From jet planes to penicillin, many of the scientific advancements we take for granted today would not exist had the visionaries who reified them not crossed a moral boundary, or three.Indeed, as the celebrated Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw noted over a century ago “all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”Morality, after all, is a product of the milieu. We shrug at most things that shocked our grandparents. And many of humanity’s finest brain-trusts were at one time or another hounded by controversy.So, where does Chinese scientist He Jiankui fit in the grand scheme of things?He is currently the subject of a raging debate in the international scientific community about the ethical dimension of his experiments in gene editing.Jiankui sparked outrage in November last year after claiming he had successfully “edited” out the possibility of contracting HIV from the genes of a pair of newborn twins.He had experimented on them as embryos, which for reproductive purposes is illegal in most countries, including China.Reactions to this news ranged from “dubious” to “monstrous,” as many fellow scientists slammed Jiankui for pushing the realm of genetic research into dangerous, uncharted territory. The professor remained defiant, however, stating he was “proud” of his work that would someday spur quantum leaps in genomic medicine.China’s government in late January placed him under house arrest for violating national laws, forging ethical review documents and seeking “personal fame and gain.”Long the target of international criticism for its lax medical research standards, China has distanced itself from Jiankui’s research, and so has his employer, the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen.Given the inherent risk of human trials, morality in cutting-edge medicine is a grey area even if scientists are unwilling to admit it.Jiankui’s peers opposing his experiments fear the slippery slope that has abruptly appeared as a result of his research.They worry the blunt nature of the CRISPR molecular scissors he used in the experiment raises the possibility of “off-target mutations” that could open a Pandora’s box of heritable genetic defects in the children.It is simply too risky and moreover, against humanity’s greater interests.And should Jiankui’s claims about the twins’ perfect health prove true, his work could potentially launch a black market for “designer babies” that only the elites can afford.It’s not hard to imagine how such a development could deepen stratification in human societies by creating a superior race that is naturally immune to diseases with ordinarily high fatality rates – quite literally the “survival of the fittest.” Lastly, there is the all-important economic dimension that many scientists and indeed politicians with deep funding from mega-corporations prefer to leave hanging.Think about it: if the common cold and the corpus of our killer contagions are rendered harmless from birth, who will “Big Pharma” sell its high mark-up drugs to?A major study by Oxford University last October on the impact of our diets on climate change came to the stark conclusion that unless we radically alter our diets, it is inevitable that global temperatures will cross the 2 degrees Celsius red-line before 2050Likewise, why would it spend a dime funding new research or lining the pockets of politicians to ease government regulations? On a more conspiratorial note, will it then resort to unleashing new killer bugs instead of cures in a desperate play for relevance?The bottom-line is a lot of very powerful people will lose boatloads of money if endemic human diseases are wiped out from the face of the earth.The principled stand scientists are taking in opposition to Jiankui’s experiments is they threaten humanity’s “greater good.” But what happens when humanity itself threatens this greater good?Let’s start with the 800-pound gorilla in the room: global warming.A major study by Oxford University last October on the impact of our diets on climate change came to the stark conclusion that unless we radically alter our diets, it is inevitable that global temperatures will cross the 2 degrees Celsius red-line before 2050.The study urges us to immediately quit eating resource-inefficient red meat and dairy, and instead embrace legumes and vegetables if we are serious about saving the planet.Yet our poor carbon emissions cutting track-record over a decade after the Paris Agreement inspires little confidence that humanity will make wholesale changes to its diet anytime soon.Take the US for example, which is both the highest global consumer of meat per person and has a climate change “hoaxer” for a sitting president.Why do people eat so much meat there? One, it’s cheaper per pound than healthy food, which of course is a function of demand volume, and two, the fast food industry is ginormous and spends billions on advertising and politicking.Above all, the brisk pace of modern living framed by long, stressful hours working or commuting naturally lends itself to hassle-free food. And therein lies the greatest irony of the Internet Age: we started eating unhealthily after technology sped up our lives to an unhealthy degree. It was meant to free up time, not compress it.Ultimately, sustaining the tectonic shift in our caloric sources over generations will require some serious social engineering. There is no toothpick-and-chewing gum solution here.So, how will global leaders save us from ourselves? Is genomic medicine the magic bullet? Two decades down the line, will states look back at Jiankui’s research and say, yes, genetically editing out our desire for meat and dairy is the only sure-fire way to ensure we survive as a species?History testifies the “monstrous” often morphs into the “moral” whenever necessity outweighs our attachment to lofty philosophical ideals. Dropping two atomic bombs on Japanese civilians during World War 2 is a patent example.Consequently, if we don’t man-up to global warming, embryo gene editing may well turn into a necessity. At that point, the more pertinent question may well be how “human” is human?The writer is an Ipoh-based independent journalistPublished in Daily Times, January 27th 2019.