Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

John Oliver rampages against the hysteria around gene editing on Last Week Tonight

Illustration for article titled John Oliver rampages against the hysteria around gene editing on iLast Week Tonight/i
Screenshot: Last Week Tonight With John Oliver

John Oliver took a nice, relaxing detour away from the weekly grind of comically chronicling the walking genetic nightmare that is the Trump family to have some fun with pig-Hitler. And, no, that wasn’t the new, in-retrospect ill-advised hashtag Last Week Tonight unveiled to really stick it to that Trump guy, but an actual nightmare related by an otherwise sober-minded genetic researcher. As Oliver explained in his main story on Sunday’s show, “genetic editing” (or CRISPR) is the sort of potentially life- and even world-saving scientific advance that also carries within it plenty of perils. And not just the “Dwayne Johnson has to come in and clean up your 30-foot wolves, scientists” variety.

Introducing the segment by describing science as “math disguised as dinosaurs and outer space to try and seem interesting,” Oliver himself dressed up what could have been a drier-than-usual science fair presentation with some pretty scary stuff. And while he made merciless sport of the usual, breathless speculation of TV types (who jump immediately to “make me a unicorn!”), Oliver himself laid out some of the more realistically unsettling potential applications of this “Microsoft Word cut-and-paste” technology that has, in the hands of some suspiciously blasé Chinese geneticists, already produced some seriously “jacked, sexy beagles.” (Oliver, never one to let a poked bear calm down, also took another jab at Chinese President and guy who does not appreciate being compared to a human/Winnie The Pooh hybrid abomination Xi Jinping, who recently banned all HBO from China thanks to Oliver’s recent Pooh-bear-heavy criticism.)


As Oliver explained, though, anytime humans have the ability to tinker with the genetic makeup of living things, that whole eugenics bugaboo rears its potentially blond-haired, blue-eyed head. From eradicating “flaws” that members of, say, the deaf or dwarf communities regard as part of their identity, to stoner bing-bongs selling CRISPR do-it-yourself splicing kits out of their garages, to well-meaning but possibly disastrous monkeying around with ecosystems, there are more dangers to genetic editing than even those dingbats at Jurassic Park ever dreamt of. As Oliver shows in an interview with pioneering CRISPR scientist Jennifer Doudna, even reputable geneticists unlikely to need a lecture from Jeff Goldblum about the hubris of “could we?” and not “should we?” aren’t immune to nighttime visitations from particularly on-the-nose nightmares about just what the racist, unscrupulous, and hasty could do when capable of mucking about with the gene pool.

Contributor, The A.V. Club. Danny Peary's Cult Movies books are mostly to blame.

Share This Story

Get our newsletter