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Henry T. Greely


This episode is about the evolution of our human bodies through CRISPR technologies. This includes not only the implications to our bodies but the ethical and moral implications for us as a society ahead. 

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Photo credit: Scott MacDonald

Being nimble’ certainly feels like the name of the game for an architect these days. Any sort of park, building or landscape has an increasingly large number of evolving pressures to contend with, from climate, communication technologies to social practices. From pen to paper, from permit to inaugural plague and beyond, how will a space age. It’s not a question of changing styles or fades in shapes or color but an ability to evolve and updating to meet that change.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s certainly possible as an architect to future proof’ one’s work in quirky shapes, deferring such pressures as beyond our discipline, and instead finding security in self-referential histories…but that seems regressive and short sighted…quite frankly, boring. 

But this instinct to defer engagement of all these external forces raise a good question…at what point is something simply outside our disciplinary purview. Any given project can only tackle so much. No doubt, regular listeners to this program have asked this same question. These last few years have certainly taught me that I can only worry about so much. But maybe like a good shepherd, architects need to have their eyes peeled to the periphery, ready for movement. Eyes trained in a type of pattern recognition, scanning for what that might be of concern or opportunity. 

Let’s take our human body’s as an example. A pretty big variable when discussing design. Manipulating geometry, environments and energies doesn’t mean much without understanding how our bodies perceive that input. And our human bodies have been an ongoing experiment for hundreds of thousands of years. Not only as new forms of human species, but within our own species. As we wear devices that change our current sensory perceptions (glasses, hearing aids) to devices we place in our bodies to prevent heart attaches or seizures in the brain. Devices we wear, inject or place within our bodies often begin under the guise of improving health, eventually they are adopted for convenience and then inevitably for entertainment.

So when discussions of CRISPR began percolating into our news and the implications of what this could mean to editing our bodies, many of our ears perked up in curiosity. As designers and architects, we are unlikely to see implications of this work in our lifetimes on the people and communities we work within. It should at least be of note to a discipline for no other reason than how common place these discussions are occurring regarding something so fundamental as what it means to be human. This isn’t your parent’s science fiction, it’s your grandchildren’s reality. But taking people out of the equation completely, CRISPR technology is much more likely to influence the biologies of plants and ecologies we live within. This is certainly a more immediate concern and one we as designers should be having.

The conversation today in many ways is about how the future has a way of happening all of a sudden. Though CRISPR is a known technique / technology, it wasn’t assumed we’d be seeing humans as a place for experimentation any time soon, until one day … we realized someone had done just that!

Just a quick note about the structure of Henry Greely’s book. The first half of the book chronicles the work of a Chinese scientist that would edit the DNA of several babies when embryos. This work was essentially done in secrecy before being reveled just before an international conference. The ramifications of this work were swift. This included fines and jail time in China but little is known of the trial or the children born. Secrecy was maintained not only by the Chinese government, but by the US universities that had faculty either involved or with knowledge about the research. Henry Greely is Professor of Law. Professor by Courtesy of Genetics and Director of the Stanford Center for Law and Biosciences at Stanford University. His work here is to try and better understand who knew what and when and to unravel the ethical implications not only of the research but the systems in place during this work. I don’t usually recap a book prior to a discussion, but it’s important that in this case to know the existing story-line before hearing the conversation.

Thanks to Richard Devine for Sample permissions.

Henry T. Greely

Henry T. Hank” Greely is the Deane F. and Kate Edelman Johnson Professor of Law and Professor, by courtesy, of Genetics at Stanford University. He specializes in ethical, legal, and social issues arising from advances in the biosciences, particularly from genetics, neuroscience, and human stem cell research. He chairs the California Advisory Committee on Human Stem Cell Research and the steering committee of the Stanford University Center for Biomedical Ethics, and directs the Stanford Center for Law and the Biosciences and the Stanford Program in Neuroscience and Society. He serves as a member of the NAS Committee on Science, Technology, and Law; the NIGMS Advisory Council, the Institute of Medicine’s Neuroscience Forum, and the NIH Multi-Center Working Group on the BRAIN Initiative. Professor 

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