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News

News: June/July 2015

Is a chimpanzee a person? • Is an android a person? • Editing the human germline — News reports by Anja Steinbauer

Gene Editing on Human Embryos

The first gene editing project on human embryos has recently been completed by gene-function researcher Huang Junjiu and his team at Sun Yat-Sen University in Guangzhou, China. They used a technique called CRISPR/Cas9 to cut and replace DNA in non-viable embryos that could not result in a live birth because they were created from eggs that had been fertilized by two sperm. Their research has sparked intense discussion about two issues: the ethics of work on human embryos and the usefulness of their methods as a potential option for treating disease. “No researcher has the moral warrant to flout the globally widespread policy agreement against altering the human germline,” argues Marcy Darnovsky, executive director of the non-profit Center for Genetics and Society in Berkeley. However, the experiments carried out by Huang and his team may not count as germline modification, because the embryos could not have led to a live birth. Huang says that he chose non-viable embryos to avoid ethical concerns. “It’s no worse than what happens in IVF all the time, which is that non-viable embryos are discarded,” says John Harris, a bioethicist at the University of Manchester. He believes that to justify banning gene editing for safety reasons one would not only need to have a reason to think that it will be harmful, but also that this harm would be worse than the genetic disease itself: “It’s not as if the alternative is safe. People with genetic diseases are going to go on reproducing.”

Church Leaders on Climate Change

Science and religion have not always seen eye to eye, but over the last few weeks voices in the Catholic Church and the Church of England have signalled their readiness to back scientists on the importance of combatting global warming. Most recently, the CoE’s Right Rev Nicholas Holtam, Bishop of Salisbury and the Church of England’s environment spokesman, said: “Climate change is the most pressing moral issue in our world. It imposes the heaviest burden on the poorest and least complicit in a way that is simply immoral.” In April, Pope Francis convened a Vatican summit on climate change and its impact on the poor across the world that was attended by scientists, diplomats and religious and political leaders. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, who gave an address at the start of the summit, said he would “count on [the Pope’s] moral voice, his moral leadership,” in persuading the world’s nations to take overdue steps to reduce global warming.

NY Judge Briefly Recognizes Chimpanzees as Legal ‘Persons’

An animal rights group called the Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP) have been fighting a legal battle since December 2013 to have four New York chimpanzees moved to a sanctuary in Florida. They claim that Hercules and Leo, who are kept in a lab at Stony Brook University, and two other chimpanzees on private property are too cognitively and emotionally complex to be legally held in captivity. On 20 April, New York Supreme Court Justice Barbara Jaffe signed an order forcing Stony Brook University to respond to the claims. The NhRP responded that because in New York State such an order, a writ of habeas corpus, can only be granted to a person, the judge had implicitly determined that the chimpanzees were legal persons. By the evening of 21 April, Jaffe had amended her order, letting arguments on the chimpanzees’ detainment go forward but explicitly scratching out the words WRIT OF HABEAS CORPUS at the top of the document.

Yangyang the All-Too-Human Fembot

Yangyang and Song Yang
Yangyang (left) and Song Yang
Shanghai Shenqing Industrial Co

A new female android called Yangyang, who can shake your hand, accept a hug, speak and move her head has been presented at a conference in China. “I was born in Japan but grew up in China,” said Yangyang, and indeed she is a joint project involving Japanese roboticist Hiroshi Ishiguro and Shanghai robotics professor, Song Yang, who was the model for the android. Yangyang elicited mixed reactions from the audience. A study in 2011 by researchers at the University of California, San Diego found that a chemical reaction in our brains means that the more humanlike a robot’s appearance, the more disturbing we find them. “When people see the android, these brain areas are activated more than when they look at either a robot or a real person,” UC San Diego neuroscientist Ayse Pinar Saygin explained. “Their brains are working harder.” Yet androids may become part of our lives: In early April 2015, an android called ChihiraAico was installed as a receptionist at a department store in Tokyo.


Against Stupidity

Nominations are still open for Philosophy Now’s 2015 Award for Contributions in the Fight Against Stupidity. Please email your suggestions to rick.lewis@philosophynow.org. The 2014 Award was given to Noam Chomsky. You can find out more at: philosophynow.org/award.

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