Every year, Time Magazine announces their list of the 100 Most Influential People. It’s filled with pioneers, artists, leaders, icons and titans of the worlds’ stage. The majority of the list is people you’d expect, those who made or are making a significant impact in their industry or those who use their power and status for the good of others. Inevitably, though, it is shrouded in controversy and it leaves us asking: Does influence always have to be immediately positive to make an impact?
If the true definition of influence is “the power or capacity of causing an effect in indirect or intangible ways” (thanks, Merriam-Webster), we could surmise that this isn’t always in positive ways, but when we ask ourselves or others the question: “who has influenced you?” the answer is always focused on people who made a positive impact on our lives. What are left out are those who made a negative impact, albeit still an impact.
Take one of this year’s honorees, Dr. He Jiankui. Some of you have probably not heard that name, but you’ve most likely heard about what he did: he edited the genes of twin girls to give them immunity to HIV. In theory, this sounds wonderful, to know that science has evolved so much that our genetic makeup can be altered to prevent or cure some of the most devastating and deadly diseases. In practice, however, what Dr. He did defy “scientific, medical and ethical norms” because the technology he used – CRISPR-Cas9 – is still in its very early stages of exploration as far as the safety, efficacy and application as a gene editing technology. In addition to that, there was significant controversy around ‘correcting’ the genes of a disease for which there are many treatment options that can provide people with HIV a long and relatively healthy life, and the idea of editing embryos or creating “designer babies” is incredibly taboo. The risk of doing what some would call a rogue science experiment, greatly outweighed the benefits.
For those of us old enough to remember, this bears a striking resemblance to the cloning breakthrough with the 1997 announcement in Nature that scientists in Scotland had successfully cloned a sheep, provoking political and ethical debates around the globe. While the debate has not stopped in the 22 years since, we are starting to see how this controversial breakthrough is having a positive impact, particularly with regard stem cell research and potentially eliminating the need to collect embryonic stem cells – another area surrounded by controversy.
The point is this: Many scientific advances challenge what most of the world knows to be true about the world we live in – this goes as far back as Isaac Newton proving the laws of gravity if not farther. It very well could be that one day Dr. He’s research will one day bear some sort of positive fruit, even if we can’t see it now.