Bloody shovel

Don't call it a spade

China’s CRISPR babies might have wasted our last chance

Yesterday I woke up to this piece of news:

https://www.technologyreview.com/s/612458/exclusive-chinese-scientists-are-creating-crispr-babies/

Chinese Scientists are Creating CRISPR Babies.

Hilarity ensued. This guy, Hè Jiànkuí 贺建奎, professor at China’s Southern University of Science and Technology, with good, manly posture, was bringing the future to our time.

I was feeling weird already. But then this other bombshell happens.

https://www.apnews.com/4997bb7aa36c45449b488e19ac83e86d

Babies are already born! Twin girls, Lulu and Nana. Which are quite standard names for Chinese girls today, even though that sort of name would’ve sound like prostitutes 50 years ago. But I digress.

The mad scientist who had created the first CRISPR babies out of the blue, in secret, just like that! Had set up a Youtube channel where, in lousy English, he explained his whole project. Look at him here. His posture is not so good in the videos.

His procedure involved knocking down the CCR5 gene, supposedly giving immunity to AIDS. The guy went out of his way to denounce the use of gene editing (he branded his procedure as “gene surgery”. I’m just this doctor doing surgery, you see) for purposes of improving IQ. “That should be banned!” he said.

Oh man, we were just getting excited at the possibilities here. Immunity to AIDS? Getting AIDS is not a real concern for most people at all. Who cares about homosexuals really. Why is this guy using what might turn to be the most consequential technology in the history of mankind just to make life easier for homosexuals? And why is he bragging in English on Youtube? Which is banned in China. And why is his email in Gmail? Which is banned in China? Isn’t this some kind of secret Chinese government project to produce SuperHan?

Short answer is, no. Long answer is: we were all getting excited as state media (People’s Daily, The Paper, etc.) reported on the news on a fairly neutral tone. Those pieces were deleted a few hours later, as it surfaced that He Jiankui didn’t make the CRISPR babies through his university research. Oh no, he had gone rogue, cooperating with a hospital called Harmonicare, 深圳和美妇儿科医院. A maternity hospital, owned by the infamous, and I mean infamous, Putian hospital conglomerate. 莆田系.

If you search for the news in China, you don’t get “ethics” or “horror” or “brave new world”. No, all you get is “Those fucking Putian guys have gone crazy!!”, again and again, and again. If this had been a state-run project, nobody would be saying anything. Yes, some western educated scientists would protest. But the mood would have been “oh, wow. Cool.”. That was the general reaction of 90% of people when they first read the news, before the details started to trickle down. But once the Putian meme was out, most people in China wanted to grab Mr. He and tear him down to pieces.

He Jiankui must have known what he was getting into. He took a 3 year leave from his university post in February, supposedly to focus on this CRISPR baby project. The university has promptly disowned him, and 122 biologists come out asking for his imprisonment. China has started an investigation. It’s not looking good.

Putian is a small town in coastal Fujian province. There’s nothing special about it, besides them being Fujianese, and thus a bunch of cutthroat money-grabbers with no sense of ethics and morals. Yes, nobody likes the Fujianese, especially in China. For some reason the Putianese have a virtual monopoly of private hospitals in China; or at least that’s what people in the street will tell you. Supposedly they created a good political patronage network under Jiang Zemin in the 1990s, and since then, no private hospital can get an operating license in China if they’re not part of the Putian mafia.

Having a monopoly, and being (again, that’s the stereotype) genetically evil, the Putianese run hospitals are famous in China for outrageous prices and making up diseases so they can do expensive surgery to cure them. Allegations of baby theft and organ trafficking are also common. Again, I don’t know how true. I assume that the prices are high, and yes, unnecessary surgery happens, so the anger they have caused through those two things have escalated into Putianese doctors eating babies for breakfast and selling the organs to the Jews or something. Again, true or not, the street believes it, and that is newsworthy indeed.

It surprised no one that He Jiankui did his research through a Putian-owned hospital. Those guys will do anything for money. The question, however, remains: is this for real? Did he really pull it off? People on Twitter are saying they were classmates with the guy, and he was a physics major who only got into biology recently, no way he has the skill to pull this off. This could be just some marketing ploy to get fame for the Putianese IVF clinic he is now working for. Again, everything is fake in China. The Chinese will tell you so themselves.

I don’t know what to believe. If CRISPR babies are real, this guy is in trouble. If the babies are fake, then this guy got into real trouble for no reason at all. Yes, he got his Youtube views, and some fancy videos where he speaks in English. But what he did is kinda illegal in China; and while China enforces its own laws when it wants to, making an international scandal of THE MOST IMPORTANT TECHNOLOGY EVER is pretty much the one thing that will trigger government attention in China. I hope for his own good that he’s just some mad scientist who went rogue.

If he is a fake, he’s gonna spend a long, long, long time in jail. All in exchange of 3 lame Youtube videos. If so, shame on you, He Jiankui. You are the dumbest guy ever, and you’d have brought shame on a great technology which could delay its application to humanity for decades. Decades which we don’t have, at this rate of IQ shredding.

China was kinda ok with gene editing, but by associating the technology with the most hated institution in China, he could very much have forced the hand of the Chinese government and have it effectively banned for good. The future of humanity may have just died by the intersection of a greedy hospital, a vain scientist and social media.

Say it ain’t so, He Jiankui. Better be true.

26 responses to “China’s CRISPR babies might have wasted our last chance

  1. Karl November 27, 2018 at 09:21

    What? The guy makes babies that are immune to AIDS and gives them the names of prositutes (from 50 years ago). Are Putianese hospitals branching out into another despicable business?

    • spandrell November 27, 2018 at 09:33

      They are normal names today. Extremely normal, if not quite upper class.

      • CW November 30, 2018 at 02:54

        I can’t believe the Chinese would care enough that a delay over this would last a long time.

        • Sorcerygod at sorsgod.wordpress.com December 4, 2018 at 05:07

          The Chinese government is not entirely rational. If they were, they would change the name of their ruling class from “Communist” to something like “Han Republican” and drop the red flag with the dinky fistful of yellow stars which is never going to have the same number of stars as the American flag.

          Also, Jackie Chan — and even Bruce Lee — are not Arnold Schwarzenegger (or even Stallone. Yo! Adrienne!)

  2. bobby93 November 27, 2018 at 13:18

    Putian connection is not the point.
    He owns/cofounded at least 7 companies.
    And recent news shows he got this research fund from the university.
    https://m.weibo.cn/1719174221/4310963958664388

  3. Pingback: China’s CRISPR babies might have wasted our last chance | Reaction Times

  4. akarlin November 27, 2018 at 14:15

    If I was an evil overlord with dreams of world domination…

    1. Create scandal and Shut Down development of gene editing techs for IQ, and push through a global moratorium.
    2. Continue research in secret.
    3. Those huge concentration camps in a remote and locked down province would make for good baby factories.

    • maieuticinitiate November 27, 2018 at 17:01

      Exactly.
      We’ve been genemodding animals for decades, surely something has been tried on unregistered infants in bumfuck nowhere provinces.
      And of course, we already have nongenetically modified humans (Soy Boys, etc)

    • Wency November 27, 2018 at 21:12

      I don’t really buy this whole line of thinking. Especially not from the CCP. Until recently, they were trying to control their numbers. Stability is always priority one. And a stable country can project a lot more power externally than an unstable one. Would a country with a class of bioengineered high IQ weirdos be more or less stable than one without? Hard to say, but you’re taking a big risk by disrupting society so fundamentally.

      If a smart dictator or authoritarian government were pursuing a certain class of people, the people they’d produce would basically be conservatives. Hierarchical, law-abiding, high respect for authority, more focused on living their lives than political agitation and signaling.

      I could also see a Kim-like dictator pursuing a project to engineer super hot babes that only want sex with him. Actually, that sounds like the premise of a low-budget movie that’s already been made, possibly a porno.

  5. mitchellporter November 28, 2018 at 05:33

    The homepage of his lab has an email address where you can “write Lulu and Nana”.

  6. Duke of Qin November 28, 2018 at 15:50

    Spandrell, the fact that he is a physicists by training rather than a biologists makes he suspect he did what he says he did. In the humanities, the left side of the bell curve is represented by the Communications major while the right by Philosophers. Likewise in the sciences, the left is represented by the Biologists and the right by Physicists. No small amount of wailing and gnashing of teeth from the biology community is driven in part by professional resentment at a smarter guy moving in on their home turf.

    The only thing odd I find about this whole situation is why did the hospital and university where he was based move so quickly to denounce him and deny responsibility when they quite obviously knew what he was up to. Did they suspect this was going to be another Hwang Woo Suk or Haruko Obokata? If so, why did they even fund his work.

    • spandrell November 28, 2018 at 17:31

      Yes, it appears that he’s the real deal. And state media hasn’t rushed to condemn him just yet. They’re playing wait and see. That’s encouraging.

      • iI November 29, 2018 at 04:52

        Humans can no longer ban technology.
        Technology already uses them as their tools, and perhaps will “ban” them later.

        We already saw this with the atom bomb: ban or not, whoever has the resources and ability to make them, will make them.

        If a government is nervous, it is because the topic went public possibly without its authorization. This could even lead to an official ban “for good”. But not change what goes on behind the curtains.

        A guy in the comments says: authorities will bioengineer comforming dummies to bolster their power. Well… but then, you are competing with others, and if the others’ comformist dummies are smarter than yours, they will tend to overpower you…
        And if these dumb dummies have to be better and better, the time will come they will have to not be dumb or dummies, won’t it?

        Only a cohesive one-world government would change this process of indefinite subjection of humankind to techno-scientific advance. Maybe. (Wouldn’t still “wings” have to be there within the unitary government? These wings would compete with each other, right?).

        Moldbug… only you, or rather your Single Sovereign, can rescue us.

  7. james December 1, 2018 at 04:19

    Better luck next time.

  8. Mitchel Fischer December 1, 2018 at 08:25

    Spandrell, what do you see as the proper view from the right on this sort of business? I know from the modern left its generally “muh nurture vs. nature” and so they see it as inherently racist or whatever. And the old leftists from the first half of the 20th century saw it as eugenic and liked it but they were deemed evil and don’t exist anymore. Meanwhile from the right, at least traditionally, it seems that this sort of thing was deemed “evil and playing God, aborting babies that aren’t genetically fit etc etc”. What’s your take? I must admit, my knee-jerk reaction is probably the last one.

    • Samuel Skinner December 1, 2018 at 15:47

      That isn’t the right, that is modern conservatives. The right has been obsessed with good breeding, hereditary and playing God on continent and millennia long timescales. The lord controlling if serfs can marry, systematically executing problematic individuals, attritioning foundlings and banning cousin marriage to reduce clannishness are all traditional positions.

      The reason this is different is because this means genetics will fall prey to fads, parasitism, status competition and intolerant minorities (aka kill everyone who doesn’t have a specific genotype). It is impossible to make any real projections until we know the limits of the technology. Obviously making individuals immune to specific diseases isn’t a big deal, but changing appearance, personality and intelligence are.

      • Abraham Lincoln December 16, 2018 at 05:04

        >The reason this is different is because this means genetics will fall prey to fads, parasitism, status competition and intolerant minorities (aka kill everyone who doesn’t have a specific genotype).

        I doubt it. There are universal ideals in appearance and behavior. Just look at a beauty pageant. Eugenic engineering will simply produce übermen competing with each other on much the same metrics as before, but with presently unimaginably superior performance.

    • spandrell December 1, 2018 at 18:15

      I’d say the right is divided in religious and secular arms. The former being against playing God and the latter pretty much into it. Choose your side.

      • Abraham Lincoln December 16, 2018 at 05:12

        There is no “the right”, nor is there a “the left”, except that you allow yourself to be played against one another in a fractally binary fashion. Choose neither side, but the third position.

    • Rhetocrates December 2, 2018 at 22:19

      As a Catholic with a distinct interest in bioethics though no formal training, here’s my take:

      If ‘gene therapy’ involves something along the lines of the mother taking a pill, or some shots, possibly with a really long needle to penetrate the womb through the abdomen: no big deal, as long as the therapy isn’t likely to put the baby in danger, or if the baby’s already in danger the therapy is likely to fix/ameliorate it.

      If ‘gene therapy’ involves zygotes in test tubes or artificial insemination or anything that either involves the destruction of viable embryos or the disruption of the natural matrimonial act, that’s a no go.

      Standard disclaimer that some random stranger’s opinion on the Internet does not necessarily even remotely resemble the Magisterium.

  9. J December 4, 2018 at 14:03

    как насчет urumqi

  10. J January 2, 2019 at 17:11

    It would be pretty funny if the part of the dna which he took out also had a side effect of making people raging heterosexuals.

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