Screening the human future: YouTube, persuasion and genetically engineered children

On Sunday, Nov. 25, the scientist He Jiankui claimed the birth of the world’s first genetically engineered children: twins, created by IVF, their DNA altered at fertilization. Changes like these, because they’re inheritable – “editing the germline” – are widely prohibited by law and avoided by scientific consensus. If He really did this, it’s a very big step across a very bright line.

Also, He announced the feat in a YouTube video.

The strangeness of this choice cannot be overstated. Groundbreaking achievements normally appear in prestigious journals, with extensive data, after rigorous peer review. Announcing the accomplishment on YouTube is the social media equivalent of walking out the front door and yelling, “Guess what, everybody? I’m the first to engineer a human being! And the kids are already here – they’re twins!” The timing of the video’s release – on the eve of a major international conference on genome editing, where He was scheduled to speak – clearly had more to do with publicity than science.

Others have written on the science and ethics involved. I’m a writer, so what interests me is persuasion: the way literary tools, like story and metaphor, help pave the way for cutting-edge biotechnology. Researching a forthcoming book on this topic, I came to see that human-focused biotech and persuasion form a single system: for the biotech to be adopted, the public has to accept it first. He’s video is a textbook bid for acceptance, an argument for germline editing aimed at the general public.

But the video is a low-rent production. It’s just He, standing in a lab, talking to the camera in English (it’s subtitled). As such, the video doesn’t hold a candle to the polished emanations of established research institutes or multimillion dollar corporations. The writing isn’t great either. Effective persuasion guides us lightly from one place to another: the lightest touch on your shoulder, redirecting your path. Listening to He is more like being yanked down a slippery slope.

And yet for precisely that reason, the video deserves a closer look: Seeing the pitch in its most obvious form, we can learn to recognize the patterns.

The family success story

The video begins with He beaming at the camera, describing “two beautiful little Chinese girls named Lulu and Nana,” a few weeks old, “as healthy as any other babies.” According to He, their parents, Mark and Grace, had always wanted to have a family. But Mark is HIV-positive, and stigma had deterred them. Now, because of He’s experiment – which was intended to make the twins permanently immune to HIV infection – a happy family exists. “The babies are home now with their mom Grace and their dad Mark,” He says.

“Mark” and “Grace,” their real names changed for privacy, may be real. Rhetorically, though, their function is to humanize a new technology. Ironically, that technology is changing what it means to be human in the first place.

Portrait of a scientist

Persuasion means crafting a persona, and He is clearly going for approachable scientist and family man. Identifying himself as “a father of two girls,” He also suggests his own humility, by saying, “Mark’s words taught me something I didn’t fully appreciate.” That lesson? “Gene surgery” helps more than a child: “We heal a whole family.”

That feigned humility doesn’t square with what He actually did: rushing to be first across the germline, thereby putting his experimental human subjects, and any of their descendants, at risk. Given all this, He’s assertion that he’s willing to brave controversy on behalf of the parents – “I’m willing to take the criticism for them” – rings just a tad hollow.

Zhou Xiaoqin, left, and Qin Jinzhou, embryologists working with He Jiankui, view a time lapse image of embryos on a computer screen. AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein

Metaphors, omissions and weasel words

Obviously, selling a new technology means putting it in the best possible light. Trying to do this, He makes an odd choice. Instead of “CRISPR-Cas9,” the common name, he insists on the phrase “gene surgery.” It’s a naked attempt to make CRISPR sound precise, like a molecular scalpel. That metaphor is misleading. CRISPR is improving in accuracy, but as geneticist Eric Topol wrote in The New York Times, unintended edits still occur – “We don’t have the assurance yet that Crispr provides laserlike precision in editing” – and we might not always detect them. “Our ability to discern these changes is still rudimentary, and it is entirely likely that we will miss something,” Topol added.