During Space Race 1.0., it was the Soviets who first successfully launched a satellite and landed a craft on the moon (the astronaut-less Luna 9). Our communist adversaries seemed destined to be the first to put humans on the moon, but that’s not how it turned out.
In retrospect, it seems vital that the U.S., (then and perhaps still) a democracy, won the contest to take the first steps on solid ground in a sphere other than our own mothership. It provided a boost to us psychologically and technologically, maintaining the momentum we’d won in World War II, but the following decade was the beginning of a long decline for middle-class Americans, which was of course unrelated to space pioneering but likewise was not be prevented by it.
Did it really matter politically that we got there first? Hard to say.
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The human genome might actually be the final frontier, a voyage not out there but in here. The question is does it matter for humanity if the U.S. or China or some other state arrives, in one way or another, first? The invention of CRISPR-Cas9 makes this point more pressing than ever, as an autocratic nation without concern about public backlash is likely to go boldly into the future. Unlike space exploration, which is still remarkably expensive, genetic modification to not only cure disease but also to enhance healthy embryos and bodies is likely to become markedly more affordable in a relatively short span of time. That will allow for easy access to exploring–and, potentially, exploitating–which might mean the victor in this nouveau race is important. My best guess, however, is that taking the initial giant leap won’t ultimately be as meaningful as walking on the right path thereafter.
From G. Owen Schaefer’s smart Conversation piece “The Future Of Genetic Enhancement Is Not in the West“:
Aside from a preoccupation with being the best in everything, is there reason for Westerners to be concerned by the likelihood that genetic enhancement is apt to emerge out of China?
If the critics are correct that human enhancement is unethical, dangerous or both, then yes, emergence in China would be worrying. From this critical perspective, the Chinese people would be subject to an unethical and dangerous intervention – a cause for international concern. Given China’s human rights record in other areas, it is questionable whether international pressure would have much effect. In turn, enhancement of its population may make China more competitive on the world stage. An unenviable dilemma for opponents of enhancement could emerge – fail to enhance and fall behind, or enhance and suffer the moral and physical consequences.
Conversely, if one believes that human enhancement is actually desirable, this trend should be welcomed. As Western governments hem and haw, delaying development of potentially great advances for humanity, China leads the way forward. Their increased competitiveness, in turn, would pressure Western countries to relax restrictions and thereby allow humanity as a whole to progress – becoming healthier, more productive and generally capable.•
Tags: G. Owen Schaefer