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Is China using Genetic Engineering to create biologically enhanced Super Soldiers?

Is China using Genetic Engineering to create biologically enhanced Super Soldiers?

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  • GS 3 || Science & Technology || Biotechnology || Human Genome & DNA

Why in the news?

  • According to reports by S. intelligence, China has conducted human testing on members of the People’s Liberation Army with the ambitious goal of developing soldiers with enhanced biological capabilities.

What is a super-soldier?

  • The supersoldier (or super soldier) is a fictional concept soldier, often capable of operating beyond normal human limits or abilities either through genetic modification or the cybernetic augmentation.
  • Supersoldiers are common in science fiction literature, films, and video games. Fictional supersoldiers are usually heavily augmented, either through surgical means, eugenics, genetic engineering, cybernetic implants, drugs, brainwashing, traumatic events, an extreme training regimen, or other scientific and pseudoscientific means.

China is not the only country

  • The French military ethics committee has recently approved research on soldier “augmentation”, such implants that could improve cerebral capacity
  • In Russia, the military is looking to implement genetic passports for its personnel,

Human enhancement is not a new idea

  • Human enhancement is at least as old as human civilization. People have been trying to enhance their physical and mental capabilities for thousands of years, sometimes successfully – and sometimes with inconclusive, comic, and even tragic results.
  • The medical enhancement of the capabilities of troops is not new. Throughout history, armies have used risky enhancements such as addictive drugs to improve soldiers’ performance.
  • Altering a whole individual soldier
    • Since ancient times, troops have been bolstered by advancements in weaponry, kit, and training.
    • But today, the enhancement could mean much more than merely giving an individual soldier a better gun. It could mean altering the individual soldier.
  • Different kinds of drugs used
    • For example, caffeine, modanifil, and amphetamines are highly effective in temporarily reversing the degradation of the mental performance of sleep-deprived soldiers.
    • American Revolutionary War in 1775-1783- George Washington, as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army, ordered the vaccinations of American troops against smallpox, as the British Army was suspected of using the virus as a form of biological warfare.
  • US-The US military and other armies gave amphetamines to soldiers to overcome battle fatigue during World War II.
    • During the Vietnam War, the level of psychoactive substances consumption by military personnel was unprecedented in American history.
  • Germany -The German military provided a stimulant called Pervitin to soldiers in combat.
  • In a few developed countries, neurological research is directed towards developing military applications for human enhancement—to reduce the need for sleep, to increase the brain’s capacity to retrieve information pertinent to a specific mission, to assist in decision-making under extreme battlefield stress.
    • This may have serious ethical, legal, social, and operational implications.

Using Genetic engineering as a tool

  • A wide range of neurological research is directed towards developing military applications for human enhancement—to reduce the need for sleep, to increase the brain’s capacity to retrieve information pertinent to a specific mission, to assist in decision-making under stress, and so on. All these efforts are of great military interest.
  • A 2019 paper from two US academics said that China’s military was “actively exploring” such techniques as gene editing, exoskeletons, and human-machine collaboration.
  • Norm in agriculture
    • The technologies – of genome editing and its combination with assisted reproduction – are becoming routine practices in transgenics and agriculture, it’s just the combination of the two for human use that is seen as unethical at the moment.
  • Emerging in today’s world
    • The issue that is emerging is whether neuroscience, biotechnology, nanotechnology, robotics, and artificial intelligence could be used to enhance the capabilities of the Special Forces to help them complete missions more safely, effectively, and economically.

Issue Involved in Human enhancement

  • A common criticism of human enhancement is that it will create unfair physical or mental advantages or unequal access to such enhancements can and will further the gulf between the “haves” and “have-nots”.
  • Violating basic Human rights
    • The human rights issues relating to enhanced soldiers are more complex. Despite their enhanced status, such soldiers would remain fundamentally human. Soldiers have the right to life, except in respect of deaths resulting from lawful acts of war.
    • Enhancement technologies may adversely affect the right to life where the use of a particular technology poses a risk to a soldier and may result in his death. On the other hand, enhanced soldiers may infringe on the right to life by causing the wrongful death of civilians while under the influence of their enhancement.
  • Competing for enhanced humans will lead to more competition, the more disaster
    • While an enhanced soldier who can withstand pain and operate effectively under stress may benefit a State, the opponent may be forced to develop weapons that cause excruciating pain or suffering to neutralize such a soldier.
  • Ethical Issues
    • Ethicists like Ingmar Persson and Julian Savulescu argue that there is an urgent need to enhance human’s moral decision-making process and that we ought to be using neurological technologies to do so.
    • These aims are commendable, but changing a subject’s neurological processes can have various unwanted effects.
    • However, enhancement in the military context can directly impact when and how one decides to apply potentially lethal violence.
  • Unwanted effects
    • The unwanted effects, in this case, are not merely side-effects: they demand primary consideration. Decisions made during the war are matters of life and death, and any enhancement to moral decision-making in warfare would surely be a welcome development.
    • But, if any cognitive enhancement technology were to undermine the capacity of a subject to follow the law of armed conflict, it would be a source of very serious concern indeed.
    • Misuse of human enhancement research
    • Another issue of concern regarding certain enhancement technologies, and the research into them, is the potential for deliberate misuse.
    • This is called a ‘dual-use problem’. It arises in the context of research in the biological and other sciences as a consequence of the fact that the same piece of scientific research sometimes has the potential to be used for harm as well as for good.
      • For instance, research that studies the biological bases of pain and stress might produce results of great military value: a soldier who can withstand pain and operate effectively under stress is a good end. However, that research could also be used for malicious ends: for instance, to develop weapons that cause excruciating pain, or to torture people.
    • It must be kept in mind that in dual-use research, the good motives of the original researchers are not definitive. That is, a full analysis of such research must also take into account the potential for others to maliciously misuse it.
    • Impact on one’s identity
      • Human enhancement technologies can impact human identity by affecting one’s self-conception.
      • The argument does not necessarily come from the idea of improving the individual but rather changing who they are and becoming someone new. Altering an individual identity affects their personal story, development, and mental capabilities.
    • Unanswered questions arising
      • Genome technology deployment needs to be managed in a universally, ethically, and scientifically robust manner. If it isn’t, the potential for a new arms race for advances in this research will only lead to more radical and potentially dangerous solutions. There are many unanswered questions about how Aria will help genome research within the military sphere.

Legitimization

  • The Convention on Human Rights and Biomedicine also known as the Oviedo Convention is the only international legally binding instrument on the protection of human rights in the biomedical field.
  • It’s binding on 29, mostly European, countries.
  • Its application outside Europe is therefore limited. But it is still important to consider its provisions as it represents an agreement between some countries on these issues.
    • Article 13 states that “an intervention seeking to modify the human genome may only be undertaken for preventive, diagnostic, or therapeutic purposes and only if its aim is not to introduce any modification in the genome of any descendants”. This is interpreted as permitting somatic gene editing but prohibiting germline editing.
  • The Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety to the Convention on Biological Diversity defines a living modified organism (LMO) as one that “possesses a novel combination of genetic material obtained through the use of modern biotechnology” that is “capable of transferring or replicating genetic material.”
  • More relation needed
    • The future of genetically engineered humans requires revisiting international agreements and the creation of new laws that protect society and individuals.
    • As the future of genetically engineered humans begins to unfold, the UN Convention of Biological Diversity, scientific societies, and society at large need to come up with solutions.

Conclusion

  • While the enhancement of soldiers sounds tempting, genetic engineering has a serious downside. Its unpredictable nature generates questions of safety and the potential side-effects of modifying genetic pathways.
  • The world must not forget that athletes are forbidden to use illegal substances to increase their performance. Governments must consider all the pros and cons of genetic engineering before deciding whether its use in the military and other forces would be truly advantageous
  • The pathway the UK /China/US chooses will have lasting consequences on how we perceive genome tech in the public space.

Mains model question

  • The consequences of human enhancement pervade all aspects of modern life, creating demands on social systems that may bring about their collapse if they are not rethought. Discuss

References