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The technology of human genome editing is no news, at least among the scientific circles. But the news of the birth of the twin girls whose genes have been altered to exclude the possibility of HIV infection has caused widespread outrage in and out of the scientific communities.
The ensuing debates will surely raise many more questions and engage lawmakers, social scientists and humanists alike. Prof. Evelyn Chan of the English Department thinks that these are the kinds of questions the humanities concern itself with, which is why the humanities are so important as we forge on with technological innovations of all kinds in the twenty-first century.
Professor Chan views technology as comprising real-world applications from scientific developments that lead to improvement in the material conditions of human life. She recognizes that currently very specific technologies in disease management and detection that have already done much to improve our lives will continue to develop to the extent where we will be able to start talking about genetic engineering on a much larger social scale.
She, however, cautions that technology makes our lives better only if we continue to ask deeper questions about the ethics and desirability of technological developments, so that technology does not become our master and we the slaves. These include questions that philosophers and novelists alike have asked on what such technological applications as genetic engineering would mean for ideas of human agency, individuality and uniqueness.
She said, ‘We have all benefitted immensely from technology, but surely we do not want to end up like the world depicted in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.’ A glimpse of a world dominated by genetic engineering (albeit of the kind we are not currently yet capable of) geared solely towards capitalist consumerism is given in Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel Oryx and Crake (2003). The novel is a sobering reflection on what human society would look like where we stopped asking questions about the nature of humanity and the deeper meaning of and purpose to human life.
Will moral questioning give us the guidance we need or will it be swept aside as irrelevant to technological progress and a waste of time? Professor Chan’s answer: ‘Continuing to explore the ethics of technological progress is the only way we can ensure that what we are doing truly benefits humanity.’
This article was originally published in No. 529/530, Newsletter in Dec 2018.