Age of Oil;
Human Embryos? - 3
February 21, 2004
The Meaning of South Korea's Success in Growing a 200-Cell Human "Embryo"
Today's Science News also features an article discussing the meaning of South Korea's breakthrough in human stem cell cloning (Scientists clone 30 human embryos - BBC ).
One cloning cell specialist is arguing that these 200-cell cloned cell masses aren't embryos, since, if an attempt were made to go to full-term, it would be unsuccessful. For technical rather than moral reasons, you cannot clone a human being today, and if you could, the resulting baby would be riddled with genetic errors. This, rather than moral restraint, is the reason that claims in 2002 by Italian, French, and U. S. cloning researchers that they were about to clone a human being were never realized. For this reason, argues the author, these blastulas shouldn't be called embryos. Calling them embryos and then "harvesting" them gives the misleading impression that we're aborting babies, when in reality we're creating masses of cells the size of a pin point that are incapable of becoming a baby.
Will we ever be able to clone human beings? My personal guess is that the answer is "yes". But before we get into ethical dilemmas over what to do about this, it might be helpful to look at similar situations in the past.
Robots Are Preparing to Take Over the World"
The following is taken from my paper, "Here Come the Robots", published four years ago in various obscure outlets.
"Artificial intelligence and its handmaiden, robotics, seem to me to have been two of the last century's more over-hyped concepts. On my bookshelf, I have a 40-year-old book that I picked up at an antique store entitled, "Machines and the Man", dwelling upon the dangers of the imminent age of robotics. Since I'm an antique myself, I remember the way newspaper and magazine articles fretted over the impending wave of overwhelming technological unemployment and unbounded leisure that would be unleashed upon us in the 60's and 70's. What we do with all our spare time? I can't resist quoting the M. I. T. math and cybernetics prodigy, Dr. Norbert Wiener, who wrote,
"'Let us remember that the automatic machine... is the precise equivalent of slave labor. Any labor which competes with slave labor must accept the economic conditions of slave labor. It is perfectly clear that this will produce an unemployment situation in comparison with which... the depression of the thirties will seem like a pleasant joke.'
"So what happened on the way to market? It looks as though robotics is arriving with all the speed of a tired turtle with a bad limp."
This robotic angst ran wild in the fifties and early sixties. Newspapers ran articles warned against this inevitable disaster that was about to befall us. Innumerable conferences and conclaves were held (at seaside resorts and on ski slopes) to discuss this looming problem and what to do about it. Several science fiction movies dealt with this impending problem, the most notable of which may have been "The Day the Earth Stood Still". In the movie, a man and a robot arrive on Earth from an interstellar civilization. They arrest the rotation of the Earth for 24 hours to show their powers. As they get ready to depart, someone asks the human, Klaatu, about his robot. Klaatu replies, "I am not the one in charge. He is the master."
Eventually, the hullaballo died down when no results were forthcoming.
This robotic hype surfaced again in the eighties, with skyrocketing salaries for the handful of roboticists who were still working in this field. After a couple of years, it revealed itself to be another case of "The Emperor's New Clothes".
Today, we are openly debating whether it can ever happen.
"The Population Explosion Is Going to Unfold in Accordance with the Law of Malthus, Bringing the World to Wrack and Ruin"
In 1950, when I began as a junior at Ohio State, this was a part of every university conversation. Uncontrolled population growth, combined with declining natural resources, was going to wipe us off the face of the planet. Books like, The Population Bomb" sold like hotcakes. Animal populations were shown to obey the Law of Malthus, with herbivores waxing prosperous during good crop years until shortages of food and an increased population of predators trimmed them back. Then the predators, lacking adequate prey, would themselves succumb to famine.
Even if we succeeded in colonizing other planets (a wa-a-ay-out idea in 1950), the resources required to send people to other planets and to support the colonization of other planets would exceed the cost of supporting the colonists on Earth for the rest of their lives. Besides, removing people from the population pool would only encourage a higher birth rate on Earth. (Flies in a bottle bred faster if you removed some of the flies from the bottle.) And even if it worked, it would only delay the Gtterdammerung a few decades. By the middle 70s, the world would enter World War III between the "haves" and the have-nots". It was all so logically inescapable. How could it fail to happen?
In the seventies, an agronomist spent a couple of months in Huntsville, teaching local farmers to grow the protein-rich grain, triticale. He explained that "The Green Revolution" had delayed the by a few years, but it's gains were beginning to fade, and it was only a matter of time before we turned to tooth and claw.
Guess what? People aren't mindless animals. They don't obey the Law of Malthus. As the century wore on, it became apparent that population growth rates were slowing sharply all over the world, and in some countries, had stabilized and were even on the verge of reversing.
So much for dire population prophesies.
"The U. S. Is Running Out of Mineral Wealth. In a Few More Decades, We're Going to Become a 'Have-Not' Nation, Bowing Down to Nations That Still Own Unexploited Natural Resources"
I've basically covered this above, forecasting that by the seventies, World War III would have begun over the distribution of vanishing natural resources. In the seventies, the world would run out of oil, and the U. S. would have used up the last of its domestic oil, iron ore, copper, etc., and would be fading from world affairs.
We worried a lot about this back in 1950. I ran around spouting domestic steel, copper, and oil production figures. There was no doubt about it: the world as we knew it would end in the 1970's.
The United States and the USSR, 'Two Scorpions in a Bottle', are Going to Mutually Annihilate Each Other, Taking the Rest of the World Out with Them.
See Greg Bear's "Eon" for a well-constructed doomsday scenario.
"In 20 Years, We'll Have Thermonuclear Fusion"
Dr. Homi J. Bhabha, prominent plasma physicist, and linchpin in the U. S. thermonuclear development program (Project Sherwood) writing in 1952 about our prospects for achieving thermonuclear fusion by 1972.
"Japan, Inc., Is Going to Own the United States by the Year 2000. The Japanese Do Everything Right and We Do Everything Wrong"
Of course, this all ended with the collapse of the Nikkei Dow. Wonderful as is the nation of Japan, certain structural problems that " flesh is heir to" have revealed themselves over the past twenty years.
Then there's the Club of Rome, Soylent Green, and a gracious serving of dire futures in science fiction literature.
We didn't have Departments of Bioethics in the past. Instead, we had a generous allotment of pundits spinning frightening futures. And I believed it all. Yes, sir/ma'am, I bought into each and every one of these scares and future prognostications.
The lesson to be learned from all this is that even the experts can't foretell
what the future will hold. They're not only wrong, but dead wrong.
In the area of stem cell research, there is the perception that stem cells can generate a cornucopia of medical treatments for rebuilding inadequately functioning tissues. The injection of cardiac stem cells (it is hoped) will permit the restoration of heart muscle tissue, which is presently unrepairable. The injection of neural stem cells may permit the reconstruction of brain tissue and structures. The injection of kidney stem cells may permit a cure for kidney disease. These repairs may be possible without the requirement for growing new organs that would then be transplanted rejection-free into a patient. Naturally, countries other than the United States want the benefits of these medical blessings and are moving rapidly to obtain them, unrestrained by the right-wing religious government that is currently in power in the United States, and is preventing the United States from moving ahead in this exciting area of medical science. It's worth noting that, according to the accounts I've read, Dr. Lawrence Kass, the Chairman of the President's Council on Bioethics, is anti-scientific, and is opposed to medical science, believing that it's part of God's plan that humanity is to suffer and die.
The following is excerpted from a transcript of a webcast sponsored by the publishers of Science Magazine and the Alliance for Aging Research, featuring the journalist Morton Kronecke who interviews Seven Hall, another journalist, who is the author of a book entitled, The Merchants of Immortality.
HALL: "I don't think the public realizes what a blanket ban on scientific research means. not only for the specifics of the scientific research but it --- it kind of has---has some ominous intellectual and historical parallels to things that we haven't talked about in centuries, like Galileo and the Vatican Church."
KNODRACKE: "But---but there's a, you know, under ordinary circumstances, these are people who are neoconservatives believe in free inquiry, capitalism, all this kind of stuff. So what is their position? Where did their---what was the intellectual background of their objections?"
HALL: "You know, as I mentioned in the book, toward the end, the---when I started out talking with the title, Merchants of Immortality, I was thinking primarily of the privatization and the commercial interest in developing these technologies.
"You mentioned Leon Cass. I think this whole notion of finitude and complaining or arguing against immortality to is using immortality to merchandise his ideology, which is not just for finitude and not immortality, but as I quote in the book, he has some anti-scientific sentiments that are really surprising in this day and age. I mean, they go beyond concern and wariness, but the actually suggest that science, because it does search for truth and search for the correct answer to things, is a kind of socially destabilizing force."
These discussions get into the subject of youth extension. In another debate between Dr. Francis Fukuyama, who is Dean of the Faculty, and a political scientist at Johns Hopkins, and Ron Bailey, who is the Science Correspondent for Reason magazine, Mr. Kondracke, acting as moderator says,
KONDRACKE: "Ron Bailey, you wrote in an article in Reason magazine that the defining political conflict of the 21st Century will be the battle over life and death, on the one side stand the partisans of mortality ? which I take it you would regard as the party of death if you want to be even more critical of him you'd say ? who counsel that humanity should quietly accept our morbid fate and go quietly into that good night. And on the other side is the party of life (where I gather you put yourself) who rage against the dying of the light and yearn to extend the enjoyment of a healthy life to as many people as possible for as long as possible. What is your thesis here?"
BAILEY: (Quoted out of context) "There are definitely people, of which I don't think Francis Fukuyama is one, who do believe that biomedical research should not be lengthening human life spans. For example, Leon Katz, the President's favorite bioethicist, asserts, 'The finitude of human life is a blessing for every individual, whether he knows it or not.' Of Daniel Callahan, who is from a different political perspective, a co-founder of The Hastings Center. He has declared, 'There is no known social good coming from the conquest of death.'........So I ask, what life-lengthening research would such opponents ban? After all, treatments to prevent or cure Alzhemer's will likely have the side effect of having normal brains to function better longer, to overcome the problem of people of age 80 having Alzheimer's, treatments to prevent or cure heart or other circulatory diseases will also lengthen life. Treatments to prevent or cure cancer will certainly extend the span of our days. Can such people as Callahan or Katz seriously want to limit research for cures for Alzheimer's, heart disease and cancer?
"Opponents of biomedical research talk a lot about hubris. But it takes more than a little hubris to believe that you are wise enough to tell other people to reconcile to themselves that disease, disability and death is the best thing for them. With regards to those opponents who assert that certain biotechnological research violates human dignity, I think that they owe us a more precise account of just what constitutes a violation of human dignity if no one's rights are violated. After all, what is so dignified about dying of Alzheimer's, diabetes or cancer
"The president's bioethicist Leon Katz told the Washington Post earlier this week, "The pursuit of perfect bodies and further life extension will deflect us from realizing more merely staying alive." I want to suggest to you that this is a false dichotomy. To live well one must first stay alive.
"Future generations will look back at the beginning of the 21st Century that some very well-meaning and intelligent people actually wanted to stop biomedical progress just to protect their cramped and limited vision of human nature.
Later: "First of all Callahan does say and I can actually cite, he points out in his last book that 'no new medical technologies should be developed until all technologies are currently available and deployed to everyone.' He also says nothing more than palliative treatment should be allowed to anyone over 70."
Is that age discrimination or what?
Anyway the reason for all these quotes is to give a flavor of what I've read about "the president's favorite bioethicist, Dr. Leon Kass".
The bottom line is that
Other countries will pick up the slack in stem cell research. After the religious right loses its grip on science, the U. S. will play catch-up in this field where it could have led instead of followed.
The term "embryo" for these little clusters of non-viable fetal cells is a misleading choice of words.
One concern would be over a situation in which a fetal clone of one's self is
allowed to grow for a few months and then sacrificed to provide tissue for some
organ, or the organ itself. But this seems to me to be ridiculously far-fetched.
As things stand today, some woman is going to have to carry this hypothetical
clone. And what good is an infant's heart or an infant's liver going to do for
an adult human being? It would make much more sense to grow undifferentiated
stem cells, and then to use these either for repair or to grow an organ in vitro
(if and when we learn how to do that).
This seems to me to be counting our chickens before we even know whether they capable of hatching. There will be plenty of time to ponder the ethical implications of cloning when we're far beyond where we are now. Right now, this is like the agonies over the replacement of humans by artificially intelligent robots. It's people playing with their heads.
To Be Continued