[UPDATE: Edited to use the version of the body text that actually makes some sense with the originally posted title.]
I’m not that old, so I’m often puzzled by people who make historical pronouncements in ignorance of recent, relevant history, sometimes history that happened within their lifetimes but not mine. Of course, as Catholic dogma would have it, not having been born is no excuse for failing to see the light: those who speak in ignorance like this, even the greybeards, should know that it’s now easier now than ever to get hold of information about events that happened before they came into the World.
You know the sort of people I mean from your days at university: trivial examples include those who skip a century and overlook, amongst others, these guys and think that popular music began with the Beatles (and conclude, for example, that performers who don’t write their own songs can’t be any good); slightly less trivial—I’m not being sarcastic—examples are student “radicals” who think that socialism started with Marx, when Marx defined his ideas against what his contemporaries called socialism. (It’s funny, but I can think of few people who would agree with my belief that communism isn’t socialism—outside the early communists. This also explains in part why most (all?) of the states with “socialist” in their names have not been a) socialist b) places you’d want to live.)
Anyway, on a similar theme, I haven’t paid much attention to the current debate about the regulation of hybrid embryo research, but I haven’t noticed a single commentator point out that we’ve been fusing together different species of living cell—including human cells—since the 60s. I know this because I studied it when I was at university myself, but also because, in the mid-90s, my boss’s boss was one of the first people to have done it. [Go here, type the phrase “cell fusion” into the search box, and browse to the end with the results ordered by date of publication.] There hasn’t been anything “Frankensteinian” about the results since then and there won’t be now. (We’ve used cell fusion to make antibodies, amongst other useful things.) I understand that originally cell fusion was indeed controversial at the time—not because a bunch of priests and politicians and journos got their knickers in a twist about it, but because the development of the technique gave rise to a rather more interesting debate about the scientific meaning of the genetics of the fused cells.
I’m well aware that even scientists don’t treat human embryonic material like just another laboratory cocktail ingredient, but much of the antis’ rhetoric reads as though the very idea of combining biological material from different species is unlike anything that has ever been done before. It isn’t. Never mind cell fusion, the word “chimera” doesn’t just mean a monster from Greek mythology, we’ve been creating them in labs for years. “God” has been doing cell fusion and making chimeras for rather longer. There’s a chance your cat is a chimera. Your wife might be one. Being forced by our inclusive, balanced media to listen to reactionary, superstitious, old windbags bloviating about the artificial mixing of embryonic tissue from different species as though it represented some completely unprecedented phenomenon makes me yearn for the supposedly more religious and conservative past that they can’t be bothered to look up.
[…] My last post prompted a reader to send me photos of her tortoiseshell cats. [Thank you!] Such a flow of cat pics is of course unconventional in cat blogging, but it gives me an opportunity to point out that it’s the much rarer male tortoiseshells that are the true chimeras, mixtures of two distinct embryos of different colours; and that even those obviously aren’t interspecies chimeras, just as the human example I linked to wasn’t. […]
I’ve been trying to pursuade my biologist son and daughter-in- law for years that I’m a chimera, on account of having soft wax in the right ear and brittle wax in the left; unfortunately the evidence is a bit dodgy and unappetizing.
Enjoyed this post, on a subject (the media’s representation of science) that’s fairly close to my heart. The good news for me is that the new (starting this Sept) ‘A’ level media specification offers the opportunity to teach a case study on a topic across different media. I’m going to do representations of science – from film through TV dramas and documentaries, across the web and in the print. It’s a nice meaty topic, and useful torture for all the arts/humanities students who unsuspectingly take media studies with a teacher who is interested in and cares about science.
Granted that “the media” is generally shallow and ill-informed. Nevertheless, a point that something happens in nature (tortoiseshell cats, unfortunate ladies in maternity cases) is hardly a reason to suggest that it is fine and dandy for scientists to go off and experiment on it.
Yes, chimeras occur. So do genetic variants of all sorts of humans from the very (let’s think of a non-judgmental word) viable (super strong, super smart, super beautiful) to the utterly un-viable. Just because such a thing comes about via fate, chance, deity or what-have-you doesn’t tell you anything about whether scientists doing it in the lab are right or wrong.
I have no idea what you consider to be right and wrong, but consider just about any thing which you are prepared to say “that’s definitely wrong” about, and you will find it has occurred at some point in time – by a process which someone will attest is due to some natural tendency. Murder? For sure. Rape? Definitely. Thievery? Ditto.
If these things have occurred in “nature” we still don’t condone them. Raising “science” as an answer changes nothing.
So, I have no position about combining genetic material of other species – sounds interesting, sure, but I am a little wary (due to my ignorance it’s true) of consequences.
Playing with human genetic material raises issues with me that I don’t think can be addressed by an appeal to nature. It’s true that in nature embryos are destroyed all the time. It’s true that babies die every day, and if you believe in an all-powerful G-d then I guess He (or She) is killing babies at a rather rapid rate. Nevertheless, few modern religions (and few agnostics and atheists too) condone the murder of children for scientific purposes (at least once they have successfully exited the womb). So the argument of “it happens in nature” doesn’t work in that case. The argument comes down to the same old one everyone is tired of – but no-one has fully answered – when does a human life begin?
I agree. It’s a point I’ve made many times on PooterGeek: science has no moral content. Science is just a way of looking at the World; it doesn’t tell you what to do with the World. Science also happens to be the best way of getting to useful truth.
This wasn’t a post about morality; it was one about truth, the truth in this case being that what many people want to present as something new isn’t. What is new is the kind of unearned respect too many people show to these con artists.