Can Islamic theology and philosophy inform the ethical debate about CRISPR?

March 1, 2019 • 8:00 am

I was appalled to see a letter to the editor in Nature written by three authors, from, respectively the Jordan University of Science and Technology (Irbid, Jordan), Hashemite University (Zarqa, Jordan), and the University of California at San Diego. You can click the link above or the screenshots below to see the title, authors, and content.

As you may recall, CRISPR is a new gene-editing technique that has great promise for selectively changing DNA sequences in ways that scientists want. You may also recall that a Chinese scientist, He Jiankui, used this method  to alter the DNA sequences in embryos of twin girls (born last fall) in a way that would supposedly make them resistant to infection with HIV.

In most countries such an experiment would be unethical and illegal, flouting many government regulations on genetic engineering, and it’s not clear why he would alter embryos not in any obvious danger of getting HIV as adults in such a way. In fact, Jiankui’s research was also banned in China, and he flouted the regulations.

After a big outcry by scientists throughout the world, the Chinese shut down Jiankui’s lab and have started a police investigation of the researcher. He may well go to jail. (Now there’s word that a second gene-edited pregnancy is on the way.)

Some day we may have the ability to do this kind of experiment safely, but this kind of rogue science, which carries possible dangers to people developing from gene-edited embryos, is off limits for now—and should be.

But below, three Muslims—at least I think they are, for who else would write such a letter—tell us that our debates on this issue can be informed by Islamic theology. Read and weep (the article by Benjamin Hurlbut mentioned in the first line is here):


Whatever this theology did to buttress science in medieval Islam—and I’m not sure it did—it has nothing to say to us today. Every single consideration purporting to derive from Islamic thought can be derived in less tortuous ways from secular ethics. Does it have a positive social benefit? Is CRISPR safe? Did the parents have informed consent? Are there safer ways to protect people from HIV? You don’t need religion to ask those questions.

In fact, sans Islam, these questions were already part of the debate about Jiankui’s experiment, and had nothing to do with Islamic philosophy or theology. What the authors are doing here are twisting and squeezing certain aspects of that tradition to make it seem as if Islam has something meaningful to say about CRISPR experiments. Make no mistake: their intent is to make Islam look good, and prescient as well.

It doesn’t, and we’d best stay far away from theologians of any stripe when debating these issues. The debate should be in the hands of biologists, physicians and secular philosophers, where it remains now. If we start dragging in Islam post facto, it doesn’t serve to advance the debate, but only to give a false authority to a religion. Does it matter if one quarter of the world’s population is Muslim? After all, there are 2.1 billion Christians compared to 1.3 billion Muslims. Does this mean we should give Christian religious ethics precedence?  We can certainly ignore the voices of rabbis, though: there are only 14 million Jews on the planet.

The same goes for Christianity; we can also ignore what priests and ministers have to say. Why are they experts in bioethics? Talk of “souls” has nothing to add to this debate. Contra Hurlbut and these three authors, there’s no need to add theologians to the debate about a scientific technique, for all they have to add is opinion based on unscientific and delusional beliefs.

Nature, like the BBC, has often been soft on faith, but it mystifies me why the journal published this letter. Any guesses? Is the journal trying to show that it welcomes religious input into science and technology?

h/r: Vampyricon