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Searching for New Atlantis in China

A whirlwind tour of a world being born.

Aimee2013/Dreamstime.comAimee2013/Dreamstime.comTwin baby girls, Lulu and Nana, were born in Shenzhen, China last month. That's not news, but this is: These two will likely never have to fear HIV infection. Not because a new vaccine was invented, but because they were born immune to the most common forms of the virus.

You might think this would be a reason to celebrate—imagine a world where no one ever contracts HIV again—but instead of champagne popping, a volcano of outrage and disgust erupted upon the girls' birth announcement.

Many are upset because Lulu and Nana are mutants, the world's first genetically edited babies. When they were but day-old embryos, a scientist in Shenzhen altered their DNA to grant them immunity from infection using a new technique called CRISPR/Cas9.

The fact that this happened in China did not go unnoticed in the commentary. The widespread coverage of He Jiankui, the lead researcher, portrays him as a vainglorious fool acting recklessly in a lawless land. In an ominous twist to the story, He has apparently gone missing.

Is Shenzhen a crazy place? Or is it just different? It may be that Jiankui was rash—we in the U.S. are still haunted by the ghost of the thalidomide incident in 1962—but a troubling assumption hides behind all the commentary: namely, that all regulations and moratoriums ought to apply universally and uniformly across the world.

"The most serious thing I've heard is that he didn't do the paperwork right," Harvard geneticist George Church told the journal Science. "I'm sitting in the middle and everyone else is so extreme that it makes me look like his buddy. He's just an acquaintance. But it seems like a bullying situation to me."

Church is the only prominent scientist to defend He, though this is in some ways unsurprising. Church has already received his own notoriety for cloning a wooly mammoth by using the CRISPR technique and for raising the possibility that Neanderthals might make a come back.

When did it become controversial to think different cities might be allowed to have different scientific regulations and rules about consent? Is there just one global bureaucratic empire of science?

——

In 2013, Larry Page, then CEO of Google, took to the stage at the Google I/O conference and wondered aloud if old laws and rusty institutions were slowing down the rate of technological progress. His argument was that we were missing discoveries because we couldn't run small-scale experiments with wild technologies like flying cars and drones. "There are many, many exciting and important things you could do that you just can't do because they're illegal or they're not allowed by regulation," he said.

He did not propose to change the laws of San Francisco or Mountain View. No, that was something best left to the stalemates of weeknight zoning committee meetings. Instead, Page proposed something far more radical. He suggested building a new experimental city that would operate by a different set of rules and regulations from the rest of the United States. If only we could "set aside a small part of the world," he said, in which "a few people can try out different things and not everybody has to go."

After Russian meddling in elections and home testing entrepreneur Elizabeth Holmes conning Henry Kissinger and half of Silicon Valley, the spirit of 2018 calls for tighter regulation of tech, not looser . Remembering this experimental city speech by Page, the technology correspondent for the Financial Times recently concluded, "It is hard to imagine any tech executive voicing such an idea today."

Indeed.

Mark Lutter, a young Ph.D. in economics from George Mason University, started a think tank this year dedicated to studying and promoting semi-autonomous jurisdictions—new cities—as a way to raise the standards of living for the worst off in the world, the Center for Innovative Governance Research. In October, he hosted a conference at a hip music venue on Valencia Street in the Mission of San Francisco. I was taken aback when Lutter started confiscating all the attendees' cell phones and putting them in a container. A tech executive of a multi-billion dollar company was going to give a talk and the exec wanted to be sure no one recorded his speech.

This is not an unusual fear. A month later, over beer at a bar in the Financial District, the CEO of another tech company told me when he retired, he wanted to devote his time and wealth to starting new special economic zones that might bloom into new experimental cities one day. He added, "But I'll need to hire bodyguards for me and my wife."

"Why?"

"Because these are dangerous ideas," he shrugged.

When I first moved to San Francisco nearly 10 years ago, I imagined a city full of thousands of Elon Musks. We were going to Mars in a decade. Instead, we have sidewalks covered in human excrement and skies choking with wildfire smoke.

Photo Credit: Aimee2013/Dreamstime.com

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  • AlmightyJB||

    Just in time for Aquaman

  • Tom Bombadil||

    I find it highly unlikely that a Chinaman scientist would intentionally create two GIRLS.

    Fake news.

  • Old Mexican - Mostly Harmless||

    Chinaman? Does he sell fine porcelain?

  • Cynical Asshole||

    Nah. He does run a laundromat in San Fransisco though.

  • buybuydandavis||

    Two girls immune to HIV. Perfect for sex work. Someone should notify ENB.

  • ||

    They're personally immune, that doesn't mean they aren't carriers.

    Typhoid Mary except... HIV Lei?

  • ||

    Also, it raises a decent point that Bailey and similar anti-ethicists fail to acknowledge or like to eschew is the potential for not just ambiguous abuse but unquestionable abuse. There are people on both sides of the abortion debate that believe both every fetus should be carried to term and that severely handicapped babies could/should be aborted. Both groups as well as some others would find common ground against modifications that rendered babies (and the resulting people) more or less fit for predisposed to certain social functions at birth. It's easy to dismiss people choosing blue eyes over brown but literally creating men that are not equal is a bit larger consideration.

  • Cy||

    Great, we're all going to get grey goo-ed because someone has the hopey changeys and read a book once.

  • Old Mexican - Mostly Harmless||

    Is there just one global bureaucratic empire of science, asks Michael Gibson in his latest piece for Reason.


    Witness how so many world 'personalities' march with a disciplined lockstep while claiming in unison that the Angry Volcano God [a.k.a. Climate Change, formerly Global Warming, formerly Global Cooling] is so angry, in 10 years we won't be able to appease It with virgin sacrifices. They repeat this as if their minds are being scrutinized by the kid from Peaksville, OH. That should tell you that there is indeed an omnipresent, single bureaucratic empire of *something*.

  • Inigo Montoya||

    It's all fun and games when it's mutants who are immune to AIDS or who have really nice eye colors, but what happens when we get to mutants with psychic abilities, or superior strength, or the ability to control metal? They could easily decide they are our rightful rulers, or worse, that we are just a petty annoyance to be brushed away.

  • Cynical Asshole||

    No worries. When that happens, a super powerful telepath will assemble of team of good mutants to fight against the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants.

  • JesseAz||

    And when that happens I'll form a corporation under government contract to develop robots who can adapt to mutant abilities in order to capture them.

  • buybuydandavis||

    KHAAAAAAAAAAN!

  • buybuydandavis||

    "Church has already received his own notoriety for cloning a wooly mammoth by using the CRISPR technique"

    Bitching!

    " and for raising the possibility that Neanderthals might make a come back."

    I'm 4% Neanderthal! Much more than Fauxahontas is Native American.
    Muh poor, genocided people!
    Ne shall overcome someday!

  • ||

    "The most serious thing I've heard is that he didn't do the paperwork right," Harvard geneticist George Church told the journal Science. "I'm sitting in the middle and everyone else is so extreme that it makes me look like his buddy. He's just an acquaintance. But it seems like a bullying situation to me."

    Uh... when hospitals and organizations you cite as collaborators deny involvement, it's more than just a paperwork issue.

    Gene editing aside, his methodology is an ethical mess. To effectively demonstrate efficacy, you'd have to expose the girls/mutants to HIV, a risk they might not even incur normally, increasing their risk of disease or defect down the road (if only marginally) for a disease which they can avoid and a treatment that won't work on adults. Moreover, there are genetic targets for which this therapy would be unquestionably beneficial despite any risks.

    Also, it wouldn't be the first such stunt to come out of Asia. Not that the West is less sensational but, again, when the organizations that you say participated in your research say they didn't, fraud isn't out of the question.

  • Thomas O.||

    This is not an unusual fear. A month later, over beer at a bar in the Financial District, the CEO of another tech company told me when he retired, he wanted to devote his time and wealth to starting new special economic zones that might bloom into new experimental cities one day. He added, "But I'll need to hire bodyguards for me and my wife."

    "Why?"

    "Because these are dangerous ideas," he shrugged.

    Something something car powered by water...

  • Dillinger||

    >>>The fact that this happened in China did not go unnoticed in the commentary.

    sooner we get to Earthican, the better. good for He, good for Science.

  • Rev. Arthur L. Kirkland||

    The publication of this odd, seemingly pointless travelogue suggests the author funds this website, directly or indirectly.

  • Sometimes a Great Notion||

    The fact that is all you got out of an inspiring tale of people rising out of poverty to forge a better life for themselves is pretty telling.

  • BYODB||

    I've been saying for years that nations like China, Russia, North Korea, etc. are biting at the bit to create their New Soviet Men via genetic editing and people laughed and said that would never happen.


    Whoops, looks like I was right all along. This is just the beginning of what China in particular wants to do with this technology. Things like 'super soldiers' are really just the beginning. Just wait until they tailor AIDS to only kill non-Asians. Little things like ethical concerns or potential second and third order consequences aren't things the Committee or Chairman give a fuck about.

  • JoeB||

    We just need to build our supermen first!!

  • Outside the Box||

    "I've been saying for years"

    I see no reason for me stop ignoring your saying this based on this post... good lordy.

  • JoeBlow123||

    This is correct. If China has shown one thing it is that ethics of any kind is not much of a concern, only utility and power. Treat them with kids gloves at your peril.

  • JoeBlow123||

    This was well written. It is also clearly funded in some capacity by China, this is some long winded advertisment. A fucking puff piece on a state that makes a policy of ethnic cleansing and Brave New World social engineering. Fucking A!

    "Because the West has given up on innovating in governance, in experimenting with new rules in new cities, the end of history is looking less like liberal democracy and more like authoritarian economic dynamism."

    I cannot believe I read this on a supposed libertarian website.

  • llin||

    Xiongan is not a Coperweight-style city, it's based on centrally planned economy. It's a "millennium strategy" designed by the great leader Xi.

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