Published online by Cambridge University Press: 18 December 2021
Around 120 people enjoyed free Danishes and cups of coffee under the National Academy rotunda in Washington, DC, for an earlier gene-editing summit on December 1, 2015. Against the backdrop of purple and blue mood lights, with “Sultans of Swing” playing, world-renowned CRISPR scientists mixed and mingled with corporate lobbyists, members of Congress, and other Washington insiders. Jennifer Doudna was there, along with George Church—the Harvard biologist who was living the China Dream. An unlikely collection of bedfellows—biohackers, transgender and intersex activists, and independent filmmakers—rubbed shoulders with executives from start-up companies, investment firms, and big pharma corporations. Lurking on the sidelines were representatives from the MITRE Corporation, a nonprofit organization that gets federal funds to work on top-secret cybersecurity, health care, defense, and intelligence programs.
Looking back at the First International Summit on Human Genome Editing at the National Academy of Sciences, it is clear that not every summit can attain lofty peaks—at least in the eyes of the public. Journalists from major outlets—the New York Times, the BBC, U.S.News & World Report—were covering the event. However, this meeting of top scientists did not produce the same splash as the bedlam that would erupt three years later in Hong Kong.
CRISPR seemed like it was a thing of abstract speculation in 2015, more science fiction than reality. American scientists were calling for a global moratorium on genetic engineering experiments that could lead to mutations in our collective gene pool. CRISPR presented an opportunity to “take control of our genetic destiny, which raises enormous peril for humanity,” said summit leader George Daley in an interview with the New York Times. Later, Daley told me that this event in Washington had been organized in response to the fast pace of CRISPR research in China. He said that Chinese scientists “do not have a deep tradition of bioethical inquiry.” There is in fact a long tradition of reflection in China on the moral, social, and religious issues related to biology and medicine. Clear principles of medical morality have been developed from a fusion of Marxism and multiple religious traditions. Secular Chinese medical ethics draws on Confucian thought, which assumes that a person becomes a person after it is born, not before.