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Hastings Center News

What Does It Mean to Be Human?

World-renowned theologian Harvey G. Cox, Jr. came to The Hastings Center for a wide-ranging conversation about the impact of gene editing on humanity. Joined by Daniel Callahan, cofounder of The Hastings Center, Cox discussed questions of governance, parenthood, and personhood.

Cox visited with Hastings Center scholars after learning of The Hastings Center’s symposium on gene editing at the AAAS annual meeting last month.

Gene editing has often been characterized as a kind of “playing God,” but Cox questioned the value of such a framework, given how contested and problematic the idea of God has become. Instead, Cox suggested, we might consider what it means to be human in an era of tremendous scientific advances. What it means to be human and what it means to play God are two sides of the same coin, he said, but the former might make for more productive dialogue.

Conversation turned from the inherent challenges of international governance to a critical reconsideration of the moral and ethical dilemmas posed by gene editing: Can such a technology be described as intrinsically “right” or “wrong,” or should we reserve such judgment for its applications? Do we understand the recent developments in genome editing, particularly the emergence of CRISPR-Cas9 as a tool for targeting precise locations in the genome, as an improvement upon existing technologies, or as entirely new and uncharted territory?

In addition to these issues of governance and ethics, the matter of public engagement was also raised. How can the public be both educated and engaged on the topic of gene editing? What information and tools will best support members of the public–and particularly parents–as they make decisions about potential medical interventions using gene editing?

Cox, author of the bestseller, The Secular City, and Hollis Professor of Divinity Emeritus at Harvard Divinity School, offered imaginative insight on these vital questions, and the conversation raised many points relevant to The Hastings Center’s project on gene editing and human flourishing, supported by the Templeton Foundation.