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Culture Wars
Chinese Embryo Experiment Creates Big Blacklash

Chinese scientists recently announced that they used human embryos for an experiment in gene editing—a historical, and very controversial, first. Scientists have long accepted the idea of editing adults’ genes, but the Chinese experiment did something different by modifying the genome of embryos. The scientific community has greeted this research critically, by reiterating calls for a moratorium on experiments that could change the genome. In the first place, as the WSJ reports, the experiment didn’t even succeed; though the embryonic genome was edited, “the gene repair failed to make the desired changes and caused what the geneticists called ‘off-target’ effects.”

But the bigger issue is the unethical nature of the experiments. At the New Atlantis, Brendan Foht explains:

 What has shocked the scientific community is how this experiment crosses one of the last and oldest taboos of mainstream bioethics: it modifies the human germline. Genetic changes made to human embryos, unlike gene therapy conducted on adults, will not only affect the genetically modified child but also the genetically modified child’s descendants. Technologies like CRISPR are just what might make possible that dream and nightmare of genetically designed children — if we allow the technologies to be used to modify human embryos […]

The strong stance that the scientific community has taken against germline modification is an encouraging sign, to be sure. While some so-called ethicists, like Julian Savulescu at the University of Oxford, recklessly endorse the genetic modification of humans, the scientific community has displayed considerable prudence in its approach to this controversial issue. It would appear that the world’s two leading scientific journals, Nature and Science, both turned down the opportunity to publish this radical paper, and though the editors of neither journal have yet made any public statements on the matter, it would seem that they may have declined to publish on ethical grounds.

Bioethicists, that is, are deeply concerned about such bio-engineering, as well as the ethical implications of altering the genome of a human being without its consent. Another source of the alarm is the possibility that well-heeled parents might soon be able to pay for children crafted to their specifications. And as Foht points out, the calls for moratoriums on germline modification take place against a background of widespread acceptance of other practices many deem unethical—such as discarding embryos.

What kinds of ethical restrictions should exist on genetic experimentation is likely to be one of the most heated debates of the coming decades. The technological capability advancing fast, raising all sorts of questions about the kind of society we will want to be. For now, a unified scientific community has rejected what was, in any case, an experiment that did not go as planned. But the research is likely to continue in some form or another—already, four other Chinese labs are rumored to be experimenting on embryos.

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  • f1b0nacc1

    The last sentence says it all. This is going to happen, handwringing by self-appointed guardians of what is appropriate and what is not notwithstanding.

  • qet

    This is another one of those areas that people are being asked to delegate to the discretion of scientists or “the scientific community.” Scientists are not superior ethical thinkers, in fact they are inferior to many others because their vocations require them to suspend all value judgments, or at least to convince themselves that is what they are doing, in doing their science. Scientists are as petulant as the rest of us, more so in many cases. Witness the writer of the quoted article, calling someone who disagrees with him a “so-called ethicist.” Soon he will be insisting that there is a “consensus” and that anyone who dares speak otherwise ought to be arrested. f1b0nacc1 is right: the argument is not, because it cannot be, over whether this proceeds or not; it can only be over who gets to decide who gets to do it, and how, and the power to punish those who do otherwise.

  • Andrew Allison

    It’s not a historical first, see http://www.lifenews.com/2012/07/02/worlds-first-genetically-modified-babies-born-or-were-they/. The fact that http://listverse.com/2013/07/26/top-10-gm-animals-you-can-buy-or-eat/ includes human babies raises the question of why is it that we’re so much more concerned with humans than with the other animals? Add to this the fact that every living thing is a GMO and the discussion gets really complicated. Genetic mutation happens — witness the recent five-legged sheep news — and it’s far from clear to me that, other than the fact that survival of the fittest is no longer operative in large segments of the human population, there’s much difference between natural and human modification. To argue otherwise is to suggest that random modifications are OK but deliberate ones are not, which seems a bit of a stretch.

  • GS

    The bioethicists need to go … bioethicise … themselves. Were one capable of dialing the qualities, we would have a very different next generation – with everyone in it being healthy, smart, and talented. Indeed, these bioethicists would probably be at the head of the queue, claiming they are there to ensure compliance, or something.

    • Andrew Allison

      How many of these so-called “bioethicists” are either biologists or qualified to discuss ethics? “But the bigger issue is the unethical nature of the experiments.”, for example, suggests that TAI has appointed itself to be one.

      • GS

        Even if they were – and who set them over the scientists? The one best knowing what to do is the one in the lab, not some wishy-washy ignoranus.

  • fastrackn1

    Of course humans will try these type of things long before they are ready and fully understand the ramifications….

    • GS

      Recall the thought experiment that Murray and Herrnstein described in their “Bell Curve”: everything else would remain much the same, but they shifted the average IQ in the United States to 103 – nothing spectacular, by the way. The same largely Gaussian distribution, but shifted just a bit. And according to their analysis, if everything else remained much the same [and for the small shifts it should, indeed], the results would have been pretty positive – much less crime, for example.

      • fastrackn1

        Regarding your last sentence, I think humans are often fooled with the initial progress of many things and then go all out in an effort to accomplish quick or large returns…because…let’s face it, we are an impatient bunch.
        What will really exacscerbate that problem is the big money that will fund this research and push through as fast as possible, and at any ethical cost, results that will bring them the huge financial gains that are sure to come from this type of science.

        I don’t have a problem with this type of research, I think it could do wonderful things for some period of time. But I know humans will take it much too far someday and it will have devastating consequences.

        Average IQ of 103…hmmmm….well it must drop temporarily while people are behind the wheel….

  • Anthony

    This change can’t come soon enough. There is not a day that goes by that I don’t think what I could have been if I had a higher IQ. I’m sure I’m not the only one.

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