Big Idea

The Big Idea: Arwen Elys Dayton

You want to give your children every advantage… but how far would you go to give them those advantages? It’s a question that Arwen Elys Dayton is intensely engaged with in her new book Stronger, Faster, and More Beautiful.


About a week ago, a researcher in Shenzhen, China, named He Jiankui claimed to have used CRISPR to edit the DNA of twin girls who were born in late 2018. When the girls were early-stage embryos in a petri dish, He made changes to their genetic code to eliminate a gene called CCR5 and so render them resistant to HIV and other diseases. He was, according to reports, at least partially successful. The work hasn’t been independently verified, but no one is questioning that it’s possible. Because it is entirely possible.

Since 2012, when an element of bacterial immune systems was isolated and its potential for altering any DNA became widely understood, researchers all over the world have been figuring out how to use this tool—called CRISPR, as you have probably guessed—to usher in a new age of genetic manipulation. From editing human immune cells so that they can fight or even prevent HIV and cancer, to removing inherited disease, to giving future generations traits that no humans have ever had (night vision? immunity to the flu?), we are on a frontier of artificial human evolution. Aside from CRISPR, there are numberless advances occurring in all aspects of medicine. At least four groups are working to grow human-compatible (or outright human) organs in livestock, researchers all over the world are pursuing competing techniques for fighting the “disease” of old age, and various labs are focused on editing not humans but the insects that infect us—like mosquitos—to wipe out diseases that have been scourges for thousands of years.

The future is unfolding in research universities and biotech companies, and yes, even in sketchy, possibly unsanitary home garages. We are already debating who gets to make the choices about what can and cannot be changed in our DNA. But while we debate, some researchers have started choosing. And editing.

My natural mindset is not dystopian but intensely hopeful, and the idea that we might soon be able to remove disease from humankind is . . .well, it’s like a realization of the most inspiring parts of the science-fiction stories I grew up with. And as a mother, I instinctively, innately, want my children to have every advantage. Resistance to cancer? Who would say no? Longer life? Of course I want that for them. Higher intelligence? A stickier question, to be sure, but if it were only a matter of a few tiny adjustments . . . ?

I want to believe that, given infinite options, I would have strong convictions about what was acceptable and what was too much. But would I? Would you? How do we—intellectually, morally, and viscerally—weigh such options? And here is the birthplace of Stronger, Faster, and More Beautiful—not the science itself, but the emotional life under the coming genetic paradigm.

When I was eleven years old, I watched a news story about a girl who was the same age as I was. She was refusing medical treatment for a fatal but curable disease because it went against the religious beliefs of her family. I have thought about that girl during all of these intervening years. How could she (or perhaps, some would say, only her parents) feel so strongly as to be willing to accept death rather than a proven alternative? And yet, as a fellow eleven-year-old, I also believed that she should have some say, some choice, in what was done to her, regardless of the consequences. The push and pull of my feelings about that girl, who probably died decades ago and whose name I can’t remember, were my touchstones in writing this novel. I wanted to paint myself into corners that felt just like that one. Or worse.

What happens if the design of a designer baby doesn’t go to plan? Where—and how—will he spend his life? (In Stronger, the answer is this: mostly underwater, away from other humans whom he does not understand, keeping busy by wrangling a flock of manatees that are growing human organs for transplant.) Other murky scenarios include a pair of semi-identical twins—both are dying, and the decision is made to harvest the healthy organ tissue from one to save the life of the other; forced modification of convicted felons to make them useful to society; the ability to keep a piece of a dead loved one alive . . . inside yourself. Unconscionable? Yes . . . for some.

On a meta level: What happens if countries cannot agree on biological ethics? Or on what makes (and keeps) humans human? When will this become a political issue? And what happens if religious groups make unwavering medical stands? Can we foresee a “Genetic Curtain” dividing the parts of the world where anything goes and the parts where humanity chooses not to change?

These intimate and grand puzzles were the big idea in Stronger, Faster, and More Beautiful. The science will happen—is happening!—no matter what we do (short of a planet-killing asteroid or plague or other apocalyptic option, of course). How we use the science to change ourselves, and who we become as a result . . . well, that’s the question. And it was delicious and terrifying to explore.


Stronger, Faster, and More Beautiful: Amazon |Barnes and Noble | Indiebound | Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Visit Get Underlined. Visit her on twitter.


Whatever Holiday Gift Guide 2018, Day Three: Arts, Crafts, Music and More

The Whatever Holiday Gift Guide 2018 continues, and today we move away from books and focus on other gifts and crafts — which you can take to mean just about any other sort of thing a creative person might make: Music, art, knitting, jewelry, artisan foodstuffs and so on. These can be great, unique gifts for special folks in your life, and things you can’t just get down at the mall. I hope you see some cool stuff here.

Please note that the comment thread today is only for creators to post about their gifts for sale; please do not leave other comments, as they will be snipped out to keep the thread from getting cluttered. Thanks!

Creators: Here’s how to post in this thread. Please follow these directions!

1. Creators (of things other than books) only. This is an intentionally expansive category, so if you’ve made something and have it available for the public to try or buy, you can probably post about in this thread. The exception to this is books (including comics and graphic novels), which have two previously existing threads, one for traditionally-published works and one for non-traditionally published works (Note: if you are an author and also create other stuff, you may promote that other stuff today). Don’t post if you are not the creator of the thing you want to promote, please.

2. Personally-created and completed works only. This thread is specifically for artists and creators who are making their own unique works. Mass-producible things like CDs, buttons or T-shirts are acceptable if you’ve personally created what’s on it. But please don’t use this thread for things that were created by others, which you happen to sell. Likewise, do not post about works in progress, even if you’re posting them publicly elsewhere. Remember that this is supposed to be a gift guide, and that these are things meant to be given to other people. Also, don’t just promote yourself unless you have something to sell or provide, that others may give as a gift.

3. One post per creator. In that post, you can list whatever creations of yours you like, but allow me to suggest you focus on your most recent creation. Note also that the majority of Whatever’s readership is in the US/Canada, so I suggest focusing on things available in North America.

4. Keep your description of your work brief (there will be a lot of posts, I’m guessing) and entertaining. Imagine the person is in front of you as you tell them about your work and is interested but easily distracted.

5. You may include a link to a sales site if you like by using standard HTML link scripting. Be warned that if you include too many links (typically three or more) your post may get sent to the moderating queue. If this happens, don’t panic: I’ll be going in through the day to release moderated posts. Note that posts will occasionally go into the moderation queue semi-randomly; Don’t panic about that either.

6. As noted above, comment posts that are not from creators promoting their work as specified above will be deleted, in order to keep the comment thread useful for people looking to find interesting work.

Now: Tell us about your stuff!

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