A few days ago The New York Times published a piece with the headline, A Scientific Ethical Divide Between China and West. My instinct as to what the piece was going to be focusing on was totally off. Whereas my own assumption was that it would focus on perceptions of widespread corner cutting, and sometimes fraud, in Chinese science, it was mostly about CRISPR and genetically engineering humans. As you probably know I find some of this a bit much. I take those who are worried about misapplication of “gene drive” technologies more seriously than those worried about germline edits in humans, because the latter are likely to happen, but be few and far between. In the wide world of human rights concerns CRISPR edited fetuses are very low on my list. Though CRISPR is much better than most older genetic engineering techniques in terms of specificity, for the near term future it is unlikely to be good enough that you’d want to “perfect” your child.
Then there’s this post over at Quartz, Why China won’t listen to Western scientists about genetically modifying the human embryo, which focuses a lot on cultural differences. It concludes with this: “Inside China, there are people who are opposed to international standards, citing cultural differences. This force is actually quite powerful sometimes.” Actually, I have cultural differences with many people who are averse to genetic engineering. I agree with Alex Tabarrok, if the risk/reward proposition for CRISPR in the context of humans shifts enough, I don’t have any hesitation of allowing it on an individual basis (i.e., it shouldn’t be mandatory obviously!). In fact, for adults who want to take the risk the time table for elective genetic engineering is probably much closer.
But this section of the Quartz piece jumped out at me:
“Confucian thinking says that someone becomes a person after they are born. That is different from the United States or other countries with a Christian influence, where because of religion they may feel research on embryos is not ok,” Deng Rui, a medical ethicist at Shanxi Medical University, told the New York Times.
Two East Asian nations have large numbers of Catholics, Protestants, Buddhists, and those who are irreligious, in The World Values Survey. There is a question which asks, “is abortion ever justifiable?” The respondents are given a 1 t o 10 scale. 10 is “always justifiable,” and “1” is “never justifiable.” Below are the results (Poland is a “control”).
What’s this telling us? In South Korea there really isn’t much of a difference between the religions, and the gap between religious and irreligious is modest. South Korea has historically been the most Confucian nation in the world. But there is a lot of ambivalence about abortion. The results for Poland show that the irreligious are very different from Catholics. Singapore shows that Buddhists and those with no religion cluster together, but Catholics are not particularly anti-abortion, but Protestants are.
For all the talk about culture, I think old fashioned Marxism and nationalism can explain the Chinese pushing the envelope. There are material rewards to scientists who publish high impact and notable findings. And, there are glories which accrue to the nation as a whole. If China wants to “catch up” with the West in science, then it’s going to push into areas that the West is not focusing on.