Despite the fact that sex is a basic instinct and a near-universal experience, we know remarkably little about it. And so, this week, we’re teaming up with our friends at Futurism, oracles of all things science, technology and medicine, to look at the past, present and future of pleasure from a completely scientific perspective.
Reddit’s Showerthoughts has long been a repository for the many latent enigmas of masculinity, so it shouldn’t be surprising that the forthcoming gene-editing revolution got one poster there to contemplate the big picture. “Once CRISPR becomes safe for public use, one of the first genetic traits to disappear will be below average penis sizes,” they predicted, all the way back in 2017.
Yes, instead of the myriad congenital diseases that could be eradicated from the human species by genetic therapy — the faulty strands of DNA that increase the risk of Alzheimer’s, Huntington’s and cystic fibrosis — this particular redditor inevitably retreated deep into their most fundamental insecurities. After all, there is no faster path to a man’s soul than the chance to transcend whatever mediocrity is hanging between his thighs. “If you eliminate the small ones, then a new average is created,” a different user marveled.
If all of this sounds alien to you, here are the basics: CRISPR was invented by scientists Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier back in 2012; in extreme layperson’s terms, it’s a tool that allows researchers to directly adjust the DNA sequences of life-forms birthed through in vitro fertilization. I’m not even going to pretend like I understand the incredible, foreboding technological applications that have allowed us to wield the powers of God, but most CRISPR experts liken the procedure to a pair of molecular scissors. You enter a reproductive cell, you slice off unwanted genetic material and you welcome the designer uber-organism into this world like the Bene Gesserit of Arrakis.
The possibilities are mind-boggling. Already, CRISPR has begat super-immune chickens and grey-patched heat-resistant cows, which is just the tip of the iceberg as we continue to taunt divine fury and move closer to nurseries filled with GMO babies. There has been at least one reported experiment of CRISPR being used on a human child in China, but the details are dubious at best.
Naturally, many of the pharmaceutical giants investing in CRISPR are doing so to create therapeutics that could finally address some of the greatest challenges in medical history. It’s genuinely awesome to think that someday society could eliminate ALS from the gene pool. But as the Showerthoughts thread proves, there are dumber, more hoggish questions at play, too — namely, as CRISPR technology improves, will median johnson length increase to the seven- or eight-inch range? Will the shame of the micropenis be banished from the culture all together? Will we no longer need to shave around the base for a more picturesque silhouette?
“The answer, unfortunately with anything in science is, ‘Potentially, maybe,’” says Sam Westreich, a geneticist and a program director at a Silicon Valley biotech firm.
It may come as a shock, but Westreich informs me that there is no single strand in the human genome that controls for package size. “There’s a continuous spectrum, it’s not a question of ‘long versus short,’” he explains. “There are two-inch guys, six-inch guys and eight-inch guys. There are a lot of genes that have a tiny, cumulative effect on the penis.” (The science here is complex, but some experts believe that size is primarily influenced by a mother’s two X chromosomes, which also determines the growth of other limbs.) In a sweaty, alternative universe, where our nether regions were a mere binary — akin to like, the taste of cilantro — perhaps CRISPR would have a much easier path to providing ample phalluses to successive generations.
Clearly, this idea has captured our curiosity. Think about the fascination surrounding Dr. Manhattan, the one true alpha male in DC Comics’ cosmology who literally reassembled himself on an atomic level through a very CRISPR-ish methodology. Should we be surprised that the process also left him with a humongous dick? Better yet, consider the legitimate scientific theory that a semiconscious preference for large penises may have shaped human evolution. Perhaps we’re barreling toward a well-endowed destiny, by any means necessary.
For now though, any pathway to a utopian future where everyone walks around in grey sweatpants would require a truly comprehensive treatment of gene edits addressing multiple different links in our DNA sequences. All of that effort, for something that truly doesn’t matter much in the long run. (“Y’all should work on figuring out how to adjust girth before working on massive length,” writes a woman in the Showerthoughts thread. “Most people enjoy a thick dick, but not everyone loves a long dick.”)
Westreich allows for one caveat: There is some evidence that dick size is affected by overall hormone levels during puberty. Hypothetically, that provides a workaround from all of the biophysical traits adding up to a superior manhood. “A less ethical scientist could perhaps up certain hormone levels like testosterone, which would promote a number of factors like muscle development, and also how much growth goes into the penis,” he tells me.
Ironically, the Penis Question is emblematic of a lot of CRISPR’s limitations right now. So many of our natural attributes are splayed out across our genetic makeup. Blessing a future child with a gigantic cock is difficult in the same way giving them large hands or a perfect nose is difficult. Even something like left or right handedness is tied up in a whole bundle of minor permutations in our DNA. CRISPR is in its primitive state, and that leaves so many classic male insecurities out of reach. For now, we must simply make peace with our baldness, our shortness and our thoroughly average five-inch penises. “[With gene editing], I personally think I’d go for straight hair instead of a curly mop. I’d be more attractive with that alone,” writes a third redditor. (Masculine self-doubt contains multitudes, okay.)
“Just to emphasize how much this is in its infancy, with congenital diseases, parents will do advance screenings of each egg in IVF to make sure it’s not carrying that ailment,” explains Westreich. “The way we handle that is not, ‘Okay, we’ll go in and fix it with CRISPR,’ right now it’s easier to just take the fraction that don’t show that disease.”
His point is sound, but I still can’t help but drift off into a potential genetically optimized future, where we’re all customizing our offspring like we’re rolling up a Dungeons & Dragons character. Would I be the sort of dad to make sure my son has a big dick? Or at least guarantee that he doesn’t have a small dick? What does that say about me, really?
I suppose those are the questions we’ll have to face, as we slowly transform the good earth into Blade Runner. The oceans are dry, the rain forests are gone and normal penises are a dying breed.