The next time you are in a public place, look around and consider: These are the last people on earth who are going to die.
If you keep up with the latest developments in CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats) gene-editing technology, that’s the conclusion you would have to take away. In May, over a hundred scientists and other interested parties attended a closed-door meeting at Harvard to discuss fabricating a human genome from scratch.
Within my lifetime, it seems inevitable that genome production and gene-editing will eliminate many congenital diseases and even abate the aging process itself. Within your lifetime, if you are under 30, molecular biologists may be promising not just longevity, but immortality.
So we will be the last to die: Generation Death.
The social implications are enormous. Births, once at a premium, will become more rare, almost like planned replacement parts. The economic effects seem impossible to parse. Men and women might opt for a few decades of productive work followed by an Elysian life of leisure. Or, with a nod to science fiction, we could breed a working class. Let the Unit-3000s do all the work.
I’m interested in the religious implications of genomic immortality. Isn’t Christianity’s greatest claim that its Savior conquered death? But suppose the Broad Institute over on Main Street in Cambridge can make that same promise, in fifteen years or so? Where does that leave the world’s largest religion, and theology?
The Personal Genetics Education Project, based at the Harvard Medical School, invited a minister to offer a Christian perspective on recent advances in genetic technology. (He asked not to be identified, because he intends to refine his views in the future.) He explained the doctrine of “Imago dei,” meaning that the human body is sacrosanct because (Genesis 1:27) it is created in the image of God.
Does cutting-edge genomic research desecrate God? he asked. Does it dehumanize people and treat them as common objects? He further argued that so-called germline editing, to create genetically modified embryos, “will dehumanize our offspring by causing us, as parents, to be ontologically superior to them; our children would be ‘made’ rather than ‘begotten.’ ”
Father John Paris, S.J., the Walsh Professor of Bioethics at Boston College, thinks I’m wrong on the facts and wrong on the theory. “Socrates’ observation that ‘All men are mortal’ might be politically unfashionable, but it is still accurate,” he said. “Americans have this idea that ‘death is an option,’ and that there’s going to be salvation and immortality through medicine. I don’t know anybody who isn’t going to die.”
Paris refers me to I Corinthians 15:14 (“And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is worthless”) before attacking my idea that Christian belief is death- centric. “Christian theology is not based on death — think of the Creation story. The operating premise is to know and love God here on earth, and then death is an unacceptable part of what’s going on. If you want to eliminate dying, then all of that is just a pipe dream; I’m not at all convinced.”
That’s what they think. I think religion will lose its centuries-long battle with science. Change always occurs much later than you think. The delay heartens the doubters, but change occurs nonetheless.
As a card-carrying member of Generation Death, I am of two minds. It might be nice to be around when the women and men in white coats accomplish in reality what Jesus Christ promised metaphorically two thousand years ago. Or would it? I am afraid I will never know.Alex Beam’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @imalexbeamyrnot.