Genetically Modified Humans Are Pure Fiction—But Not for Long
Daniel Suarez has quickly established himself as the heir apparent to Michael Crichton with a string of fast-paced thrillers full of cutting-edge science. His new novel Change Agent is about a world transformed by ubiquitous genetic engineering and based real-life research that’s advancing at an astonishing rate.
In Suarez’s book, editing the genomes of human embryos is common, but strict limits are placed on edits that are considered too risky. That puts Interpol agents at odds with parents who want every genetic advantage for their children—as well as with the black market baby labs that cater to them.
One of Change Agent’s crazier plot points involves a criminal who attacks an Interpol agent and injects him with a substance that rewrites his DNA, transforming his body into that of a wanted criminal. Changing the genetic makeup of an adult organism may seem fantastical, but Suarez says the idea is based on current research.
“I would say it’s near the horizon,” Suarez says in Episode 251 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast, adding “I think we’re going to start to see some early incarnations of it within the next couple decades.”
Change Agent is set in and around Singapore, which the novel depicts as the new high-tech capital of the world. That’s a scenario Suarez considers all too plausible, given the way that public policy in America is being driven by anti-science views. “America really needs to embrace science and reason above all,” he says. “If we don’t, the rest of the world will.”
Suarez says that embracing science is particularly important given challenges like climate change. Engineering organisms that can help suck up excess carbon dioxide may be one of our best hopes for survival.
“The clock is ticking,” he says. “We have to start to acquire mastery of DNA. I think we have a fuse burning on that, and I think it will give us the ability to correct some of the damage we’ve done.”
Listen to our complete interview with Daniel Suarez in Episode 251 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above). And check out some highlights from the discussion below.
Daniel Suarez on deathless meat:
“I think a lot of vegans will encounter something of a conundrum when it comes to deathless meat—that is, meat that is grown in vitro, genetically identical to normal beef or chicken or pork, without an animal suffering. In fact, the idea here is you’d be able to support more diversity in agricultural animals, because you’d only need to keep a few alive, and you could just sample them, very painlessly, from skin cultures. And you could have all sorts of different types of beef, without straining the environment and with no animals suffering. And so some vegans have said, ‘I’d be willing to try it,’ because if they are against eating meat from a moral point of view—as opposed to nutritional reasons—then they’d really have no reason not to eat meat.”
Daniel Suarez on bioengineered products:
“I saw some very interesting experiments with organisms that were custom-designed to grow chitin—that is the shell substance that shrimp or molluscs have—and the ability to grow that to create products. It’s essentially biological 3D printing. … [And] if a lobster can grow interlocking plates and shells in very specific arrangements, why not grow products? Why not grow them with their packaging and their lettering? Because certainly animals have imprints on them all the time—patterns, camouflage—that are quite exact. They have some subtle variation, but the point I was trying to make there is, what would stop us from doing that? Why would we have to manufacture them in a big factory? Why couldn’t we just grow them?”
Daniel Suarez on killer robots:
“By putting forward a public policy, we aspirationally establish what is considered a norm. I’ve discussed this before with regard to what’s called ‘lethal autonomy’ in my book Kill Decision, and also in my TED Talk, where I talked about the idea of having drones or robotic weapons make the decision to kill humans. I don’t think that is a good thing. I think it will have unintended consequences. I think it will overly focus power, and really undermine representative democracy. Even if these machines work perfectly, I think they will undermine democracy. But do I believe that narco-traffickers and despots and organizations like that will use lethally autonomous robotic weapons? Absolutely. I think the challenge is to not normalize it.”
Daniel Suarez on super soldiers:
“Having good genetics doesn’t allow you to bypass physics—whether that’s caloric restrictions, cooling restrictions, what have you. I mean, I like a good story as much as the next guy, but X-Men and the idea of a mutation giving you the ability to spit flames out of your eyes? It’s really cool to look at, but when it comes to super soldiers—the abilities that would make you move through and succeed in life, whether that’s being tall, or having greater lung capacity, mental acuity, greater vision, all of these things, would be useful not just in war but in everyday life. But that still doesn’t stop you from dying when you get hit in the head by a bullet. So the whole super soldier thing I think is perhaps overblown. If you just had 10 normal people they’d probably be even more effective, rather than creating a strain of super soldiers who might then turn around and kill you anyway.”