Eurasia Newsletter

bringing the minds of Asia, Canada and Europe together

Month: April, 2015

Science and values: East-West conflict?

As journalist Andreas Hirstein has discussed in the Swiss newspaper NZZ, Chinese geneticists Huang et al. at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou have conducted an experiment where they attempted to manipulate the genetic material of human embryos. These were very early-stage embryos from a fertility clinic that were not viable. As the writer of the article pointed out, this procedure would not have been allowed by law in Switzerland or many other countries. American researchers have already been condemning the experiment in their high-profile forums. A Swiss geneticist, asked for his opinion, thought that the new method would not add much to existing medical techniques, but that there would be a danger that parents might want to have “designer babies”.

According to the NZZ writer, “it can be said that the experiment did not succeed, but it is historically significant. It shows that Western values are losing influence in science. The nearer China gets to the top in the world and even dominates it, the more the new world power determines what developments in science and technology are ethically acceptable.“

Soon the new methods of genetic manipulation will be improved, the NZZ says, and asks rhetorically if science in the West will be prepared to do without these approaches, “or is it conceivable that in China hereditary diseases like cystic fibrosis might be eliminated by targeted gene manipulation, and in Europe this approach would be still out of bounds for ethical reasons?“

This article sets me wondering: are there really likely to be differences in values between East and West (in this case, China and the Western world) that would influence the course of science and medicine? Or is this just a new round of an ethical debate within and around genetics and its medical applications that is going on in the West anyway? The discussion about Huang et al. represents a twist to the existing debate – a cultural and political twist. Perhaps even a projection of good and evil, as was so common in Cold War days. Western thinkers love to trumpet the fact that the West developed modern science, and Asia had to adopt it. Does this discussion express the fear that the West could lose soon control of “Western science”?

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On positioning one’s island

There are advantages to being a small country on the edge of larger worlds. The whole strategy of such small countries has to be to profit by their peculiar location.

Recently-elected president Sirisena of Sri Lanka has been on a visit to China. But first he went to India. Wherever he goes, he enjoys tremendous goodwill, because he represents hope for a divided Sri Lanka, hope that the island nation might somehow be able to put its divisions behind it.

He has pulled away from the dependence on China that was a feature of the previous Rajapaksa administration. That was why he made a point of going to India first. But it will still pay Sri Lanka to maintain the favour of China. China needs Sri Lanka as part of its “string of pearls” for the “new silk road“ it is building to open up the Southwest of its territory to industry. Chinese ships can call in to Colombo or a special port on their way to or from the coast of the Indian Ocean nearest to landlocked Southwest China. And Sri Lanka can benefit from Chinese investment.

A small country like Sri Lanka – with few other advantages, and just coming out of a disastrous civil war – can use its strategic position as a way to attract investment from major economies. It can act as an entrepôt and port of call for ships of all nations. That was what Colombo was in the days of the Raj.

Ireland is a country that can be compared to Sri Lanka, although they seem so different and worlds apart. These are two small island nations, each on the periphery of a continent, on the edge of an ocean, periodically bedevilled by inner demons that are a heritage from having once belonged to the British Empire.

Ireland too has courted China in recent years, more out of instinct that anything else. Xi Jinping was hosted on a visit even before he took over in Beijing, and the new Confucius Institute at University College Dublin is shortly to be upgraded to a “model” institute.

Ireland has been pursuing the same strategy with the US for many years. Ireland belongs to the European Union, of course, but at the same time it is really the 51st state of the USA. Every year on St Patrick’s Day, where does the Irish Taoiseach go to distribute shamrock and show the flag? Brussels? No. He is shmoozing at the White House, where he belongs.

Ireland is a backdoor into the European Union for American companies. It too has learned to back more than one horse in the race of world economies. It needs to do this more than ever in order to make the most of its precarious position. Sri Lanka inevitably finds itself doing the same.

Brain mega-project to solve brain drain

We now know more about what the Chinese government are thinking about when it comes to “big science” projects on the human brain. A new picture has emerged from recent presentations and discussions at the Brain Forum held by the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (EPFL) in Lausanne, and another Swiss-sponsored event on the subject held at Swissnex Shanghai.

The Chinese government are going to set up a nationwide mega-project like the Human Brain Project here in Europe and the BRAIN Initiative in the US. This new project will supersede the existing “Brainnetome”. It will be known as the “China Brain Science Project”. The three aims of the project are:

  1. to study the mechanisms of neuro-circuitry underlying cognitive functions;
  2. to devise early diagnostic and treatment tools for mental or neuro-degenerative illnesses;
  3. to develop intelligent technologies linking brain and machine.

It would seem that aim 1 corresponds to mainstream neuroscience, aim 2 corresponds to the needs of medicine (neurology), and aim 3 corresponds to Artificial Intelligence. It is being said that the Chinese government has backed all three horses, because it found that brain scientists could not agree on a priority.

Meanwhile Li Yanhong, CEO of Baidu Inc. (the main Chinese search engine company), has proposed the development of a national-level artificial intelligence program, which he calls “China Brain”. This may well fit in with aim 3 of the government’s mega-project, though it seems to be his own initiative.

Chinese universities and hospitals are now very active in brain research. This has already prompted a reverse brain-drain from America and Europe. Not too long ago, promising young Chinese brain researchers went abroad, mainly to the US, to qualify in their fields and to get jobs where they could command the laboratory resources they needed. Now with opportunities at home, the Chinese researchers are flocking back to take up appointments at national institutions. There they continue to participate in international exchanges of ideas and findings. In time, we will probably see big names from the Western world going to China to take up appointments there.

The Chinese institutions are happy at the prominence of their American-trained researchers in the international journals and forums. It remains to be seen whether they will take a hand in organising the world of brain science themselves rather than just playing by Western (American) rules. There is some indication of an independent perspective in the stated desire of some researchers to apply the insights of traditional Chinese medicine to these fields.

Who are they, and who are we? (2)

To return to last week’s topic: saying “we” it is not as simple a matter as it once was. It has become quite tricky in fact. When we read that “we won the war” or “we are the world champions”, the pronoun is supposed to include the writer and the reader, but does it? When someone writes “we”, they are presuming to speak on behalf of society or the nation, and the readers are assumed to accept being spoken for. Yet in modern Western society individuals are supposed to have become very independent: they belong to social groups and categories and even relationships out of personal choice, not out of duty or destiny. They may be your friend today, but not tomorrow, and that is entirely their decision.

So, going back to last week’s discussion, when former ambassador David Mulroney says “we need to get to know China”, who is “we”? The question has probably never occurred to him. He would say “we” means Canadians. Yet clearly, as I pointed out, it does not include Chinese-Canadians. It refers more likely to the WASP establishment to which the speaker belongs. He goes on to talk about “a country that is almost wholly unlike us”. Who is “us”? Again his fellow-WASPs, or at least persons of European origin, are implied.

“Are we a North American country, or are we a Pacific country, or are we both?“ asked a Canadian commentator on Mulroney’s recent book. Good question, but it all depends on who “we” are, doesn’t it? If you are one of the English-Canadian majority, then “we” are a North American country. If you live on the West Coast, maybe “we” are a Pacific country too. Furthermore, when Canadian writers in English say “we” and talk about Canada, they almost always mean English Canada; French Canada is conveniently ignored.

Coming around to myself, how can I presume to say “we”, when I am precariously balanced between three countries, two continents, and several languages? And how can I presume to include you, when I do not know who you are? That you can read a text in English doesn’t tell me anything about you at all. You could be anywhere in the world, belonging to almost any culture.

Commenting on French philosopher Vincent Descombes’ recent book Les embarras de l’identité (Gallimard, 2013), Mathieu Bélisle in Le Devoir (Montréal) asks if we can still say “we“ at all. He dutifully reminds the reader that, since the last war, liberal democracy has not done badly in building a social consensus in the Western world. But I would want to add that the existing consensus does not need to last. In fact, it is being eaten away by resurgence of demands for group identity, but even more so by the atomization of society.

I have talked before about Karl Popper’s “abstract society”. This is an imaginary society in which people have no personal contact with each other. It was just a thought experiment when Popper coined the idea (around 1950), but in the world of computer communication it is entirely conceivable. Popper thought it would never really happen. Now I am not so sure. The abstract society could be seen as a society in which there is no “we” left. Surely that is the ultimate nightmare.