October 2005

Creating Living Entities Composed of Both Human and Animal Cells: Is It Moral?

Richard Layton’s Discussion Group Report

There are “valid scientific reasons” for creating chimeras–living entities composed of both human and animal cells–said the guidelines for research on embryonic stem cells issued by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences this past April. The implications of the kind of research addressed in this statement were explored in an article, “I, Chimera,” by Jamie Shreeve in www.newscientist.com, June 25, 2005. “As stem cell technology pushes forward, expect to hear a lot more,” she says.

In Greek mythology, she points out, the chimera was a monstrous creature with the head of a lion, the body of a goat and the tail of a serpent. In real-life laboratories mildly chimerical creatures have long been commonplace–mice and other animals with human immune systems, kidneys, skin, and muscle tissue, all created for the purpose of better understanding human diseases. Today pig heart valves are routinely transplanted into heart patients. None of this research has caused any public outcry, but stem cell technology has made the creation of more potent human-animal mixtures both easier and more urgent. Researchers have created monkeys with brains that are partially human, mice with functioning human photoreceptor cells in their retinas and sheep with organs that are up to 40% human. And there’s a plan to create a mouse with a brain made entirely of human neurons. Such chimeras would be hugely useful in biomedical research.

But organisms assembled by mixing humans and animals are troubling. What if such a creature turned out to have human attributes? And what new responsibilities would such an ambiguous being pose to a society accustomed to a clean moral and legal distinction between human beings and the rest of the animal world? “How do we treat these new beings?” asks bioethicist Francoise Baylis.

The reason for all of this sudden interest in chimeras is the immense medical potential of stem cells. Isolated from the inner cell mass of a very early embryo called a blastocyst, human embryonic stem cells have the ability to morph into any other kind of cell in the body. They might one day be transplanted into patients with heart disease, diabetes, and a host of other ailments to regenerate damaged tissue.

Eugene Redmond of Yale University and his colleagues have injected human neural progenitor cells–stem cells that have already taken the first developmental step towards becoming a brain cell–into the brains of velvet monkeys with the intention of exploring them as a treatment for Parkinson’s disease. A team at Harvard University transplanted neuronal progenitor cells into fetal monkeys to see if they would grow, migrate and differentiate along with their monkey counterparts (they did), while still others have treated mouse brains to a similar neural dusting.

Is it possible that you could end up with a creature possessing a human-like brain–and human-like cognitive abilities, such as intelligence and self-awareness–trapped in the skull of an animal? Shreeve posits that the answer to that question seems to depend on three factors: the stage in development at which the cells are introduced (the earlier, the more effect they have) the amount of material added, and how closely related the animal is to us.

Art Brivanlou of The Rockefeller University plans to inject human embryonic stem cells into 3 to 5-day-old mouse blastocysts, and then implant the embryo in a mouse uterus. “We have to know,” he says, “how many cell lines contribute to the pancreas, how many to the nervous system, and so on. If we don’t know the answers to these basic questions, we will never go to the next step of using stem cells clinically.”

Irving Weissman and his colleagues came up with an ingenious idea to study human brain cancers and drug therapies. He imagined transplanting human neuronal stem cells into the brains of a strain of mouse that loses its own neurons just before birth. The result would be a mouse with a brain composed almost entirely of human neurons. This has already drawn negative rhetoric from talk-show host Bill O’Reilly, anti-biotech activist Jeremy Rifkin, and numerous religious commentators and bloggers. Some scientists are uncomfortable, too. Weissman answers that these critics “must be reminded that if they succeed, it’s the kind of research that could result in real and new therapies, then I personally hold them morally responsible for the suffering and death of those patients.”

Mouse brains are less than one-thousandth the size of human brains in volume, and are far simpler in their organization. To create an animal with a brain possessing any human attributes you would probably have to use an animal much closer to us in evolution, and early in its development, a chimpanzee, for instance. The NAS report recommends that the transfer of human stem cells into the early embryos of apes or other primates should not be permitted at this time.

Cynthia Cohen of Georgetown University argues that the real problem is that chimeras denigrate what it means to be human. Robert Streiffer of the University of Wisconsin-Madison maintains, “I don’t think that taking an individual with a lower moral status and conferring a higher moral status on it is wrong for the animal. It could even be beneficial, if it reminded us in a useful way that the categorical difference between a human being and the rest of nature is not so categorical.”

Shreeve opines that a true human-animal chimera “could provide unimagined insights into the lives and minds of non-human primates, and in so doing advance our understanding of all animals. But what if it were trapped between those two worlds, able neither to realize its humanity, nor to live in peace with its animal self?…Perhaps the best argument against too potent a mix of human and animal would be the emotional torment suffered by a being so unspeakably alone in the world. But such thoughts are still safely in the realm of science fiction.”

“It’s always science fiction,” says Streiffer, “up until the point when it happens.”

Why Intelligent Design Fails

To a large audience of about seventy-one, Anya Plutynski PhD spoke about “Why Intelligent Design Fails.” Remarking this would be the only joke in her presentation, she said, “After George Bush’s recent comments to the press concerning the teaching of intelligent design, no one can deny that one of the values most promoted by the current administration is diversity.”

Of course, true democracy means having freedom to express and debate a diversity of opinions in public forums like the media, senate floor, coffeehouse, or church. However, Plutynski said, a science class is not a public forum, just as medicine, biology, or engineering is not. The reason is that these fields operate under the scientific method–that of acquiring knowledge scientifically by formulating a question, collecting data through observation and experiment, and then testing a hypothetical answer.

In other words, scientists look to experience and do what works. Thus, not every conceivable hypothesis is given equal hearing by the scientific community, and not every theory deserves equal time in the classroom. If our high school students are to become educated citizens and part of the international scientific community to be able to compete in a global market, they need a foundation in those scientific theories that have the strongest empirical support. Evolution is such a theory. Intelligent design is not.

Plutynski pointed out five arguments that proponents of intelligent design give against evolutionists.

The first is the demarcation argument, or what she called, “T’ain’t science!” This argument holds there are conditions for something to count as a science, and evolution fails to meet these conditions.

Several problems exist with this argument. To begin, no one has been able to agree what these conditions are. Every time a demarcation criterion has been proposed, it has had various logical flaws or empirical consequences that no one is willing to accept. It turns out that the criteria are either too permissive or too restrictive so that we end up either including astrology or excluding Newton’s physics.

Philosophers of science have known this for about seventy-five years. However, just because we cannot draw a hard and fast line between science and pseudoscience doesn’t mean there are not many identifying marks of successful scientific research programs or there are no clues when something is bogus.

A successful theory has to inspire a research program. In other words, it has to suggest new experiments or new empirical ways of investigating the world. A good scientific theory never will suggest that the enterprise of inquiry should stop, or that our understanding of how the world works must end at some specified juncture.

A successful theory will also make connections between, systematize, or unify disparate phenomena in some domain. For example, Newton’s theory unified celestial and terrestrial mechanics; he showed that the same laws account for the motions of the planets and the motions of apples here on earth.

Evolution has done both of these things. Intelligent design has not.

The second argument is one of personal incredulity that goes something like this–I don’t understand how it works, and this seems impossible to me; therefore, it is impossible. One readily sees serious logical flaws with this argument.

On the other hand, addressing this argument is one of the most difficult challenges for evolutionists because this forces evolutionary biologists to make accessible to the public the most complex details of their science in what is often just a sound byte. As a result, biologists have been forced to become adept at making complex facts look simpler than they are. Thus, a byproduct of such reductive reporting is people often conclude that evolutionary biology is not a very sophisticated science–a grave mistake.

The third argument is what Plutynski called “gee whiz mathematics,” which goes something like this: There are so many gazillion bits of information in the universe that it’is mathematically impossible that these bits of information could have arisen from random and/or natural processes. Therefore, evolution is impossible.

Similar to the second argument, this one appeals to more sophisticated concepts that few people understand, and so it sounds more compelling. However, this argument is also flawed. First, there is no agreement on a natural measure of information. In other words, it is not clear how we ought to count up the bits. Second, this argument is often just reducible to arguments either from ignorance or incredulity, cloaked in vague “gee-whiz mathematics.”

The fourth is what Plutynski called the “incompleteness argument” or the “Look, you can’t explain this!” argument where one looks for controversy, gap, or incompleteness in some science, and then concludes that that science is not very good. The problem here is every science is incomplete, and any good active research program will involve controversy. Scientists have not finished explaining everything; if they claim otherwise, we should be suspicious of their claim to doing science.

The last argument is founded on a moral concern, which Plutynski believes is the basis for much of the controversy about evolution. Here opponents say evolutionists deny God’s power and influence in the world. Therefore, teaching our children evolutionary biology will cause them to lose respect for the values of church and family that could result in their eliminating motivation for behaving morally.

Plutynski cited three reasons why so many Americans are in favor of teaching intelligent design. First is ignorance. Most Americans do not understand Darwin’s theory and what natural selection is. Hence, the incredulity argument.

Second, many Americans believe that it is more “democratic” to teach a variety of theories. Yet the sciences are not, strictly speaking, a public forum where any and all opinions on any question should be heard. Just as we should not teach that we live in an earth-centered universe in the name of diversity, so too we should not teach intelligent design. Several hundred years of successful research has established the success of a sun-centered cosmology. Likewise, over 100 years of research has supported Darwin’s theory.

Third, many Americans fear that teaching Darwin’s theory is morally corrupting; Darwin’s views have been identified with moral relativism and nihilism. By placing humans among the other animals, many feel that Darwin has stolen God’s agency in nature, and thereby nullified morality and human dignity. This seems to be the greatest perceived threat of Darwin’s theory: what are our grounds of moral obligation if we are but animals? What is to prevent us from acting as animals?

Accepting Darwin’s theory does not suggest moral nihilism, the embrace of atheism, or the adherence to any particular political or social philosophy. A little attention to history shows that Darwin’s theory has been used to support a range of moral and political philosophies from Herbert Spencer to Carnegie, from Proudhon to Kropotkin.

In conclusion, Plutynski believes that evolution should, and intelligent design should not, be taught in the science classroom. If we want our children to become scientifically literate citizens, and if we wish them to compete in the global market, they need to be aware of the main principles of and evidence for evolution. If students wish to learn about intelligent design, philosophy classes or courses in the history of religion or of science would be the appropriate place.

–Sarah Smith

Suggested Reading

Why Intelligent Design Fails: A Scientific Critique of the New Creationism, edited by Matt Young and Taner Edis

Abusing Science: The Case Against Creationism, by Philip Kitcher.


President’s Message

On September 11, 2005, members of the board of directors for our chapter held a retreat at the home of John and Wanda Young, with their daughter and board member Cindy King as hostess. We held the meeting to discuss ways to improve the chapter. I’m happy with the results. During the session we came up with many good ideas and projects, and we will be working toward making them a reality. At the September board meeting, we began to sort out what we discussed at the retreat.

You might ask “what ideas and projects?” I won’t elaborate right now because they are in the early planning stage. However one idea that has already started is our HELP program or mission as Flo Wineriter has worded it:

Humanists of Utah, an incorporated Utah non-profit corporation, has a mission to promote the principles of Humanism, the history of the Enlightenment, the philosophy of Liberalism, and the policies of Progressivism.

–Bob Lane

Deep Time

In keeping with the discussion of defending science, I want to touch on another topic, deep time.

But first I have a little diatribe to get out.

In order to stay somewhat aware of what the creationists are up to, I watch some of their television programs. At the end of one episode where they had been tearing down evolution, the host summarizes by saying that evolution is “a fraud and a forgery.”

My goodness, I was devastated. How could it be that just about everything I learned in obtaining a B.S. in physical geography was all based on fraud and forgeries? I decided to make a list of all those evil science classes to try to figure out what went wrong.

As part of my undergraduate work, I took 28 science classes related to my major and a few math and statistics classes. Did they all lead me astray? Was it the Anthropology classes, the Biology classes, or perhaps Physical Climatology? Could it have been some of my favorites like Historical Geology, Glacial and Periglacial Geomorphology, Pleistocene Stratigraphy of the Great Basin, or a devilish little class known as Rocks and Minerals? The truth is, it was all of them that helped to make me the defender of science I am today. (Come to think of it a lot of my high school classes were corrupting me way back.)

I had to make this statement for a couple of reasons. First, the assertion that evolution is a fraud and a forgery is baseless when you really look at the arguments creationists present. Second, it insults my intelligence when these boobs dismiss all the massive amounts of information accumulated in numerous scientific disciplines, which all add to the knowledge that the earth is extremely old.

The knowledge that the cosmos is extremely old is very gratifying. To me, deep time (simply put, a lot of time) is what allows for all the myriad of changes that have taken place in the universe and specifically the earth’s biology. The Hubble space telescope has recorded images of galaxies over 14 billion light years away, that is a lot of time! When fossils are scrutinized, they also reveal great age. The study of glaciers shows us that it took considerable time for them to accumulate and a long time for them to carve and straighten out their paths. Stratigraphy also reveals many things and again the evidence of lots of time is one of them, as we can see that these layers represent sediments having been deposited for millions and even hundreds of millions of years.

There are many more examples we can come up with, and they all point to an exquisitely old and wonderful earth and universe. The idea that the earth is only a few thousand years old is as untenable as the notions that the earth is flat or that the sun revolves around the earth.

–Bob Lane


~Letter to the Editor~

I want to extend my thanks to our board for their timely and valuable comments in the September issue of the Utah Humanist re: “Intelligent Design.” I hope that the Utah educational community and officials will show the same concern regarding the importance of science education and the separation of church and state. I hope that Mr. Buttars will open his eyes to the fact that there are already ample numbers of seminaries adjacent to Utah schools that teach his “divine design” concept.

–Richard Garrard

Martin Zwick

November 22, 1920 ~ September 24, 2005

In Memoriam

Martin Zwick, long time member of Humanists of Utah, died recently. He was better known to the general community as a musician and a true man of the world.

Martin Zwick

He taught elementary instrumental music in the Granite and Murray school districts and was an adjunct associate professor at the University of Utah and Westminister College. Martin met and married Muriel Hood Zwick, who is now deceased, in the early 1950’s. After retiring from the Utah Symphony, he had a second career playing, teaching and recording with the mandolin. Martin was truly a renaissance man. His joy of life and his spirit, his love of music and teaching, his enjoyment of good food, of great books and of his wonderful friends and his close family, all touched and affected many lives.

Humanists of Utah extends our condolences to his family.