Science and values: East-West conflict?

by Terence MacNamee

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”?