In a underground compound away from prying eyes, Dr. Sarina Kaur conducted the most ambitious large-scale genetic experiment the world had ever seen. She sought to forever transform the face of humanity. Her team of top scientists genetically modified hundreds of embryos to create and seed Earth with a greater human species. Children of the so-called Chrysalis Project became powerful tyrants who helmed wars that killed millions.
That bloody chapter in the Star Trek universe demonized genetic manipulation, and its practice was forbidden on Earth.
Khan Noonien Singh, known simply as Khan, was the cream of the genetic crop. Before being deposed as ruler of Asia and the Middle East, he had been the most successful conqueror and benign ruler borne from the Chrysalis Project. Beneath his strength, he was arrogant. He considered himself wiser, stronger, smarter and therefore better than ordinary humankind.
Dr. Kaur’s vision to replace humanity failed, and her only son, Khan, was condemned to a life of conflict. Earth’s champion, Captain James T. Kirk, would ultimately outsmart and defeat the tyrant, but not before Khan handed Kirk a very personal defeat. Crazy-eyed and unhinged in the wake of being marooned, Kirk’s iconic yowl cemented his place in the hallowed annals of film history.
Star Trek’s Eugenics Wars took place in the ‘90s, and Khan was frozen in space for hundreds of years before the events of “Space Seed”(TOS S1EP22) and, later, “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.” While humanity’s fight over genetics was a no-go in the ‘90s (though Chia Pets and Mr. Potato Head were big, and they are both definitely abominations), the race for the age of super-soldiers is now upon us.
With breakthroughs in nanotechnology, human-computer interfacing and gene editingconstantly revolutionizing the scientific arena, the future is murky. It’s not clear what the battle for Eugenics is going to be about — disease, warfare, intelligence, information or something else entirely. Humans have a knack for jumping before they look. There will almost certainly be drama and suffering, but also hope that we can properly control our science — before it kills us.
In the Star Trek universe, DNA re-sequencing is outlawed. Most people probably didn’t know what that meant when Khan debuted in the 1960s.
In 2015, the infamous biohacker Dr. Josiah Zayner. CRISPR refers to a particular naturally-occurring sequence of genetic material; the new technology allowing for the re-sequencingof that genetic material is Cas9. This technology allows for the selective editing of DNA information so that an organism matures differently.
The scientific community unanimously denounced the practice of DNA re-sequencing outside of a controlled laboratory environment. Dr. Zayner claimed that his kit was very limited and suggested he was not promoting the practice of unsafe science. Two years later, while live-streaming on YouTube, Dr. Zayner would inject himself with re-sequenced genetic material he made in his own garage.
In late 2018, history again changed forever when Dr. He Jiankui revealed publicly that he had independently used CRISPR editing to genetically modify unborn babies to be immune to HIV, and to possibly have enhanced their brains.
Discoveries in related fields continue to propel new advances, and gene editing breakthroughs are becoming more common. Diseases believed to be curable through gene editing are HIV and sickle cell anemia; scientists are making progress towards curing cancer, as well. Further into the speculative domain involves the study of synthetic materials, with scientists exploring immunity to aging. By isolating and combining microscopic biological material, scientists are learning more about organisms that re-grow lost limbs and unicellular organisms with biological immortality.
The world’s single biggest medical researcher is the U.S. military. The military drives much of medical research and is involved in basically every speculative scientific field. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), a joint military and government cooperation, deals with national security and emerging threats and technologies. DARPA’s Neural Engineering System Design (NESD) program is developingneuro-technology to enhance soldiers’ vision and sight. Advanced neuro-interfacing would create a connective network between a soldier’s brain and a variety of robotic and medical devices contained on the soldier’s person.
A fully realized NESD system might monitor a soldier’s adrenaline levels and administer automatic chemical doses if it senses a slowing heart rate or muscle fatigue. This technology already exists, albeit in a less robust civilian form.
The Spire Stone is a wearable bio-device that monitors your anxiety levels. The data Spire Stone collects helps you to “unlock the calming power of your own breath with visual exercises and guided meditation.” In truth, it’s a bio-sensor that comes with an app which teaches you how to breathe and reminds you do the exercises. NESD would go a step further by integrating a bio-sensor like the Spire Stone into soldiers. It might be plugged it into an arm and automatically dispense chemicals to reset the soldier to optimal functionality.
No Time for Ethics
There are tremendous consequences for countries that lose the big races. Winning the race for the atomic bomb secured the Allies’ victory in the ‘40s. Losing the Space Race of the ‘60s economically crippled the Soviet Union. Already, the future of gene editing has transitioned from a brisk walk into a competitive jog between China and the USA.
If one country achieves a major breakthrough in editing the human genome, every capable country would be compelled to follow suit. We’ve previously covered some of the concerns surrounding China’s biometric surveillance systems;to this day, nuclear weaponry has divided the world into havesand have-nots. So-called rogue states, like North Korea, will break rules others might follow in order to secure any advantage and join in at the table among the other ‘haves.’These global races are like seeing who can run the fastest with scissors without killing themselves.
Shining Achievements Drag Long Shadows
To understand the dark side of technology, look no further than the devastating attacks on Japan’s civilian population that ended World War II. If there is, indeed, a racefor genetic superiority — whether between families, countries or across the world — what happens to the losers?
Shining achievements drag long shadows. In Star Trek, Dr. Kaur raises her child among other genetically created super-humans in an underground lair where children paint perfect facsimiles of the Mona Lisa and build architectural masterpieces out of blocks. Deeper in the facility is a padded room containing children broken by the DNA experimentation. Some of the children don’t resemble children at all, but half-finished designs life has crumpled up and tossed into the rubbish bin.
The threat of humans turning technology against themselves, intentionally or not, has been rattling around in our consciousness since the beginning of time, and they say the road to hell is paved with good intentions.
In Star Trek lore, The Eugenics War of the 1990s killed 35 million people (37 million died in WWI). The debate over genetic enhancement was not settled, however, as countries fighting for genetic superiority would set off World War III in 2026. While Star Trek doesn’t exactly match The Simpsons’ record of predicting the future, its clear take on the future of genetics presents humanity with a huge opportunity — and dangerous slope.
A global genetics regulatory body might be able to set and enforce international mandates; the opportunity may prove too tantalizing for any sort of body of ethics, however. The hope regarding gene editing is that humanity can reach an accord instead of learning from catastrophe or war.