Ismail Serageldin


Editing Our Genes: From the Pursuit of Knowledge to seeking Wisdom in Application

 01/12/2015 | The International Summit on Human Gene Editing, Washington DC

Editing Our Genes:

From the Pursuit of Knowledge to seeking Wisdom in Application


Ismail Serageldin


Library of Alexandria, Egypt


Opening Remarks

Delivered at

The International Summit on Human Gene Editing

1-3 December, 2015

Washington DC



It is a great honor to stand here in the Historic building of the NAS at the start of this important summit.  I do not doubt that anyone, even for an instant questions the importance and the legitimacy of the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, or the ethical positions that drive so many of us to seek to feed the hungry, cure the sick or to protect the environment. 


There are moments in history when new scientific developments, open the doors to the applications of new technologies to vast new domains, full of promise and full of potential perils, at least in the views of large segments of the population…  Of course,  since the very beginning of time, from fire and the kitchen knife, new technologies have always had the potential to do great good and also great harm.  And humanity has invariably been better served by the pursuits of science than to give in to obscurantism and fear.  Nevertheless, let us remember that not everything that is technically feasible is ethically desirable.


Literature, from Icarus to Frankenstein, gives us the image of disasters following in wake of the hubris of scientists who wanted to play god.  But we must recognize that humans played god when they domesticated plants and animals and continue to do so every time they turn on the electric lights at night. 


But more relevant perhaps is Dr. Baltimore’s reference to Huxley’s “Brave New World”, and to reflect on the dark chapters of history when eugenics and racism combined with disastrous results.


We need knowledge, but we also need wisdom. And already, almost a century ago, the great poet T.S. Eliot asked:


Where is the Life we have lost in living?

Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?

Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?


-T.S.  Eliot


And well he may question our explosion of data today with the issues of security and privacy that it throws up, but does anyone doubt that we are infinitely better off with the internet than without it? 


So it is up to us to explore and seek understanding, all the while honing our ethical thinking to deal with the new and unexpected results of research, which could take us down slippery slopes that we did not want to go.


We must be armed with a sense of history, a sense of ethics and an all-consuming curiosity that pushes us to find the newest piece of information, the next one and the one after that.  For modern Science is protean in its imagination, far reaching in its grasp… And the value of our research today increasingly lies in the fecundity of the questions it throws up and not in the finality of the answers it provides. So let us welcome this exploration into the new, remaining open to wildest ideas… 


Indeed, over 800 years ago, a scientist in Egypt wrote:


“When hearing something unusual, do not preemptively reject it, for that would be folly.  Indeed, horrible things may be true, and familiar and praised things may prove to be lies.  Truth is truth unto itself, not because [many] people say it is….”

--- Ibn Al-Nafis, (13th century A.D.)


And his predecessor Ibn Al-Haytham (in the 10th century) advised us to :


“Accept only that which is supported by evidence and logic…” 


There is no limit to human imagination and ingenuity, and the future is truly open ended.  But to approach the deployment of our new discoveries with a modicum of wisdom, it is important to articulate our ethical framework well, and first inform, then involve the public in decision-making.  So to help our societies better cope with the rapidly changing technological scene we need to combine the knowledge of the natural sciences, with the insights of the social sciences and the wisdom of the humanities.  When we explore the new landscape before us with these combined three lenses, we may see the benefits of the applications of these new technologies with a new eye.   I believe that we will – again in the words of T.S. Eliot say:


"We shall not cease from exploration,

And the end of all our exploring,

Will be to arrive where we started,

And know the place for the first time."


--  T..S. Eliot


Today is such a moment, where we are perhaps on the verge of applying a new technology to many domains that hold great promise.  And we must, again as Dr. Baltimore said, reflect on when, where and how should these technologies be applied to humans.


I am very proud to introduce three speakers who will deliver the foundational papers for this conference: On the Scientific, Historical and Legal (or ethical) Aspects of our topics. 


To do so, we have three outstanding speakers.  Their bios are in the program, so allow me to introduce them in the sequence in which they will address us:


Klaus Rajewsky, of the Max Delbruck Center for Molecular Medicine

Daniel J. Kevles, New York University

Alta Charo, University of Wisconsin, Madison


Professor Rajewsky, you have the floor…





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