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August 04, 2004

Oops, forgot the Christians!

In Isaac Asimov's original Foundation Trilogy, set in a galactic empire thousands of years in the future, computers are prominent in their absence. Fast forward a few decades, and Asimov began to rework his future history with new installments, and all of a sudden, computers show up. What happened here? Asimov admitted that he simply pretended as if they had been in the original works and asked readers not to notice.

Well, as many have observed, science fiction is more often a more accurate representation of the present's perception of the future than the future itself. Jules Vernes' fantabulous steam driven contraptions reflect the 19th century, the fission powered futures that were common until the 1960s projected the nuclear-positive mood of the era, while the cybernetic informationally soaked post-human fantasies of the 21st century foreshadow our own dreams and nightmares. This effect can be observed on shorter timescales, Ender's Game & its follow ups depict a near future where two genius children manipulate world politics through the maelstrom of discussions on the usenet. Yes, you read that right, usenet. Back in the 1980s Orson Scott Card couldn't have predicted the explosion of the web in 1994 with the arrival of Mosaic. If an author was conceiving an Ender's Gamesque piece of science fiction today, I think it is likely that blogs would loom larger than usenet.

Stepping back into the present, and out of the realms of geekdom, scholars and analysts often articulate "known" truisms and "see" the data out there to validate their propositions. For example, in the early 20th century China was hobbled by an archaic world-view dominated by Confucianism. Chinese nationalists who agitated for change, from liberals to Communists, rejected the old ways. The Cultural Revolution was simply the reductio ad absurdum of this process (though in a peculiar way its emphasis on character over competance might have been a reflection of Confucian moralism!).

Fast forward to the late 20th century, and with the rise of Japan and the "Asian Tigers," "Asian values," with Confucianism being a primary ingredient, received much of the credit for the economic dynamism of the period. During the 1998 "Asian Flu," "Crony Capitalism," undergirded by Confucian emphasis on personal ties of blood, was on the receiving end of much of the blame.

Let us disregard the reality that "Confucianism" means many things (the Japanese for one were somewhat anti-Confucian during much of their history in that loyalty toward their overlords was paramount, even over those of blood). What I want to emphasize is that no one has a time machine when it comes to social analysis. Falling into ad hoc storytelling is the human default. Few people make correct predictions, and those who do make correct predictions often can not repeat their prognostication in more than one context, suggesting that blind luck might have been the true source of their wisdom.

This brings me to the terminus of my intellectual circumlocution: on this blog we post many entries about China and its coming revolution in genetic engineering. I myself have engaged in this practice. After all, of the three great civilizations, Western (Christendom & the Dar-al-Islam inclusive), India and China, the first two stand apart from the Han people in their preoccupation with pecularities of principle in defiance of pragmatism. It seems that the South Asian intellectual elite has been far more enthusiastic about arguments based on the "wisdom of repugnance" in attacking genetically modified foods than the Han because this is one way that South Asians (Hindus) resemble the professors of the Abrahamic religions (and their secular children). That is, taboos dictated from On High in defiance of utilitarian gain are more common among the Hindus and the followers of the Abrahamic religions, while the Chinese are often more flexible in following common sense and what "works."

So we have here a proposition that many posters on this blog implicitly assume: The Chinese will have far fewer moral qualms about genetically modifying humans and other living organisms because they tend to view such acts pragmatically rather than sacredly. But, this presupposes some facts that we know to be true, in particular, that the Chinese are a secular and worldly culture. Yet, it is crucial to reiterate that though this fact is true now, it may not hold in the future.

In the book Jesus in Beijing: How Christianity Is Transforming China and Changing the Global Balance of Power, David Aiken argues that China in the future might be a Christian nation. One can read a review of Aiken's book in Christianity Today. Having skimmed interviews and seen other summations I am skeptical of the author's arguments for a variety of reasons, but seeing as I haven't read the original text itself, I'll hold back on my critique.

What I want to do though is present the what if: what if 21st century China is a Christian country? (or at least substantially Christian) Certainly our projections of the coming Chinese genetic revolution might have to change if one assumes that Christianity has within it a consensus set of views on issues relating to life science and human alteration. There are some tests as to whether Christianity would alter the Chinese attitude toward life science: South Korea is 25% Christian & every executive head of state for the past generation has been Christian, the past two being Roman Catholic (half of the religiously affiliated population is Christian, so the number 50% is often quoted). As late as the 1980s 1/3 of legislators in Singapore's rubber stamp parliament were Christian. The current president of Taiwan is the first in that nation's history not to be a Christian. In contrast, Japan is something of a Christianity-free-zone (in belief and profession if not outward trappings of Christian-themed culture). Is there a difference between nations with strong Christian identities and those without in East Asia in their attitudes toward life sciences and their application to humans?

I will do some digging later on, but first I'll read Aiken's book to see what arguments in he makes in detail.

Addendum: There are some issues whether attitudes toward life science are memetic/axiomatic or consensus-driven in Christianity. In this context it doesn't matter much in the short term, operationally what is important is the extent to which Chinese Christians mimic the viewpoints of conservative Christians in the West, whether by deriving the same conclusions from common axioms or through simple ideological imitation.

Posted by razib at 08:52 PM