Friday, January 26, 2018
Friday, Jan. 26, 2018
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It’s Friday, January 26, 2018. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
Today we’ll see big news from China that reveals threats to human dignity and the cracking of the worldview in the West, we’ll see news that monkeys have been cloned, and we’ll come to understand that dating is now being done without a last name, finally we’ll see that sin must always be called by its proper name.
Big news from China reveals threats to human dignity and the cracking of the worldview in the West
One of the major realities on the global scene is a newly resurgent China and a China resurgent in so many ways previously unexpected. Recent headlines from Australia and other nations indicate the kind of intrusion into international politics China is making, and not a benign intrusion, rather an intrusion, much like what is now associated with Russia, interfering with local elections and with other economies, that is the economies of other nations. But we’re also looking at the fact that China is newly resurgent in technology and specifically in biomedical technology. Two very different developments, both reported in just the last several days, they indicate not only what's going on in China but ominously they point to the radical difference that worldview makes, right down to matters of life and death. In recent days the Wall Street Journal ran a front-page story with the headline,
“China Races Ahead In Gene Editing.”
The subhead on the article,
“US help devise Crispr tool. Chinese doctors unfettered by rules are first in human trials.”
That's a really loaded subhead because it mentions the technology, this is the new gene editing technology known as Crispr, but it says the Chinese doctors are those who were rushing ahead, they are, according to the subhead,
“unfettered by rules,”
a very important statement, and then we are told, they are the
“first in human trials.”
When you put together
“unfettered by rules,”
Well, you see the problem and you understand immediately why worldview makes such a difference. Why? Because China is still operating out of the legacy of Confucianism and it is operating out of the very present reality of a Communist, Marxist, materialist worldview, a worldview enforced by the power and the authority of the Chinese Communist Party that presents the material world as all that matters, that openly denies anything supernatural and anything beyond the material world. The official worldview in China is not merely state enforced atheism, it is also state-mandated materialism. And in a material world, morality simply evaporates; there can be no moral truths if all that exists is material.
The article appeared Monday on the front page of the Wall Street Journal, an entire team of journal reporters contributed to the story, and the story begins by reminding us that the gene editing technology known as Crispr, a very dangerous technology that we’ve discussed often on The Briefing, it was developed in the United States. But in the United States there are both ethical and legal constraints upon not only the specific gene editing technology but upon all research having to do with human subjects. Now we should note that this is because in the West, and that includes the United States even in this secular age, there is still a residue of the Christian biblical worldview when it comes to the definition of humanity and the understanding of human rights. Even though many secular people in the West may insist, along with the Chinese Communist Party, that the only reality is the material reality our tradition in law speaks otherwise, and our understanding of human rights is deeply rooted in the understanding that human beings are created beings and are specifically created as the very pinnacle of creation, the only beings that are made in God's own image. In the United States there are strict protocols and there is an entire regime of law, not only in terms of criminal law but also civil law and the potential for litigation, that protects human subjects from medical research that is done without consent and without some degree of at least claimed oversight by the scientific community. You'll recall that the most important principle is the first principle in the ancient Hippocratic oath governing medicine, or at least historically governing medicine, and that is the imperative that the physician or the medical researcher must do no harm. There is no similar principle and there certainly is no similar understanding of the human being in the Chinese context, and that's what this story is all about, that's why it made the front page of the Wall Street Journal. But there's a lot more to this story than merely contrasting the worldview that is operational in China and the worldview that is, at least for now, operational in the United States. There are cracks in the picture in the United States that are very visible in the story.
But first, let's go back to China. The reporters tell us that Chinese doctors and scientists, medical researchers, are pressing ahead fast with using the Crispr technology on broad scale experimentation amongst human patients, human subjects of research. The big story behind the Crispr technology is the fact that it is the first gene editing technology that can be used on the human genome. As you change the actual genetic structure of a human patient, the danger is that you're not only changing the genetic structure of that human individual but of all human individuals who will follow in the reproductive line of that original edited genome. To state the matter bluntly, modern medical science has no way of knowing or predicting, much less guaranteeing, what kind of long-term implications will come from editing the human genome with what is called inheritable traits.
Carl June, who was the lead scientist for Crispr research at the University of Pennsylvania, warns that China is now going to beat the United States to apply medical technologies that were first pioneered in the West. Dr. June said,
“We are at a dangerous point in losing our lead and biomedicine.”
Now, I pointed out that you see cracks in the American worldview here. The crack becomes very evident when you see researchers in the United States looking jealously at China and at China's lack of restrictions and laws governing this kind of technology applied to human subjects, and you have them warning that the United States is going to fall behind in these applications. The implication is clear: The United States needs to change its morality less it fall behind in technology. Dr. June, in issuing this warning, suggested not only that we are at a dangerous point by his definition, he said that the reality is what he called a
between the United States and China. Lots of regulations in the United States, virtually none in China. Now let's note the crack in the worldview here, Dr. June is lamenting what he calls the
between the United States and China, but that regulatory asymmetry also points to a more fundamental moral asymmetry, and that's what many in the United States want to overcome. The Wall Street Journal reporters describe the technology, again, telling us that it's
“easier to use than other gene-editing methods, [also] less expensive. Lab experiments,”
“have shown it can correct some glitches that [may] cause incurable diseases.”
But then the reporters tell us,
“Rewriting life’s building blocks, however, is fraught with scientific and ethical quandaries. One: Crispr might make unintended irreversible changes in people that may not emerge for years.”
That's really important. We are told here, right up front, that one of the dangers is that changing the human genome can lead to bad results that will not show up, effects that won't be visible for years, long after the experiment is done and long after there's every expectation that those bad effects in edited genes would have been passed on to subsequent generations. Things are indeed moving fast in China, one People's liberation Army Hospital began testing Crispr on human patients in 2015. One Chinese doctor understanding the lack of regulation in China said,
“China shouldn't have been the first one to do it.”
But we’re talking about an argument that it shouldn't have been, years after we now know it already is. We also have to look squarely at the fact that there is explicit evidence in this article that human beings in China are the recipients of medical research, the subjects even of medical experimentation, without their consent. Western authorities looking at the consent documents used by Chinese doctors note that they are extremely thin, flimsy, and they are not revealing of what either is or may be done by doctors upon patients. In the United States there are regulations that limit the kind of research that can be done on human beings, and in the United States there is an agreed-upon principle that no one is to be subjected to medical experimentation without consent. There are some very dark chapters in American history when that kind of moral principle was not well recognized; there were coerced and even unknown medical experiments upon human beings. That's a blight upon our history, and it one we learned must not be repeated in the present. But as we’re talking about the cracking of the American worldview, we should at least note that some American doctors and medical researchers appear to be ready to compromise even that principle in order to move forward with biomedical research lest they fall behind.
As always, language is important here. The University of Pennsylvania has been conducting some limited, authorized experiments that it had identified as gene therapy, but a Stanford University ethicist Mildred Cho, who is on the panel observing and supervising such research, asked that instead the interest of Pennsylvania refer to the experiments as
Why? Because there is no immediate promise, she says, of any medical improvement for those who are the recipients of this kind of experimentation. That's intellectual honesty, that's moral honesty. The distinction between gene therapy, which would imply a therapeutic improvement as either the promise or a likely result, and merely gene transfer that says we’re going to conduct the experiment, there are no promises of any improvement in medical condition, at least not now.
As monkeys are cloned in China we recognize that what happens in China won’t stay in China
But next, the second story along these lines, also from China, appeared just yesterday in the pages of major media around the world including the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. This has to do with the fact that China has announced that it has now successfully cloned two monkeys. In this case the monkeys are macaques, and the specific issue here is that for the first time China is now claiming to have successfully crossed what is known as the primate boundary in cloning. The primate boundary meaning that this is the first time that any animal classified as a primate has been successfully cloned. The first successful cloning of a human animal was a sheep over two decades ago, and since the successful cloning of Dolly the sheep,
as Gina Kolata of the New York Times reminds us,
“have cloned 23 mammal species, including cattle, cats, deer, dogs, horses, mules, oxen, rabbits and rats.”
But monkeys, that's a whole new threshold. And make no mistake, we all know where this is headed, it is headed towards China's involvement in the cloning of human beings. Once again we see China, given its own worldview consistent with its own understanding of life and reality and human beings, moving forward with the technology that would not be accepted elsewhere in the world. The director of the nonhuman primate research facility of the Chinese Academy of Sciences Institute of Neuroscience in Shanghai told the Wall Street Journal,
“in principle it, [meaning this technology,] could be used in humans. [But] there is no intention for us to apply this method to humans.”
That's the kind of language you should expect to hear from people who will announce next that this is exactly the kind of technology they are applying to humans. Decades ago when the basic genetic structure of life was decoded for the first time, there were immediate calls from secular scientists for understanding that this could lead to a whole new era of a redesigned, new and improved, human species. Decades ago when that statement was made, it was met in the West with almost universal moral abhorrence. But what we now see is that the ideas that were marginalized have moved far closer to the center, and we’re also seeing that technologies now in the headlines in China, well, they will not remain in China. Furthermore, we are seeing the cracking and the fracturing of the worldview in the West inherited from Christianity that it preserved and protected human dignity. That is not the story identified in these headlines, but those of us who are Christians understand that really is the big story.
What the depersonalization of dating tells us about the next generation
Next, the Wall Street Journal had yet another sign of the times article. This one on the front page of yesterday's newspaper. The headline,
“The New Dating No-No: Asking for a Last Name.”
Now, if you're an anthropologist, a scientist studying humans and human behavior, one of the things you have to take note society by society, culture by culture are what are called mating rituals and romantic habits, and this is the kind of story that appears on the front page of the Wall Street Journal telling us that there is a change in mating patterns and in romantic habits amongst Americans, specifically amongst younger Americans, even more specifically, amongst younger Americans deeply affected by the digital and social revolution. But even those who are following these kinds of developments are likely to be shocked by this front page Wall Street Journal story because in the story we are told that there is a new pattern. This new pattern is that young persons who meet one another and arrange a romantic date, or at least to date with romantic possibility by means of these social apps, these new dating apps, they do so on a first name only basis because the last name in the digital age has become a very intimate issue allowing by Google and other search the ability to investigate the person far more deeply than evidently these people want to be investigated before they date.
The article begins by describing a 21-year-old young woman who was involved in one of these dates by social app when she gave her last name to the young man, she said,
“He now knew me as a whole person.”
Now, this means that we are becoming the kind of society in which personal identity is more and more an abstraction. We have now separated personal identity as the private self and the public self so much that the private self, engaging by social media, and the public self doesn't want to reveal the last name even if there is a romantic encounter in what had previously throughout generations been defined as a date. Nicole Hong reporting for the Wall Street Journal tells us
“As online dating has proliferated, so too have an array of norms that might seem bizarre—or downright counterproductive—to generations who didn’t rely on their phones as a way to meet people. Among them: a reluctance to ask for surnames until the relationship has progressed to a more serious level.”
“Asking for a last name ‘is definitely a modern social cue’ that trust is building in a relationship.”
Later in the article, we are told, I quote again,
“Many millennials say asking directly for a last name on a first date feels awkward, and signals too obviously they intend to scour the internet for biographical information. Others,”
we are told,
“say that downloading a date’s entire digital footprint—armed with the full name—can stop a relationship from developing organically.”
One young man, 25 years old, speaking of his romantic hopes said this,
“The less I know, the better. … Everyone is just so lame on the internet.”
Now, again, I ask us to consider this as if we have nothing invested in the issue other than anthropological interest. Let’s just say that we are doing something akin to what happened in the last century with a team being sent out from National Geographic, so to speak, to look at this exotic tribe, otherwise known as American young people. And as we’re investigating this tribe, we have to ask the question: How in the world do young men and young women get together in order to establish breeding units, marriage, a couple? How in the world does this happen? Well we then learn that in the United States, at this time amongst young people, the last name is seen as an impediment to developing a relationship. And even more troubling, we have this statement made by this 25-year-old man speaking of the possibility of young women he might actually date,
“The less I know, the better.”
Now, I'm not certain what kind of world of values and morality and even social habits can explain this, I do know that what it represents is bigger than the Wall Street Journal seems to understand. This isn't just some kind of quirky new development in the way young people relate to one another. When you have a young man speaking of a potential date saying,
“The less I know, the better.”
You're talking about an effective depersonalization of other human beings. You're talking about a new understanding of dating, of courtship, of marriage, and of relationships that isn't based upon, at least upfront, really knowing the person, but rather investing hope that what you eventually learn won't be devastating. No doubt you know we are living in strange and tumultuous times and this has had ill effects upon romance and courtship, not to speak the even more fundamental damage made to marriage in this time and in this context, but now you can see that the problem appears to be even worse than we first understood. America is becoming the kind of culture in which young people not only delay adulthood and then delay romantic involvement, we’re not saying they delay sexual involvement, they delay marrying and then delay having children, now we know they even delay asking one another for the last name. But Christians also have to concede that we can't look at this merely as dispassionate anthropologists, we have to look at this as Christians very concerned for what this tells us about our times, and more importantly about the people whom we love and who are our neighbors. When just knowing a last name is considered a no-no, this is a society in big trouble.
Why Christians must reject a two-story morality and always call sin by its proper name
Finally as the way comes to an end, sometimes it is very difficult to know the issues to which we should speak and the issues to which we should not speak. It’s sometimes difficult to know the timing, it’s difficult sometimes to know how to say just enough, neither too much or too little, and yet as we come to the weekend it becomes clear that headlines accusing the president of the United States, specifically his presidential campaign, of making up payout to a woman who had made accusations, a woman from what's called the adult film industry, we have to recognize that we don't know all that went on here, there are credible reports that that kind of payout was made. There has been no admission of any kind of wrongdoing by the president himself, but we are looking at the fact that this is a president who has, at different points, admitted to roughly similar behavior. The question is: How do we think rightly? How do we speak rightly about such developments? There is no way to discuss this kind of issue absent a political context and a very lamentable political context of late. But it is important for us to recognize as Christians that we cannot operate on a two-story theory of morality: one morality for our friends and another morality for our enemies, at least politically or culturally speaking. And this means that Christians affirm the existence of moral absolutes, the fact that there is a true right and a true wrong, there is righteousness and there is sin. That latter point is really important, and that means that as Christians we must preserve our credibility, and, furthermore, our witness to the gospel by speaking ever always in all circumstances of sin as nothing less than sin.