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China Genetically Engineering Monkeys to Be More Human


When a Chinese scientist known as JK genetically engineered two children a bit ago, outrage was (temporarily) expressed. “The scientists” wrung their hands about the ethics of it all — but I suspect it’s all a con. They weren’t upset about what was done, but when, that is, before the public had been sufficiently anesthetized.

The Chinese government reacted to the world’s (transitory) outrage by arresting JK, claiming he was a rogue actor. Are you kidding me? China is the most technologically sophisticated tyranny the world has ever seen. Nothing that important happens there without somebody in high places knowing about it.

More Human

Now, Chinese scientists have genetically engineered a macaque monkey to make it more human. From the MIT Technology Review:

“This was the first attempt to understand the evolution of human cognition using a transgenic monkey model,” says Bing Su, the geneticist at the Kunming Institute of Zoology who led the effort.

According to their findings, the modified monkeys did better on a memory test involving colors and block pictures, and their brains also took longer to develop — as those of human children do. There wasn’t a difference in brain size.

Swell. A few years ago we were promised experiments that would effect the brain would never be done in mice. They were right. It was done in monkeys!

“Outsourcing Ethics”

My friend the bioethicist William Hurlbut has often worried about “outsourcing ethics,” that is, Western scientists and funders cooperating with experiments in countries with an “anything goes” approach, allowing them to participate in research considered unethical in their own countries while remaining in good odor among their peers.

China sure fits that bill! For example, scientists there brought cloned monkeys to birth recently, meaning human reproductive cloning could be on the horizon.

Not to worry: The scientists are alarmed!

Several Western scientists, including one who collaborated on the effort, called the experiments reckless and said they questioned the ethics of genetically modifying primates, an area where China has seized a technological edge.

“The use of transgenic monkeys to study human genes linked to brain evolution is a very risky road to take,” says James Sikela, a geneticist who carries out comparative studies among primates at the University of Colorado. He is concerned that the experiment shows disregard for the animals and will soon lead to more extreme modifications. “It is a classic slippery slope issue and one that we can expect to recur as this type of research is pursued,” he says.

Then, stop cooperating with the Chinese biotech sector!

Opening Pandora’s Box

We are almost out of time to keep Pandora from opening her box:

  • We need to create binding international ethics protocols to govern biotechnology.
  • We need laws that would dry up the expectation of profit by denying patent and other intellectual property protections for products or procedures that arise from unethical experiments.
  • We need the Western science establishment to stop cooperating with anything goes biotechnological experiments in China and elsewhere.
  • We need some leadership internationally to bring this crucial issue to the forefront.

Ah, quit flapping your wings, Wesley. As Mark Twain might say were he still among us, everyone talks about biotechnology, but no one wants to do anything about it.

Photo: A macaque monkey, looking pensive, by Kyla Marino, via Flickr (cropped).

Cross-posted at The Corner.