftermath of what happened in China. So as I said before, there is no doubt that we will be making human genome edits, germline edits to our pre-implanted embryos going forward, but we have to have an ethical framework, and China is the wildcard.

MICHAEL MORELL:

And when you start thinking about it from a nation-state perspective, right, it starts feeling like eugenics, right? It starts feeling like Nazi Germany?

JAMIE METZL:

Well, it can. You know, it's very tricky for me. I mean, my father and grandparents came to this country as refugees after the war. I mean, one side of my family really suffered and was decimated by the Nazi ideology. And the Nazis themselves would have said that they are "descendants of Darwin."

I mean, that was where Nazi ideology in many ways came from. And so it's very tricky for me, as the child of a refugee, to be talking about this future that to many people feels like eugenics. And in some ways, it is eugenics, because we are going to be selecting our embryos.

And we may be selecting them based on things that we value, like we don't want them to die of genetic diseases when they're little kids. And I think everybody would agree that that's a good thing, but where do we draw the line? How do we maintain our humanity? How do we maintain our sense of respect for people who some call "disabled," but you could imagine, you know, if there's some UFO and it's making a loud noise, then deaf people have a superpower. And you know, high-functioning autistic people can recognize patterns way better than the rest of us. And so if we force ourselves into this normative view of what humans should be, that may make us less human rather than more.

MICHAEL MORELL:

So Jamie, because of all these issues we've talked about, a group of high-profile scientists called last month for a moratorium on inheritable human genome editing until there's an international framework in place. What's your view on that? What do you think we need to do?

JAMIE METZL:

I absolutely think that we need to have high ethical standards to determine how we use these very powerful technologies. But I am against a moratorium. I had an article in the Financial Times on this. And the reason why I'm against a moratorium is because this is an ongoing process.

We're always going to need to apply our best values. We are never going to have perfect information. And the right way to do this is to have effective regulatory agencies on the national level and hopefully on the international level that are weighing the costs and the benefits of each intervention.

And by creating a moratorium now, I think first, it delivers the wrong message. And then it creates a whole set of stakeholders in a moratorium, and it changes the balance of proof. And so I think the balance of proof is for a particular intervention, will it help more than it's going to hurt? And having a moratorium, it doesn't allow us in a few years even to make gene edits, for example, that could eliminate deadly genetic diseases that would otherwise kill a future child. I don't think that's worth it.

MICHAEL MORELL:

Yeah. So, given all the implications of this, this is an issue that needs to be attended to by the government--

JAMIE METZL:

Yes.

MICHAEL MORELL:

--right? They need to be paying attention to this.

JAMIE METZL:

Absolutely.

MICHAEL MORELL:

I'm thinking about it in a national security sense, that if you are in an intelligence agency, this is something that you have to pay attention to, right?

JAMIE METZL:

Absolutely.

MICHAEL MORELL:

If you're in the National Security Council, this is something you have to pay attention to. If you're the president, this is something you have to pay attention to. Are we paying enough attention?

JAMIE METZL:

Absolutely not. You know, when you open up the newspaper, at least in this country, what do you see? You see Trump and the Mueller Report. Now I'm not saying that's unimportant, but the story of our generation is not Trump; it's that this was the time when we increasingly took control of all of biology, including our own biology.

Our government is woefully unprepared. But rather than recognizing that these are really important issues, and rather than having the President of the United States set the agenda, saying, "These are really tough issues. We're gonna have to figure them out," these aren't partisan issues but we're going to have to really educate the public, because this has to be a top-down and bottom-up process.

We have to struggle with some really tough issues, where there are costs and benefits. And we have to be thinking about the future, and we're just doing a terrible job, and these are the critical moments, because there will come a time in the future, as with every issue, when people retreat behind their barricades, and then they stop listening to one another.

And right now, people don't know where their barricades are. We can have an inclusive, meaningful, thoughtful conversation. The reason why I've written the book is I want anybody, whatever your background, whether you're an adult, a child, left, right, whatever, to have one book that you can read and say, "All right, now I get it."

At the end of the book, I say, "Here are nine essential questions that you should ask with your church group, with your book club," and there are no absolute answers to this, but if we all aren't part of the process, part of the conversation, then we're really in trouble.

MICHAEL MORELL:

Jamie, extraordinarily interesting and important stuff. The book is Hacking Darwin, and the author is Jamie Metzl. Jamie, thank you for being with us.

JAMIE METZL:

Really my pleasure, Mike.

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