You Are Not In Complete Control Of Yourself: And That’s A Good Thing

You Are Not In Complete Control Of Yourself: And That’s A Good Thing

In our culture, there are two diametrically opposed beliefs. The first is that we are powerful and strong creatures that have the ability to shape our biology and destiny in any way we want. This belief comes from the Romantic school of thought which sees human nature as malleable, and thus society and the man-made environment as the problem. The second belief is that we are puppets being controlled at the behest of corporations and other special interests that have done a masterful job of shaping our perceptions and environments to do what they want.


So, on the one hand we have the belief that we have endless potential and power to change ourselves. On the other hand is the belief that we are powerless, manipulated by those smarter and more moneyed than us. Our belief in our own plasticity leads to the belief that those bigger and stronger than us have, and will always have, the upper hand.

Thus, more than being a liberating and uplifting belief system, plasticity can lead to paranoia and pessimism. Luckily, we are not blank slates, and instead have a myriad of different inborn proclivities and abilities that we carry with us from womb to ward. Of course we can shape these tendencies, and even adopt new ones, but many of the general thrusts of our lives seem to be imparted with us from our great ancestral bloodline. This can be seen as depressing, but it can also be viewed as a great adventure: us living out the experiences and carrying on traditions of brave men and women that have lived in many different eras but have shared the same name. It can also be viewed as a buffer against the less empowering environments we find ourselves in, since no matter how hard they push us they often only have tiny marginal influences on who we are.

This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t work tirelessly to build a better world and improve our environments in every conceivable manner. However, it’s hard to do this effectively when in the clutches of anxiety and fear. While certain proclivities and temperamental characteristics may not be malleable, our moment-to-moment perception is – and nothing stifles effective problem solving more than full-blown anger, fear, or sadness. When in these states of mind, we do anything possible to escape from them, even if that means deluding ourselves in the most pernicious ways.

When looking forward at the problems, both technological and social, which will arise in the coming decades, we need to remember that things are likely going to be more stable than we think. After all, human nature has existed for millennia but hasn’t necessarily changed much. Wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy and gluttony will continue to be regular features of our human experience – along with joy, transcendence, awe, and the other uplifting moments of our lives. It’s not like human nature is going to change tomorrow. If we recognize this fact, and use that knowledge in a clear-headed manner, we can realistically make our world better and better in the coming years. But if we let our fantasies get the best of us, and assume unlimited plasticity and control over ourselves, we’ll be in for a terrible surprise. After all, utopian visions have had a bad track record, and instead of building heaven on earth, we may find ourselves somewhere much warmer.

Image: Library of Congress

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Credit: National Cancer Institute via Unsplash
Technology & Innovation

This article was originally published by our sister site, Freethink.

For the first time, researchers appear to have effectively treated a genetic disorder by directly injecting a CRISPR therapy into patients' bloodstreams — overcoming one of the biggest hurdles to curing diseases with the gene editing technology.

The therapy appears to be astonishingly effective, editing nearly every cell in the liver to stop a disease-causing mutation.

The challenge: CRISPR gives us the ability to correct genetic mutations, and given that such mutations are responsible for more than 6,000 human diseases, the tech has the potential to dramatically improve human health.

One way to use CRISPR to treat diseases is to remove affected cells from a patient, edit out the mutation in the lab, and place the cells back in the body to replicate — that's how one team functionally cured people with the blood disorder sickle cell anemia, editing and then infusing bone marrow cells.

Bone marrow is a special case, though, and many mutations cause disease in organs that are harder to fix.

Another option is to insert the CRISPR system itself into the body so that it can make edits directly in the affected organs (that's only been attempted once, in an ongoing study in which people had a CRISPR therapy injected into their eyes to treat a rare vision disorder).

Injecting a CRISPR therapy right into the bloodstream has been a problem, though, because the therapy has to find the right cells to edit. An inherited mutation will be in the DNA of every cell of your body, but if it only causes disease in the liver, you don't want your therapy being used up in the pancreas or kidneys.

A new CRISPR therapy: Now, researchers from Intellia Therapeutics and Regeneron Pharmaceuticals have demonstrated for the first time that a CRISPR therapy delivered into the bloodstream can travel to desired tissues to make edits.

We can overcome one of the biggest challenges with applying CRISPR clinically.

—JENNIFER DOUDNA

"This is a major milestone for patients," Jennifer Doudna, co-developer of CRISPR, who wasn't involved in the trial, told NPR.

"While these are early data, they show us that we can overcome one of the biggest challenges with applying CRISPR clinically so far, which is being able to deliver it systemically and get it to the right place," she continued.

What they did: During a phase 1 clinical trial, Intellia researchers injected a CRISPR therapy dubbed NTLA-2001 into the bloodstreams of six people with a rare, potentially fatal genetic disorder called transthyretin amyloidosis.

The livers of people with transthyretin amyloidosis produce a destructive protein, and the CRISPR therapy was designed to target the gene that makes the protein and halt its production. After just one injection of NTLA-2001, the three patients given a higher dose saw their levels of the protein drop by 80% to 96%.

A better option: The CRISPR therapy produced only mild adverse effects and did lower the protein levels, but we don't know yet if the effect will be permanent. It'll also be a few months before we know if the therapy can alleviate the symptoms of transthyretin amyloidosis.

This is a wonderful day for the future of gene-editing as a medicine.

—FYODOR URNOV

If everything goes as hoped, though, NTLA-2001 could one day offer a better treatment option for transthyretin amyloidosis than a currently approved medication, patisiran, which only reduces toxic protein levels by 81% and must be injected regularly.

Looking ahead: Even more exciting than NTLA-2001's potential impact on transthyretin amyloidosis, though, is the knowledge that we may be able to use CRISPR injections to treat other genetic disorders that are difficult to target directly, such as heart or brain diseases.

"This is a wonderful day for the future of gene-editing as a medicine," Fyodor Urnov, a UC Berkeley professor of genetics, who wasn't involved in the trial, told NPR. "We as a species are watching this remarkable new show called: our gene-edited future."

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