Book Review by Hazel Henderson: “THE CODE BREAKER”

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Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing, and the Future of the Human Race

Walter Isaacson, Simon & Schuster, 2021

©Hazel Henderson 2021

“Walter Isaacson has exceeded all his previous best-selling biographies with “THE CODE BREAKER: Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing and the Future of the Human Race” (2021).  As a science policy advisor, I was deeply engrossed in this superb framing of newly-minted 2020 Nobelist Jennifer Doudna and her deeply ethical work on developing the CRISPR gene-editing tool.

Isaacson describes in this richly-illustrated, engrossing account of all the scientific collaboration and global collaborators in the evolving field of gene-editing, as well as the often corrupting role of money and patents in the market-dominated individualistic culture in the USA.  Isaacson describes how deeper motives of sheer love of nature, reverence, and curiosity which drives most scientists clashes with venture capitalists’ motives and the lure of big wins for biotech stocks on Wall Street.

I recalled my own involvement in the public debates in the USA of the 1970s and 1980s on whether any life form could be patented, and my many discussions with my friend Jeremy Rifkin, who wrote with Ted Howard “Who Shall Play God? (1977).  I was at that time a member of the Technology Assessment Advisory Council (TAAC) of the US Office of Technology Assessment, a member of the National Science Foundation’s Research Applied to National Needs (RANN) Committee and on the Committee on Public Engineering Policy (COPEP) of the National Academies of Science and Engineering.  We were following these genetic engineering issues closely, at the famous Asilomar Conference in 1975 and our own TAAC follow-up at the Aspen Institute.

I was aghast at the US Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision in 1980 to recognize patents on life forms. Isaacson brings all these debates to life and updates them for their even greater importance for 2021 and our common human future.  He recounts in Chapter 36 Jennifer Doudna’s battles over patents for CRISPR in 2014, and her nightmare, where a prominent researcher asked her to meet someone who wanted to learn about gene-editing. “When she went into the room, she recoiled. Sitting in front of her was Adolf Hitler with the face of a pig.”  I want to understand the uses and implications of this amazing technology you’ve developed “he said.  Doudna was jolted awake“ (page 283).

Today’s science policy world is still thrashing out these momentous issues, after the renegade Chinese scientist actually used CRISPR to change the genes in two Chinese embryos which resulted in the first two CRISPER babies (page 290).  Chinese authorities sentenced him to 3 years in jail.  hese babies forced societies to face the issues of such germline editing, which introduces changes in every succeeding generation.  Should parents be allowed to design their children and enhance traits they deem desirable?  In market-dominated societies like the USA, how much additional inequality would this create, since only richer parents could afford to buy such services?  Isaacson recounts all these ethical dilemmas and the rich literature that frames these questions.

This book will become required reading by all those in science and technology, as well as political and business leaders and all concerned citizens facing the current state of our species on this endangered planet Earth.

~Hazel Henderson, Editor“