A profile of George Church on 60 Minutes

December 10, 2019 • 1:00 pm

60 Minutes is the only non-evening-news show I watch on television, but I missed this week’s episode that included a 13-minute segment on Harvard /MIT geneticist George Church. I’ve written about Church before, but only to kvetch about his accommodationism, for he truly has a soft spot for religion, is a big-time accommodationist, and has pronounced that “the overlap between science and faith is vast and fertile.”  I believe I’ve also said that I think his project about “de-extincting” the wooly mammoth is a non-starter, as it won’t really revive that extinct species but merely genetically engineer a modern elephant to look like a wooly mammoth, having, for instance, more hair and longer tusks.

But that said, Church is an interesting guy and a scientific polymath, with all kinds of interests. Fortunately, 60 Minutes has put the segment on Church online, and you can see it by clicking on the screenshot below (I’d watch it soon before it disappears).  The site also has a transcript in case you’d prefer to read than to watch:

Extra segments include a two-minute extract in which Church discusses the money he took from Jeffrey Epstein (he says he didn’t know much about Epstein, though it’s not clear whether the man had already been convicted when Church took his dough), and a five-minute “overtime” segment in which interviewer Scott Pelley asks Church about the ethics of genetic engineering.

Church mentions a number of projects his 100-person lab (!!) is engaged in, including engineering humans so they’re less susceptible to viral infection (at first I thought that wasn’t viable since viruses mutate so readily, but he wants to alter the human genetic code in such a way that impossible multiple simultaneous mutations in the virus would be required to overcome the immunity). That might be dicey, but other projects, like growing human organs from one’s own cell, or rendering pig organs feasible for transplants by engineering out the pig viruses that prevent that), seem more viable. They’re at least sufficiently attractive that investors have put hundreds of millions of dollars behind these projects.

Other projects include genetic engineering to reverse the aging process (it seems to work in mice, and he’s trying now in dogs), and a dating app in which your genome is compared to your partner’s to see if your kids could get any genetic diseases (this is a more sophisticated method of what genetic counselors already do, like telling two carriers of Tay-Sachs disease that there’s a 25% chance that a child could have the syndrome).

It’s an absorbing interview, though perhaps a bit shallow for those of us who already knew some genetics. But it’s still amazing to see the breadth of his interests and research.  He’s also “neuroatypical” and has narcolepsy, so you can see him fall asleep in class.

But all that genetic engineering talk has angered some people, like this one:

But we have to remember that “eugenics” include both negative eugenics (fixing broken genomes, preventing the production of offspring with genetic diseases, curing genetic diseases by injecting DNA) and positive eugenics, which is the engineering of humans with more positive traits, like higher IQs and so on. The former is far less problematic than the latter, which is seen as “playing God”,  but you can’t just dismiss all genetic engineering as undesirable “eugenics” and “wrong”.  Further, Church has an ethicist on his staff and has thought carefully about the ethics of what he’s doing, so he’s not some kind of Hitler.

Let’s face it: genetic engineering of humans is inevitable, starting with eliminating or curing genetic diseases, and there’s nothing wrong with that so long as people think carefully about what they’re doing and so long as the dangers of tinkering with our genome are known and accepted.


31 thoughts on “A profile of George Church on 60 Minutes

  1. A much more engaging name than Wossname Peaquod-Winestain in the previous thread. Unfortunately, … time for me to go haggis-hunting.

      1. Haggs successfully issed last night. Once both sets of legs stop twitching, they can go on the hook to ripen before cooking. I use the “pleasant pheasant” criterion to decide when they’re ready for the pot – how about you?

        I did have to take to the lianas between the trees to get past the gamie though. Just as well the sleet was in his eyes.

  2. What’s wrong with eugenics, anyway? It’s obvious that humans would respond to attempts to improve our genomes in the same way that all other species do and it’s also obvious that there’s plenty of room for improvement.

    Surely we can improve our genetics – eliminating various diseases and disabilities, etc. for those who want it – without going down the road of forced sterilization, and what’s wrong with that?

    Some social policies have eugenic or dysgenic effects and policymakers interested in the long-term health of society would be good to consider them.

    Eugenics seems to me one of those obviously desirable things (if done well) that can’t be talked about because of taboo and knee-jerk reactions.

    1. Yes, I think so too. Things with a unacceptable history tend to be marked for a very long time. Nuclear power for instance. There is a reactionary aspect to human nature that in some cases can retard progress.

  3. Very interesting show I thought. We have genetically modified plants and grain, why not people. Can they do something about teeth, make them last longer.

  4. … “the overlap between science and faith is vast and fertile.”

    Same could be said about barnyard dung heaps.

  5. … it won’t really revive that extinct species but merely genetically engineer a modern elephant to look like a wooly mammoth …

    Artisanal heirloom pachyderms.

  6. Wear glasses?
    Take aspirin for a headache?

    We play (metaphoric) god all the time. It’s a boringly predictable question.

    Also, feet were meant for walking and not operating pedals in a car. Where does it end.

    So for our own collective sake, we need to experiment (as humanely as possible, in conversation) with life generally and even ourselves. Progress will cease if we permit warped piety to dictate the course of research.

  7. If the immunity to most disease is accomplished think how much it would save in vaccinations. I just went through the newer Shingles vaccine and it was not fun. Your arm is pretty sore for a couple of days and you react almost like having the flu overnight. It all goes away but you have to get two shots with this so you get to do it again. I also remember long ago when I was in the service. They give you so many shots you think they are just making them up.

      1. Yes, you will think right after you get the first shot that all is well. Within a short time your arm will get sore. Later it gets worse and you don’t want to move it much. Later you might get chills and feel like the flu with aches all over. It goes away but it is not a lot of fun either.

        1. Much depends on how the injection is done. I got the Shingrix prescription filled and did the injections myself. First one in the thigh hurt like hell, but the second one in the triceps was nbd. Important to relax before putting a needle and a big bolus of vaccine into a big muscle.

    1. I had shingles this summer, and believe me, I’d rather have gone through the agony of the vaccination. Not so much the pain (it wasn’t much worse than a bad sunburn, although it still persists six months later) but the complete enervation. I was incapable of doing anything that required any intellect for over two months, so I couldn’t even take advantage of the time off work (was pulled out of both my classes as I was infectious and not in a good way) to do some writing. Also got disinvited to a TV shoot on an animal that I’ve spent a good part of my life investigating – this would have included some screen time with David Suzuki – again because nobody wanted to get very close to me.
      So the vaccination is well worth it. The disease really smooches the poodle.

    2. Thanks for your post, it’s encouraging in some ways to others getting the shot. I have never before had reactions to immunizations, but got a fairly sore shoulder from the first shot. They warn you about flu like reactions to the second shot, so I was worried thinking I had an unusually strong reaction to the first one. I guess not.

  8. I’m all for the swapping professor’s experiments in genetic engineering. But I’d be more sanguine to know he rereads Mary Shelley’s novel every coupla years.

    1. You must mean Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s novel ‘Valperga’, wherein occurs a character with the endearing name of Euthanasia. I wonder if her spouse was named Eugene?

  9. 527 papers and more than 50 patents. Give that guy a raise! I’m glad to see he is getting a very big check to do what he does.

  10. “…he wants to alter the human genetic code in such a way that impossible multiple simultaneous mutations in the virus would be required to overcome the immunity.”

    That would be a neat trick, but I hope the good doctor is not forgetting that genes alone don’t drive immunity. There’s a whole lot of biology (immunology, actually) that happens when encountering antigen. I have little doubt it will be a much tougher nut to crack than just covering all the probabilities in receptor antigen rearrangements. I should think the real test for this idea will come if it can be employed to deal with neoantigens in oncology. THAT would be worth the effort, I tell you what.

  11. Whenever I see comments about using genetic engineering to “improve” the human genome (not just get rid of a few simple Mendelian traits like sickle cell anemia) I am reminded of an analogy that I used in teaching that I think is still valid. The tools available for genetic engineering are very much like those in an ordinary word processor: cut and paste pieces, “spell check” single base mutations, etc. You could teach a 10 year old to use a word processor and give her a digitized copy of a textbook on quantum physics but that does not mean she could edit and improve that text. There are at least two complicating factors that we are far from understanding in any depth: pleiotropy (multiple effects of a given alteration) and context dependence (interactions of a given gene with the rest of the genome). The latter is a particular problem since, other than identical twins, we will never see the same mutation in the same context twice.

  12. I watched 60 Minutes last night and found this interview of Church quite engaging. Scott P. asked the ‘playing god” question which Church deflected and went on with a scientifically oriented response. I thought the question itself was pandering to the audience.

    The segment on Rawabi, the housing development in the West Bank, was enlightening. I thought Prof C. C. would also have a post on that issue.

  13. Apologies. I haven’t watched the video interview, but I’ve been a long time watcher of gene engineering [strictly as a layperson], and my issue with gene engineering to date is the way it’s been implemented. When genetically engineered food was first commercialised, the techniques used were laughably hit or miss. I’ve read it described as shooting a shotgun at a target and hoping that some of the pellets end up doing what you want them to do.
    More recent techniques such as CRISPR are much more precise but pose the risk of potentially unintended consequences. Yet commercial interests have pushed the development and use of these technologies by claiming ‘substantial equivalence’. That worries me.
    There is a valid place for genetic research, especially in the medical field, but just because we ‘can’ do something doesn’t mean we should.

  14. For those of us who have severe psoriasis genetic engineering would be a welcome relief. I won’t go into the details of this hideous affliction except to say it’s hereditary and without biologics there’s not a damn thing you can do to control it. Monthly shots are roughly $5500.00 and they work great! Because I have commercial insurance I pay nothing. If I didn’t well, I don’t think about that. Dr Karen James can go pound sand! And those that say it’s playing god I do hope it is. Somebody has too. The big fella is obviously not up to the task. It’s past time to kick his ass out the door and grab the wheel.

  15. The thing that bothers me the most about his accommadationism is that he wrote a positive blurb for Stephen Meyers ID book and though he doesnt actually advocate ID its hard to see how Meyer could “bridge gaps” between science and religion and be completely wrong about ID

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