G-d, please stand aside; we have work to do

Just this past Shabbat, I had the tremendous honor of celebrating 24 years of marriage to my supermodel, Yiddishe mama, wife. My wife is a highly educated individual, with 3 degrees, the last one being in law. She is incredibly well versed in Jewish law and definitely keeps me in my place whenever I think I have a new thought on religion. She is the mother of my three children, and has provided them with a nourishing home, in every sense of the word. I truly would be nowhere without her, and I want to take this opportunity to thank her. I did buy her a nice ring, so I’m not completely useless.

Over this Shabbat, we had more than 30 guests, including a number of my son’s friends. One of those friends is studying for his certification as a rabbi (smicha). He is a young, goodhearted, bright man, and I believe he will do good things throughout his life. However, as it is my nature, I picked a fight with him. It wasn’t a mean, disparaging interaction. We got into a whole discussion about the absolute nature of morality, and whether Jewish law does evolve over time. He held his own, and I was definitely impressed.

One of the questions I asked him was whether a 25-year-old man marrying a 14-year-old girl was morally acceptable. According to Jewish law, if the girl accepts the marriage proposal and ring (or any object of value) from the 25-year-old man, they are married according to Jewish law, and would require a religious divorce. In today’s age, this would lead to the arrest of the 25-year-old man for abuse of a minor, and the man would be labeled as a sex offender, which would be a mark he would carry for the rest of his life.

Less than 100 years ago, morality was different. I know of multiple such unions that happened early on in the 1900s, before and leading up to the Second World War and Holocaust. These unions were not abusive. In fact, I know of one case for sure, where the 14-year-old girl grew to be the 90-year-old great great grandmother of over 60 multigenerational offspring. I have even seen a picture of her holding her fifth-generation descendent. When she would speak of her late husband, it was with love and tears after his passing. The obvious question is how can morality change so quickly. Conversely, are we right to limit a 14-year-old girl today from marrying a 25-year-old man? I wouldn’t dare get into the discussion here. My primary point is that our sense of absolute morality is incredibly fluid.

Nazi Germany saw as its goal, the perfection of the human race. Nazi scientists performed nightmarish, immoral, tortuous experiments on human beings, all in the name of producing a genetically perfect human. This is one of the primary reasons that the entire field of eugenics is seen as bereft of morality and as a prime example of man’s inhumanity to man. It has only been 70 years since the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps. One would think that this is far too short a time for people’s perspectives on such fundamental issues to change.

Just this morning I read two separate articles related to, what is now, a well-known genetic procedure that uses a specific type of gene editing tool called CRISPR. It has been only three years since CRISPR has become so well known to biologists, medical researchers and investors. It is expected that hundreds of millions of dollars, if not more, will flow into CRISPR research in 2016, and I would not dare predict what will be in 2017.

At the same time, the British Telegraph posted an amazing story with the title “British scientists granted permission to genetically modify human embryos.” The article goes on to describe how this embryonic research comes on the back of similar work that is already being done in China. There is specific reference made to all of the safeguards that will be imposed, such that this type of research does not “get out of hand”. The researchers themselves are driven by the tremendous possible positive potential of identifying genes that cause infertility as well as congenital diseases that can destroy the lives of newborns and their families.

In time, genes will be identified in this way that also have to do with the health of the patient throughout his or her life, and thus, the question will arise if these genes should be modified. There are many contrary voices to this granting of permission for such research. The obvious argument is that this is the first step towards legalized eugenics across the world. In my opinion, this is likely the future road of this technology. Whether it should be banned or not is a whole different story.

For those who follow this blog, I apologize for repeating a previous statement, specifically that the only sure things in life are “death, taxes and progress.” Of course, with sufficient progress, we will likely overcome death and maybe even taxes. I think it is already clear just from these two articles that progress is progressing faster than we can keep up. What happens when a gene modifying tool is developed on a Sunday, and by Friday has already received certification and is then being put up for an IPO? How can anybody outside of a very small community of scientists and business people, keep up with this pace of change? The answer is that no one outside of this small group will be able to contemplate the potential positives and negatives, and fundamental morality, of using tools that hit the market so quickly.

People sometimes forget that there is a world outside of the United States. America is arguably very conservative in granting permission for such revolutionary technologies. But this article from the Telegraph proves that Europe will not wait until America has decided one way or the other on issues of moral research. To be blunt, what is brewing is nothing less than a Cold War with all of the associated implications. If certain countries succeed in genetically “improving” humans, yet the rest of the world refuses to follow suit for moral reasons, we could very quickly find ourselves in a world where half the population is hugely superior, physically and mentally, to the other half. What happens when this whole new race of super humans decides to overtake those countries that consider themselves too morally superior to indulge in such eugenics research?

I cannot help myself but once again recall the words of Robert Oppenheimer after the first atomic bomb was detonated in 1945. Oppenheimer quoted an ancient Hindu text (Bhagavad Gita) and stated “now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds”. In practice, despite Three-mile Island, Chernobyl and Japan, nuclear power has not yet brought the destruction of our world, and in time will hopefully lead to much safer, cleaner and potentially endless energy from nuclear fusion. Nuclear missiles may be the only thing that saves this planet from a huge asteroid that would otherwise create an extinction level event. Was Oppenheimer right? Once again, I wouldn’t dare try to answer the question.

Here’s another thought. Are we fulfilling our evolutionary purpose by using the minds that we have developed via “natural” evolution, to begin creating the next human being in a lab? Was it the universe’s intent that we do so? Was it G-d’s intent that we do so? Of course, these are unanswerable questions, despite how adamant people may be about their personal opinions on the subject.

These eugenic-capable technologies are here. The world is slowly but surely becoming comfortable with using them, despite the risks involved. I personally would be surprised if genetic editing does not rapidly progress to such a point that it does end up being used in children and adults, just as we hand out antibiotics for an ear infection. I don’t imagine it will be very long before in-utero genetic modification become commonplace. If the results of such a practice are uniformly positive, will the world still reject eugenics outright?

We are presently in the midst of a new infectious disease threat that has the potential to affect millions, if not more, newborns throughout the world. The Zika virus is relatively unknown to the world, but over the last year has begun to spread voraciously. It is transmitted by mosquitoes in the same way that malaria is spread. If a pregnant woman becomes infected with this virus, her child can be born with a condition referred to as microcephaly, which exactly means “small head”. This is by no means just a cosmetic problem. There is major brain damage associated with this condition and the afflicted  children will suffer, especially in resource limited poorer countries.

What if we soon discover a mechanism for in-utero manipulation of the human genome such that we negate the effects of this virus, or make the fetus immune to its effects.? What parent, frightened of this virus, would not seriously consider taking advantage of the latest genetic technology? Admittedly, in this case, we are not talking about eugenics, but rather correcting a pathological condition. But once the genie is out of the bottle, would anyone be surprised if parents start exploring the possibility of genetically modifying their children to be resistant to all diseases? What about genetically modifying their children to be smarter, faster, taller, or more physically beautiful?

I believe that it was G-d who created this universe and it was by G-d’s hand that humans came into existence in the form that they are. If so, I believe that G-d was fully aware of humankind’s potential, and foresaw our “taking over” of the creation process. Admittedly, despite our human ability to do certain things, Jewish law specifically prohibits some of them. The fundamental laws against cruelty to animals are biblical, not a recent Westernized invention. So, is our ability to genetically evolve the human species, the intent of The Divinity, or is it something that we are meant to avoid? I have my personal opinions, but I suspect that no matter what I think or what most of the world thinks, eugenics is inevitable. What this will mean for my future, G-d willing, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, I have absolutely no idea.

I will say this. By the time my great-grandchildren come along, the concept of morality will likely have dramatically evolved once again. And I will not even be around to remind my great-grandchildren that once upon a time, things were very different.

Thanks for listening.

About the Author
Dr. Nahum Kovalski received his bachelor's of science in computer science and his medical degree in Canada. He came to Israel in 1991 and married his wife of 22 years in 1992. He has 3 amazing children and has lived in Jerusalem since making Aliyah. Dr. Kovalski was with TEREM Emergency Medical Services for 21 years until June of 2014, and is now a private consultant on medicine and technology.