The technology of CRISPR (“clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats”) is revolutionising the world of biology and medicine, yet we have barely begun to explore the profound implications of this gene-editing technology in the discipline of social anthropology. CRISPR is a gene surgery technology that can change the genome of any living organism (Kirksey 2021). This technology has the potential to eradicate genetic diseases, alter the boundaries between the species, and redefine what it means to be human. The scientific world has optimistically focused upon endeavours such as the treatment of genetic diseases and the use of nonhuman DNA in the engineering of organs for transplants. The darker side of this technology is that it harbours the potential to create new inequalities. Some fear that CRISPR could be weaponised by the military or used in the pursuit of a ‘dominant’ race, for instance, by preference for certain phenotypic characteristics over others. These fears are rooted in the structural inequalities of the social world and thus, it is important to explore the social dimensions of CRISPR. This article will discuss the role and influence of power in the regulation of CRISPR technology, and how its use may change our fundamental understandings of what it means to be human.
The regulation of this radical technology is crucial and highly debated by intellectuals across the scientific community. Treading with caution and responsibility with a technology with unknown and possibly uncontrollable ecological impacts, the scientific community is attempting to proceed with research within and beyond the lab in complete compliance with the ethical guidelines. On the other hand, there exists another community of individuals called “biohackers” who are focused on accessibility and free regulation of the CRISPR technology (Unnatural Selection 2019). Building upon Lila Abu-Lughod’s notion of resistance as a “diagnostic of power” (1990), the existence of the biohacker community highlights the role of the institutions of power such as the governments that regulate this technology. While many fear the creation of new inequalities with this technology through enhancement, the biohackers believe that the regulation of this technology will magnify the socioeconomic inequalities that we already dwell in. The drug pricing of the genetic treatments developed by pharmaceutical companies only strengthen this belief. Despite the genetic treatment drugs having economic development costs, pharmaceutical companies only seem focused on the production of profit. As corporations that have access to medication for, so far incurable diseases, these corporations have a renewed sense of god-like power that allows them to price these drugs ridiculously high at what they determine to be the cost of human life (Unnatural Selection 2019). These iniquitous actions of pharmaceutical corporations have led to the creation of resistance movements such as those of the biohackers who aim to fight the monopolisation of this technology and medication by the higher socioeconomic classes of society. This creates a significant conflict between chaotic genetic democracy and socioeconomic monopolisation by the affluent.
Another social implication of CRISPR technology is the redefinition of “democracy”. Democracy has acquired two alternate redefinitions with the varied contextualization. Extending the boundaries of CRISPR experimentation from the laboratory to the real world requires the passage of various ethical thresholds. This includes the consent of the individuals who occupy the area where ecological changes invoked by this technology take place. Acquiring this consent requires a process of discussion and a democratic vote but the question is, what percentage should be considered as consent from the community to proceed? Should it be more than half of the population, or all members of the community (Unnatural Selection 2019)? Would a majority suffice as a democratic vote in such circumstances? The CRISPR technology gives rise to another element of democracy: genetic democracy. Should people have control over their own genetic information, should people be restricted by their genomes? These are the questions that the biohacker community dares to ask. The biohackers creating accessible forms of this technology are feared by the scientific community. They are afraid of the consequences that unregulated experiments will generate for the human genome and the environment. On the other hand, the biohackers are concerned about the inequalities regulating this technology will generate and argue that they are exposed to ridicule because of their lack of association with academic institutions (Unnatural Selection 2019). They believe that simply because their experiments are occurring in a basement or a garage instead of a scientific laboratory, they are dangerous and reckless. This suggests an illusion of safety and reliability created by the institutionalisation of science. Josiah Zayner, biohacker and CEO of Odin, a company that provides access to beginners’ CRISPR kits and classes on understanding and using CRISPR, encourages the idea of CRISPR democracy and accessibility. He believes that using CRISPR should be simple and that one doesn’t necessarily have to know everything about how it functions to use it (Unnatural Selection 2019).
This idea is controversial within the scientific community and is interpreted differently in varied social and cultural contexts. Elders of the Maori community in New Zealand do not agree with the idea of the interference of technology with the whakapapa, which can informally be defined as the network of relationships among and with the environment (Unnatural Selection 2019). This highlights how the integration of CRISPR in the socio-cultural world is framed by social constructs and cultural understandings. Another focus of CRISPR is the treatment of genetic diseases, including those which affect sensory functions such as sight. The social experience around disabilities creates an understanding of the creation of our surroundings from a dominantly able-bodied perspective. This highlights the inaccessibilities created for individuals in different places of the ability spectrum. An Instagram post by a drag queen who is deaf proposes that the solution to the issue of inaccessibility should not be fixing the disability but rather making the world more accessible, because their ears are not broken; the way their body functions is simply different (Impact 2022). This provokes a further discussion about CRISPR creating the biological possibility of changing such genetic mutations. Would that change perceptions and attitudes towards the ability spectrum? Could CRISPR be the biological pathway to equity in terms of accessibility or is the aim to create infrastructural accessibility?
CRISPR is a phenomenal technology, but we cannot understand its implications in the social world through a binary perspective. Infrastructural accessibility is essential, but biological equity should be a choice. The question is, is it a choice? This article has explored the subjects of regulation and accessibility of this technology. It has further discussed how institutions of power function in conflict around the choice between the dangers of genetic democracy and the terror of socioeconomic monopolisation. We live in the age of the Anthropocene where the power to change the code of life for any living organism, forever altering the course of evolution, is dominated by the choices of a single species, Homo sapiens.
Title image source: Pixabay
- Abu-Lughod, L. (1990). The Romance of Resistance: Tracing Transformations of Power Through Bedouin Women. American Ethnologist 17(1):41–55.
- Eben Kirksey (2021) MUTANT PROJECT: Inside the global race to genetically modify humans. Bristol, UK: Bristol University Press.
- Impact (2022) Instagram, 5 April. (Accessed: 20 April 2022)
- Unnatural Selection (2019) TV series, Netflix.