The very nature of any arms race is a study in one-upmanship that is presumed to be necessitated by that which came before. A perfect current example is the global drone arms race, where nearly every country is now acquiring technology that is assumed to be, at the very least, a protective measure against other countries which might develop offensive capability that threaten their nation. In the background is an international ethical debate about “killer robots” that has yet to be resolved, at least according to the United Nations. Nevertheless, development still continues unilaterally without pause as ethicists and average citizens alike are left scrambling to get ahead of a quickening curve.
Also developing at warp speed is a scientific race focused on genetics that is raising the old concerns about eugenics, as well as entirely new debates that, as yet, have only appeared in science fiction such as Gattaca. That film, for those who are unfamiliar, is the story of a future society where a centralized genetic and biometric database not only catalogues individual traits, but is used to identify those who are genetically superior, thus creating a fundamental divide in society between the “valids” and “the in-valids.”
Perhaps most poignantly, this is still carried out within a legal structure that has declared discrimination to be illegal. Regardless, such identification of genetic “disorders” has become irresistibly pragmatic to society, leading to the next step where parents who have the means can make the conscious decision to design their children for maximum abilities and longevity. The film was certainly ahead of its time when released in 1997, and could not be more relevant today.
As you will see in the article below written by G. Owen Schaefer, a Research Fellow in Biomedical Ethics at the National University of Singapore, we may be farther along the path to a Gattaca scenario than previously thought. Very often it takes a “seeing is believing” moment for people to acknowledge that their concerns have now become legitimate fears. After all, the concept of drones (and potential consequences) was discussed long before they started bombing wedding parties in the Middle East and spying domestically. And some of the news coming from China about creating superior animals – such as the super beagle – have made people take a much closer look at China’s other statements which were thought to be off the wall, such as replicating humans at clone factories.
One sign that people are indeed awakening to an impending dystopian reality is a recent poll (alluded to below) that was presented by Pew Research, where people specifically showed strong concern about human enhancement – superhumans. Whereas people have generally accepted the personal striving for longevity and preservation of appearance through supplementation, prescription drugs, and reconstructive surgeries, there is at least the acknowledgment that there are lines that still should not be crossed when it comes to genetic engineering.
So, here we are. Is China attempting to lead a race toward superiority through genetics? Are they responding to where they believe the U.S. already has headed? Is either country obligated to loosen any ethical restrictions that they may have had, especially if not doing so would leave their citizens destined to be part of a permanent world underclass or would severely compromise their national defense? Is this debate proof that we need a stronger international health organization that will place an outright ban on this technology?
Depending upon your answers to the above questions, you might find it troubling or reassuring to know that just today it was announced that the U.S. National Institutes of Health would “lift a ban on research funds for part-human, part-animal embryos.” Emphasis added…