Tesla CEO Elon Musk and his wife, Canadian singer Grimes- real name Clair Elise Boucher- announced the birth of their first child earlier this week. In an interesting Tweet, Grimes later explained that their baby boy’s name was a mashup of science terminology, Elven language, heavy metal rock music, and CIA developed reconnaissance aircraft (see the post in the article below). Potential rejection of the California birth certificate application aside, there may be a lot of problems with this baby’s name going forward- but we will get to that in a minute. Musk’s history of eccentric behavior and massive self-confidence, coupled with his competitiveness and unpredictability, may have led him to violate one of the biggest bioethical norms of the decade- human gene editing.
And it may not be his first time. But before we get into the hows, whens, and whys, let’s take a look back in time to November of 2018, when MIT Technology Review broke a story about gene-edited babies. He Jiankui, a Chinese scientist working out of Shenzhen, China, was exposed to the world for his human experiments using CRISPR/Cas9 in an attempt to create HIV-resistant babies. Immediately- the same day, in fact- He announced the October 2018 birth of healthy twin girls. A third baby would be born soon after in 2019.
Widespread criticism and an outcry from the scientific community would follow, with wide-reaching ripple effects still being felt the world over. It is important to note, however, that “China’s Dr. Frankenstein” had performed the experiments with, for all intents and purposes, altruistic results in mind. In fact, he had planned to reveal his experiments and the resulting births later the same month that MIT Technology Review broke the story. He, in his mind, was paving the way for a brighter and bolder future, free of inherited and infectious diseases. He was quite aware of the ethical and societal ramifications of his work and was equally convinced that by breaking the rules, he was opening the door to a brave new world of human gene editing.
He Jiankui, for all of his dreams and goals and ambitions, earned himself a three year sentence and a hefty fine- and a place in TIME magazine’s 100 most influential people of 2019.
Scientists historically have a reputation for pushing the limits of what is expected and accepted, and oftentimes history remembers them for their successes and not their failures.
Elon Musk, one of the most powerful and influential men alive, knows this. For decades he has tested the limits of what is achievable, and year by year he has raised the bar. From computer coding to online financial services (think PayPal); from dreams of greenhouses on Mars to the founding of SpaceX; from his reimagining of Tesla, Inc. to SolarCity to the Hyperloop, Musk has always had ambitions to better mankind and seed the stars, ambitions beyond what available technology could allow. That has only driven him to acquire the resources to innovate, create, and apply said technologies.
Now, with all of that out of the way, let’s return to the topic of his children. Yes, children– all six (or seventeen) of them. Elon Musk’s first child with his first wife Justine Wilson sadly passed away from SIDS ten weeks after birth. They later had five sons through in vitro fertilization. A set of twins was born in 2004; two years later they welcomed a set of Musk triplets. And while there is nothing inherently sinister or out of the ordinary about bearing multiple children via the IVF process, for the purpose of this theory it is important to note the following: that the scientist in question suffered a severe initial loss; that cutting-edge medical procedures were used to subsequently conceive multiple offspring; that brilliant men who consistently push the envelope will continue to do so.
Flash forward to 2020. Musk has, indeed, been pushing some envelopes. He has dug tunnels, manufactured flamethrowers, created Cybertrucks, and dabbled with artificial intelligence. He has built miniature submersibles and launched a Tesla Roadster into space. For a philanthropic visionary with vast resources and near-limitless opportunities, it is not beyond the realm of possibility to suggest that, as mentioned earlier, said visionary might not linger much longer on the side of the fence where rules and regulations hampered his progress- especially when he envisions that progress as crucial to mankind’s continuing survival.
Let it be noted that Elon Musk is no stranger to the idea of augmenting the human body. In 2016 he co-founded Neuralink, a startup company with the goal to integrate artificial intelligence with the human brain. The science-fiction novels that fueled his dreams of a space-faring human race heavily feature enhanced human beings. Even his vehicles and *ahem* flamethrowers are inspired by films such as Bladerunner and Spaceballs.
Enter X Æ A-12, Musk and Grimes’ new baby boy. This is where we start to tie all of this information together. Is it beyond the realm of possibility to suggest that Elon Musk, with his history of using medical procedures to father offspring, would not only consider doing so again but would do so using the most cutting-edge procedures available? Is there any doubt that he is aware that only years ago a Chinese scientist not only had a dream of cleansing the human race of inherited and infectious diseases but succeeded in creating three apparently healthy babies as a result? Is there truly any question as to whether or not a mercurial billionaire that consistently makes it into lists such as ‘Most Powerful People’ and ‘Most Innovative Leaders’ would have the connections, technology, and resources available to grow his own heir?
Is it really too hard to imagine that Elon Musk, for all of his passion and ego and bravado, wouldn’t take a jab at the general public (and the state of California) and attempt to keep part of his creation’s medical designation in the birth name?
Grimes, in the interesting post on Twitter that I mentioned at the very beginning of this article, attempted to explain away the baby’s name as follows:
•X, the unknown variable
•Æ, my elven spelling of Ai (love &/or Artificial intelligence)
•A-12 = precursor to SR-17 (our favorite aircraft). No weapons, no defenses, just speed. Great in battle, but non-violent
(A=Archangel, my favorite song)
( metal rat)
Musk quickly clarified in a subsequent tweet that the aircraft in question was the SR-71.
This is all fine and dandy. That being said, allow me to offer my own interpretation of the (admittedly) odd name:
- X, the unknown variable
- Æ, in medical parlance, refers to an adverse event (AE), which is an unexpected medical occurrence in a clinical subject who is administered a pharmaceutical product
- A-12, with ‘A’ possibly representing alleles of the same gene, but on homologous chromosomes, referring to the child’s homozygous dominant heritage; or loosely (I am not a geneticist) referring to adenine (A), one of four in the chain of nucleotides that compose DNA; and with ’12’ implying that there were eleven previous (assumed failed) attempts at using CRISPR-Cas9 to edit their genes
- + (A=Archangel because Grimes is, obviously, a metal rat)
In the first paragraph, I mentioned that there may be a lot of problems with this baby’s name going forward, the least of which being California’s birth registration handbook citing the “26 alphabetical characters of the English language” as the only viable options when naming a child. In all likelihood, X Æ A-12’s name will default to something a little more… human, at which point the problems of pronunciation and spelling will be solved. No, the problems will extend far beyond a simple renaming. Should it come forward that Elon Musk and his girlfriend are responsible for not only editing their child’s genetic structure but flaunting their “achievement” in the collective face of the world…
Well, He Jiankui did it. Shortly thereafter Elon Musk did it, both in pursuit of a better future for mankind as a whole. History books will remember the trials of the men that played gods, but they will be footnotes on the pages documenting the trails blazed by great and powerful men. Footnotes adding little clarity as to the hows and the whens, but leaving no question as to why.