cover image As Gods: A Moral History of the Genetic Age

As Gods: A Moral History of the Genetic Age

Matthew Cobb. Basic, $35 (464p) ISBN 978-1-5416-0285-4

The power to change the blueprint of life comes with fraught ethical dilemmas, according to this knotty study of genetic engineering. University of Manchester biologist Cobb (The Idea of the Brain) recaps the development of genetic engineering, from DNA breakthroughs in the 1970s that let scientists introduce genes into viruses, bacteria, and mammals to new CRISPR technology that precisely rewrites DNA sequences. The author focuses on concerns over the safety and morality of the science, describing the ethical questions raised by a Chinese experiment that produced genetically engineered infants (and may have given them harmful mutations); the threat of engineered pandemics (he believes Covid-19 was of natural origin, but warns the next one might not be); and “gene drive” technologies that could spread sterilizing genes throughout an entire species and push it to extinction. The details fascinate (botanists use a “gene gun” to shoot DNA into plant cells), and Cobb’s lucid analysis illuminates the stakes of the scientific debates. Additionally, his evenhanded critique balances caution about emergent technologies with tart skepticism of overreaching claims (“There really does not seem to be much point to germline editing at all”). The result is an eye-opening—and occasionally hair-raising—indictment of scientific hubris and recklessness. Photos. (Nov.)