Quantcast
Connect with us

Why China is likely to spearhead the future of genetic enhancement

Published

on

G. Owen Schaefer, National University of Singapore

Would you want to alter your future children’s genes to make them smarter, stronger or better-looking? As the state of the science brings prospects like these closer to reality, an international debate has been raging over the ethics of enhancing human capacities with biotechnologies such as so-called smart pills, brain implants and gene editing. This discussion has only intensified in the past year with the advent of the CRISPR-cas9 gene editing tool, which raises the specter of tinkering with our DNA to improve traits like intelligence, athleticism and even moral reasoning.

So are we on the brink of a brave new world of genetically enhanced humanity? Perhaps. And there’s an interesting wrinkle: It’s reasonable to believe that any seismic shift toward genetic enhancement will not be centered in Western countries like the U.S. or the U.K., where many modern technologies are pioneered. Instead, genetic enhancement is more likely to emerge out of China.

Attitudes toward enhancement

Numerous surveys among Western populations have found significant opposition to many forms of human enhancement. For example, a recent Pew study of 4,726 Americans found that most would not want to use a brain chip to improve their memory, and a plurality view such interventions as morally unacceptable.

Public expresses more worry than enthusiasm about each of these potential human enhancements.

ADVERTISEMENT

A broader review of public opinion studies found significant opposition in countries like Germany, the U.S. and the U.K. to selecting the best embryos for implantation based on nonmedical traits like appearance or intelligence. There is even less support for editing genes directly to improve traits in so-called designer babies.

Opposition to enhancement, especially genetic enhancement, has several sources. The above-mentioned Pew poll found that safety is a big concern – in line with experts who say that tinkering with the human genome carries significant risks. These risks may be accepted when treating medical conditions, but less so for enhancing nonmedical traits like intelligence and appearance. At the same time, ethical objections often arise. Scientists can be seen as “playing God” and tampering with nature. There are also worries about inequality, creating a new generation of enhanced individuals who are heavily advantaged over others. “Brave New World” is a dystopia, after all.

However, those studies have focused on Western attitudes. There has been much less polling in non-Western countries. There is some evidence that in Japan there is similar opposition to enhancement as in the West. Other countries, such as China and India, are more positive toward enhancement. In China, this may be linked to more generally approving attitudes toward old-fashioned eugenics programs such as selective abortion of fetuses with severe genetic disorders, though more research is needed to fully explain the difference. This has led Darryl Macer of the Eubios Ethics Institute to posit that Asia will be at the forefront of expansion of human enhancement.

ADVERTISEMENT

Restrictions on gene editing

In the meantime, the biggest barrier to genetic enhancement will be broader statutes banning gene editing. A recent study found bans on germline genetic modification – that is, those that are passed on to descendants – are in effect throughout Europe, Canada and Australia. China, India and other non-Western countries, however, have laxer regulatory regimes – restrictions, if they exist, are often in the form of guidelines rather than statutes.

The U.S. may appear to be an exception to this trend. It lacks legal restriction of gene editing; however, federal funding of germline gene editing research is prohibited. Because most geneticists rely on government grants for their research, this acts as a significant restriction on germline editing studies.

By contrast, it was Chinese government funding that led China to be the first to edit the genes of human embryos using the CRISPR-cas9 tool in 2015. China has also been leading the way in using CRISPR-cas9 for non-germline genetic modifications of human tissue cells for use in treatment of cancer patients.

ADVERTISEMENT

There are, then, two primary factors contributing to emergence of genetic enhancement technologies – research to develop the technologies and popular opinion to support their deployment. In both areas, Western countries are well behind China.

Different countries have different expectations about working with human genes.
Michael Dalder/Reuters

What makes China a probable petri dish

A further, more political factor may be at play. Western democracies are, by design, sensitive to popular opinion. Elected politicians will be less likely to fund controversial projects, and more likely to restrict them. By contrast, countries like China that lack direct democratic systems are thereby less sensitive to opinion, and officials can play an outsize role in shaping public opinion to align with government priorities. This would include residual opposition to human enhancement, even if it were present. International norms are arguably emerging against genetic enhancement, but in other arenas China has proven willing to reject international norms in order to promote its own interests.

Indeed, if we set ethical and safety objections aside, genetic enhancement has the potential to bring about significant national advantages. Even marginal increases in intelligence via gene editing could have significant effects on a nation’s economic growth. Certain genes could give some athletes an edge in intense international competitions. Other genes may have an effect on violent tendencies, suggesting genetic engineering could reduce crime rates.

ADVERTISEMENT

Many of these potential benefits of enhancement are speculative, but as research advances they may move into the realm of reality. If further studies bear out the reliability of gene editing in improving such traits, China is well-poised to become a leader in the area of human enhancement.

Does this matter?

Aside from a preoccupation with being the best in everything, is there reason for Westerners to be concerned by the likelihood that genetic enhancement is apt to emerge out of China?

If the critics are correct that human enhancement is unethical, dangerous or both, then yes, emergence in China would be worrying. From this critical perspective, the Chinese people would be subject to an unethical and dangerous intervention – a cause for international concern. Given China’s human rights record in other areas, it is questionable whether international pressure would have much effect. In turn, enhancement of its population may make China more competitive on the world stage. An unenviable dilemma for opponents of enhancement could emerge – fail to enhance and fall behind, or enhance and suffer the moral and physical consequences.

ADVERTISEMENT

Conversely, if one believes that human enhancement is actually desirable, this trend should be welcomed. As Western governments hem and haw, delaying development of potentially great advances for humanity, China leads the way forward. Their increased competitiveness, in turn, would pressure Western countries to relax restrictions and thereby allow humanity as a whole to progress – becoming healthier, more productive and generally capable.

Either way, this trend is an important development. We will see if it is sustained – public opinion in the U.S. and other countries could shift, or funding could dry up in China. But for now, it appears that China holds the future of genetic enhancement in its hands.

The Conversation

ADVERTISEMENT

G. Owen Schaefer, Research Fellow in Biomedical Ethics, National University of Singapore

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Report typos and corrections to [email protected].
READ COMMENTS - JOIN THE DISCUSSION
Continue Reading

Breaking Banner

Yale psychiatrist: Trump using racism as a coping mechanism as his mental state rapidly deteriorates

Published

on

On Wednesday, President Donald Trump continued to attack the young congresswomen of color nicknamed "The Squad," after he was criticized for saying the women should go back to their own countries, even though all four are U.S. citizens. Now, he's doubling down.

On Twitter Wednesday he called the women "left-wing cranks." He added that they were free to leave if they don't like America.

Raw Story spoke with Dr. Bandy X. Lee about the President's racist tirades against Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), Ilhan Omar (D-MN), Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) and Ayanna Pressley (D-ILL).

Lee is a forensic psychiatrist and an expert on violence at Yale School of Medicine. She helped launch a public health approach to global violence prevention as a consultant to the World Health Organization and other United Nations bodies since 2002. She is author of the textbook, “Violence: An Interdisciplinary Approach to Causes, Consequences, and Cures,” president of the World Mental Health Coalition, and editor of the New York Times bestseller, “The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump: 37 Psychiatrists and Mental Health Experts Assess a President.”

Continue Reading

Breaking Banner

This word is the single biggest tipoff that Trump is lying

Published

on

President Donald Trump exhibits a verbal tic that gives away some of his biggest whoppers.

The president tells demonstrable lies on a daily basis, but it's a "flashing red light" that he's lying when he recounts someone calling him "sir," according to CNN fact-checker Daniel Dale.

"Trump has told false 'sir' stories on all manner of subjects: health care, the Middle East, the courts, unions and -- just last week -- both tariffs and social media," Dale wrote. "But no genre of Trump story is more reliably sir-heavy than his collection of suspiciously similar tales about macho men breaking into tears of gratitude in his presence."

Continue Reading
 

Facebook

Russia launches criminal case over gay couple’s adoption

Published

on

Russia on Wednesday said it had opened an unprecedented criminal case accusing officials of negligence for allowing a gay couple to adopt two children.

The Investigative Committee, which probes serious cases, said that Moscow social workers were suspected of criminal negligence for allowing the two boys to live in the family since 2010.

This is the first such case ever launched, reported Interfax news agency.

"Nothing like this has happened before," said lawyer Maksim Olenichev of Vykhod (Coming Out) support group based in the northwestern city of Saint Petersburg.

Continue Reading
 
 
 

Copyright © 2019 Raw Story Media, Inc. PO Box 21050, Washington, D.C. 20009 | Masthead | Privacy Policy | For corrections or concerns, please email [email protected]

close-image