Brave new world?

Brave new world?

Speaker at Schechter explores implications of ‘terrifying and exciting’ biotechnical revolution

Jamie Metzl takes questions from Schechter students after his talk.
Jamie Metzl takes questions from Schechter students after his talk.

Jamie Metzl is a formidably — perhaps even intimidatingly — well-educated man.

But he was in town last week — New Milford, to be specific — to talk not to academics but to the students at the Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County.

His subject was his two not-necessarily-obviously-connected intellectual passions — human genetic engineering and the rise of China and Asia. His talk at Schechter was part of the school’s program to bring what it calls “experts, role models, and eyewitnesses” to its middle-schoolers.

Dr. Metzl, who earned his undergraduate degree at Brown, a Ph.D. in Asian history from Oxford, and a law degree from Harvard, has a list of accomplishments so long that it’s hard to figure out how to list them. He’s a partner in an investing firm; a fellow at the Atlantic Council; a writer whose two novels have been published by the prestigious St. Martin’s Press; a former board member of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society; a board member of the Brandeis International Center for Ethics, Justice and Public Life, as well as other nonprofits; a triathlete who has completed 12 Ironmans and dozens of other races; an aspiring if not-yet-successful politician (he ran for a congressional seat in Missouri, where he once had been a Schechter student, a decade ago); and a public speaker. (This, readers should note, is an abbreviated summary of Dr. Metzl’s resume.

This polymathic background has led Dr. Metzl to become “absolutely obsessed with genetics, and with the biotechnical revolution,” he said. “That and the rise of Asia and China are two of the biggest drivers of change in our era.”

More specifically, about biotech and genetics — “I think they are going to change aspects of who we are as human beings on a fundamental level,” he said. Scientists’ knowledge, and along with it their ability to perform what not long ago would have seemed like miracles, is growing quickly. Our understanding of the practical and moral implications of that growth is not growing as fast.

“We have so many amazing scientists, but sometimes it is hard for them to see the big picture,” Dr. Metzl said. “That’s because they are so caught up in it. That’s the crazy thing; the science of genetic engineering is advancing so rapidly, and our society is on the verge of big change. But we’re not really talking about it.

“In the near term, the genetic revolution will be in embryo selection,” Dr. Metzl said. In fact, there already have been advances in fertility treatments, and “we have the technology to screen out single-gene mutations for things like Tay-Sachs, and Huntington’s disease, and others. Soon we will have enough knowledge of the human genome to be able to screen for so-called positive attributes, like intelligence, or height, or anything with a genetic foundation.”

Such ability, of course, is not a straightforwardly good thing. As befitting an idea of great complexity, it’s very complicated. “The positive spin is that there is a chance to eliminate genetic disease and optimize our offspring, but the negative spin is that it has the potential to become a form of eugenics.

“And no group is as sensitive to the issue of eugenics as Jews are,” he said.

As Dr. Metz sees the future of human reproduction — and that’s the near future, he stressed — “embryo selection will become a much more important part of the reproductive process, and that means that increasingly people will have children through IVF” — in-vitro fertilization, when an egg is fertilized outside a woman’s body — “specifically to do embryo selection.

“That will allow us to eliminate most genetic diseases, so over time people will come to see many of the genetic diseases as disease of choice, that for ideological reasons people have chosen not to screen. Over time, the idea of conceiving children through sex will be seen as an ideological choice equivalent to not immunizing your children, or being a Christian Scientist.”

Although that might seem to be a class issue — richer people can afford all sorts of fancy techniques outside the reach of the plebes — it’s not necessarily so, Dr. Metz said. “With the cost of IVF and genome sequencing going down, it will become less expensive to screen for genetic diseases than to treat them, over the course of a lifetime. When that happens, governments and insurance companies will become huge stakeholders who will want to have people screen their embryos.”

Moreover, he added, stem cells are at their best when they are taken from five-day-old embryos; when children are born through IVF, doctors will be able to take and store their stem cells. That means that “personalized medicine” — which uses those stem cells — “is likely to be the medicine of the future.”

Seventh-grader Chana Berkman and sixth-grader Evan Block talk to Mr. Metzl. Daniel Jaye, the school’s director of academic affairs, is in the background.
Seventh-grader Chana Berkman and sixth-grader Evan Block talk to Mr. Metzl. Daniel Jaye, the school’s director of academic affairs, is in the background.

On the other hand, “There are huge dangers in reducing the genetic diversity of the human species,” he said. And to get all science-fiction-y, it is possible that the fact that there always will be some people who would have babies the traditional way would lead to the creation of an underclass, “and it might be that in 200 years or so there would be a significant IQ difference between those groups,” Dr. Metz said.

To a horrified listener, it evokes images of H.G. Well’s “Time Machine,” with the human-descended Morlocks preying on the Eloi, another but differently human-descended group.

“I am not for or against” the idea that that advances in genetics, IVF techniques, and personalized medicine will lead to this strange new world, Dr. Metz said. “I am an agnostic on that.

“What I know is that this technology is coming, and different societies will make different decisions, and they all will have huge implications.

“Now is the time to have meaningful conversations about these issues and implications. Unfortunately, we are not having that conversation as often as we should.”

The future is pretty close, he added. “I spoke to sixth- and seventh-graders — I believe that every one of them will be touched by this technology. It’s here now, in one generation or less. That’s what people don’t understand. I am not talking about some technology in the future. This technology already exists.

“It is exciting and it is terrifying, and the exciting and terrifying pieces are interwoven. That is the challenge.”

Children educated in a day school are well up to meeting that challenge, he added. “These sixth- and seventh-graders were as sophisticated as any group I talk to. Their Talmud training has taught them to grapple with complicated issues, when there is no right or wrong, but a process of exploration.”

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