I am an editor. My job is to improve manuscripts submitted by authors and prepare them for publication. I approach every new piece sceptically. I probe. I attack. I play devil’s advocate. I search for error and dispose of it. Often I rely on instinct. Even when I can’t initially diagnose a problem within a text, I can sense when something’s wrong. In such cases I have to work backward to find the answer. This process can be tricky. Writers have egos. Everyone has preferences. There is no right or perfect way to compose a sentence or structure an argument.
All of which must be kept in mind if the job of editing is to be done with professional integrity. Necessary distinctions must be made between strong and weak statements, between clear and opaque prose, and between convincing and unconvincing arguments. When I make such distinctions, I have an obligation to the writer to explain my choices. Writers can be possessive of the words that appear beneath their by-lines. Rightly so. What they have done is an act of creation. They have every right to be protective. They should not acquiesce to my demands simply because I am the editor, or simply because I say so.
The editorial enterprise is a two-way street. I should not make demands simply because I can. When I edit, I attempt, to the extent possible, to conform my work to the author’s original intent. I know I must resist the temptation to rewrite every piece to suit my own ear. That would not be in keeping with the spirit of the job. That would be a disservice to the author.
Against this prologue consider the following headline and accompanying story, published in the U.K. newspaper The Independent: Revealed: Scientists ‘edit’ DNA to correct adult genes and cure diseases. Such headlines have become common in our biotechnologically miraculous era. Treatments for all manner of malady can now be miniaturized, personalized, implanted, and controlled remotely. High-speed communications systems and robotics allow surgeons to operate on patients from thousands of miles away. It’s routine, and barely commands notice.
However, the use of the word “edit” in this context piqued my interest. I can say for certain that the word is not often used to describe medical advances or scientific breakthroughs. But, as journalist Steve Connor reports, the reference to editing was intentional: “Scientists have used the genome-editing technology to cure adult laboratory mice of an inherited liver disease by correcting a single ‘letter’ of the genetic alphabet which had been mutated in a vital gene involved in liver metabolism.” You are probably aware that the nitrogenous compounds that are the building blocks of DNA are known by the letters G, C, A, and T. (The 1997 science fiction film Gattaca, starring Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman, took its title from these letters and depicted a world where mastery of the human genetic code led to a society based on eugenics.) So the medical “editors” in this case are doing a version of what I doseeking out error and disposing of it.
Only I wonder: Do they concede, as the editorial enterprise commands, that there is no right or perfect way to approach the job? Do they respect the original intent of the author, or are they looking to rewrite every piece to suit their own ears? Do they make distinctions between the author’s preferences and their own? Are they prepared to defend their choices? Do they make demands simply because they can? Do they respect the work of the creator?
MIT Professor Daniel Anderson, who led the study, told The Independent, “The fundamental advantage is that you are repairing the defect, you are actually correcting the DNA itself. What is exciting about this approach is that we can actually correct a defective gene in a living adult animal.” This doesn’t sound like editing to me. This sounds like rewriting.
You may have begun to guess where I’m headed, so I should reveal a relevant detail. My wife and I have a daughter with Down syndrome, the most common genetic disorder. She is eight years old and in good health.
Since receiving the prenatal diagnosis of her Down syndrome, I have done a fair amount of thinking and writing about genetic abnormality, its place in the world, and the meaning of my daughter’s existence. I have often been asked whether I would “cure” my daughter’s Down syndrome if such a thing were possible. Many assume that the answer to such a question must be yes. But my answer has always been no. Instinct told me that this idea of a hypothetical cure just wasn’t right. It took a while, working backward, to arrive at the reason. It came down to this: My daughter’s unique genetic makeup was, like everyone’s, established at conception. There was never a time she didn’t have Down syndrome just like there was never a time she didn’t have a mother and a father. In so much as our genetic codes define us, my daughter’s Down syndrome is who she is. She never existed without Down syndrome so there can be no separating her from it. That is, there can be no separating her from it without violating the original intent of the Author.
I know some will say, “Have you no heart? This technology could help people living with terrible and debilitating conditionssituations far worse than your daughter’s Down syndrome.” This very well may be true. I have no right to dispute it. But the same all-compassionate logic could be used to justify unlimited tinkering with the world. We have unmatched military power, why not use it to stabilize Ukraine, bring peace to Syria, banish poverty, and feed the hungry? These things are possible in theory, but such adventures rarely go as planned. All actions have consequences we can’t necessarily predict or control. Caution is the watchword. The physician’s motto applies equally to the editor: primum non nocerefirst, do no harm.
My instinct tells me these doctors are merely playing word games. They are not looking to edit the human genetic code. They are looking to rewrite it.
Matthew Hennessey is associate editor of the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal. You can follow him on Twitter @matthennessey.