Will China’s Moral Difference Propel it Ahead of the West

Happy post-Halloween weekend Ethic Nutter’s. Today I saw an interesting article on SingularityHub about China’s use of CRISPR which I found compelled to write about.

SingularityHub is a futurist source of news on issues shaping the future. In the article “Inside China’s Play to Become the World’s CRISPR Superpower” by Marc Prosser he reviews China’s ambition to become the victor in its race with the U.S.A. for genetic engineering dominance. Indeed, in the Chinese government’s latest five-year plan, gene editing will be propelled forward with fewer restrictions due to a planned easing of the surrounding bureaucratic framework.

Already China is using what is described by Reproductive biologist Jon Hennebold, as a brute-force approach at an astounding level with the use of animals that they need for research and necessary experiments. It is very clear that China and U.S.A., the only two real main players are going in different directions in terms of how the ethical questions are addressed. The example given is with U.S.A. legislators soon forcing NIH to end non-human primate experiments altogether, whereas China, on the other hand, is using large colonies of primates to run their experiments. The contrast is alarming. At the end of the article, the journalist describes this race as a “Sputnik 2.0 race”. While at the University of Toronto I led a breakout session for a Research Ethics Day event where I described the rise of gene editing research as a Genetic Arms Race. However described, the race is on.

What does this mean? We could very soon see the beginnings of a competitive divide between nations that will propel the economy and the well-being of citizens within nations who use and have integrated this technology, far ahead of countries who bar it. A nation is really driven by the minds and efforts of its citizens. Imagine a nation being pushed forward by people genetically enhanced. A science and technology sector for example full of scientists and engineers with IQs higher than previously imagined and who may have no need for sleep while being supported with advanced AI technology and loose regulations? Is that science fiction? Perhaps today but it certainly will not be in the not-too-distant future.

Do ethics get in the way? The question put another way is whether the U.S.A. can compete while being moral? It is really difficult to answer this question. Many may look at China’s rise and point out all of its moral shortcomings in a vain opposing position and say yes, you’re a superpower now but look how you achieved it. Look at your human rights, look at your labour economy, look at your environmental records. Many might say they did it but in some way, you could say they cheated while doing so. Others might say, terms like those just used are not applicable in this context and offer a so what response. They are a sovereign nation. They make their own rules. Their values and ethics instruct them that this is acceptable.

While I believe there is objectivity to ethics, I do not think that objectivity can be proven. We are left with one group of people saying it’s fine and another saying it’s not. Perhaps more accurately stated, one group of people saying it’s not fine the way you do it but it’s fine the way we do it. It is the way it is done, the process behind it, not the end result. Ideally, an international agreement will be achieved on how best to proceed and that approach enforced. Why there is seemingly nothing place at the moment is a gross oversight of the international community. It is not as though this scenario was not being discussed decades ago. Indeed my classmates, professors and I were discussing this technology and in great depth before 2005.

My prediction? Common use of genetic modification of humans for health benefits will happen in the next 25 years and for purely individually advantageous reasons within my lifetime. The promises of where it could take humanity will be too great to stop its development and use.