Come into my arms, bonnie gene

Carl Zimmer interviews Lee Silver on the radical changes in stem cell technology. Lee is very open and clear about the political aspects of the research (ripe for the quote-mining spin doctors to distort). It's great to hear how a lot of the mystically-based qualms should fall away, now that so much can be done with skin cells. However, I suspect Lee is a little overly optimistic about the anticipated drop in resistance to bio-research. How long will it be before the faithful recognize that the ability to use induced pluripotent stem cells to create "life" devalues their vitalist conception of "life"?

Expect some well-financed manufactured controversy here folks.


Despite your scoffery, it's not that easy to draw the line where 'life' begins, or where it's OK to end it.

Morality is not mathematics. I sometimes think that it is the opposite, in fact: the only field where people start from their conclusions and work backward to their premises.

I think your first sentence about the difficulty to "draw the line" shows up the problem that afflicts a lot of discussions of morality. The problem is that drawing lines is a way to create categories, to clearly distinguish between this and that. When the thing under study presents a continuum, the art of drawing a line necessarily reflects the thinking of the artist more than the reality of what is being studied (which is exactly the conclusion you arrive at in your last sentence, but I don't think it is scientists who have confused morality with mathematics).

It would be wonderful if nature provided us with clear boundaries, because then we'd be able to use those boundaries in our legal systems to support the community consensus of what is moral behaviour. But since reality doesn't adhere to our mental habits of convenience (e.g. simplifying our understanding by categorizing) we're stuck with sliding scales and rough rules with books full of exceptions. Morality is not mathematics, but it can be studied and understood. Wind the clock back a few hundred years and you'll find that transferring blood from one person to another was immoral. When did it stop being immoral? When we, as a society, understood that there was nothing mystical about blood. There was no élan vital flowing in our veins, just biological fluids.

I don't scoff at those trying to codify "rules" and establish ethical guidelines; they have an enormously difficult job. I reserve my scoffing for those who cling to ideas of ensoulment--those who make completely evidence-free judgments about life to support their traditions. I scoff at those who attribute "human rights" to a potential human of 100 cells, but would deny those rights to an intelligent, pain-feeling, relational creature like a fully grown dog. It's those people who have a ridiculously caricatured concept of humanity.

When will stem cell research stop being intrinsically immoral? When we, as a society, understand that there is nothing mystical about bunches of cells. There is no élan vital. The real ethical questions arise when we apply our findings, the medical cures for disabilities, the things that change our lives, the consequences for us and our environment.