What is Stem Cell Research Really About?

In the April, 2007 issue of Brain in the News published by Dana Press, there’s an article titled Stem Cell Research Opens New Doors, written by Carl T. Hall and originally published in The San Francisco Chronicle. I would recommend regular visits to Dana’s website ( Dana Foundation) to anyone interested in modern medical sciences, especially the study of the brain or immune system, and also those interested in the ethics of medicine and medical research.

In the article the April, 2007 issue of Brain in the News, Mr. Hall tells us:

One argument for stem cell research is that it might generate fresh replacement cells for those destroyed by such horrific diseases as ALS, the paralyzing nervous system disorder popularly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.

The latest research suggest those predictions might be unrealistic: Replacing cells that die off in a disease still leaves open the question of why the cells died in the first place, which is the critical issue in any autoimmune disease, or degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s.

The findings may be the most dramatic example yet of the idea that stem cells are valuable as a “disease model” — used to study disease — rather than a simple source of replacement parts.

Stem cell colonies were used in experiments which discovered that nervous system damage in ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) was not due to problems with the nerve cells; it was a result of poisons coming from diseased cells surrounding those nerve cells.

As a next step, some scientists plan to, roughly speaking, transfer DNA from diseased cells in ALS patients into stem cells and watch as the disease progresses, presumably in the neighborhood of stem cells grown into the type of nerve cells which die to give the terrible symptoms of ALS.

As someone who is opposed to the use of any human being, or possible human being, as the means to the ends of another, I wonder what sorts of stem cells were used in these experiments. I’ve also read enough of the accessible scientific literature in this field to know that the pro-life leaders live in la-la land. The four or so types of stem cells have different properties and morally obtained stem cells don’t have the right properties for all types of medical uses, research or therapeutic. Even when adult stem cells can be altered to be somewhat like embryonic stem cells, a careful observer will note the alterations depend upon technology that will possibly allow the higher classes to create customized human beings, perhaps dumb and physically tough or perhaps capable of sexual feats beyond the desires of most of us.

My first general comment is: We are a in a state of moral decay where all powerful technologies are potentially evil. Some of the technologies which are potentially of good moral use are at least as dangerous as the technologies which are evil from the get-go.

Our problem isn’t one to be solved by the sorts of policy wonks we’ve all become, even those with honest and noble intentions to protect traditional moral values. We need to recognize that our society has removed many of our moral constraints. As the novelist Flannery O’Connor pointed out a half-century ago: we Americans are not a moral or compassionate people, we are merely squeamish. Our moral limits melt away a little more when we realize we might be able to increase our prosperity or safety or comfort by going just a little further. The nations of the West support medical research, technological exploitation, entertainment, and social experiments of a sort which would have horrified our grandparents. Our general decay, our tendency to create problems and to destroy moral and political traditions rapidly, would indicate that we shouldn’t assume that we’re the ones who know better than our grandparents. At 52, I’m old enough to remember the attitudes of those days which were, to be sure, the true parents of our days. If someone had described a society like ours to my grandmother in, say, 1965, she would have gasped and labeled that society as being evil.

As numerous commentators have conjectured, Hitler and Stalin won the battle for the hearts of modern human beings. In fact, the neo-marxist Horkheimer once claimed that radicals owed a lot to American businessmen who proved they could destroy families better than the toughest and most competent of modern dictators. I would add that the moral giants of our corporate world dissolve traditional moral institutions of all sorts but otherwise Horkheimer was almost right on target, though he missed the important role played by the American government in all of this. Modern human beings have been bribed to walk away from the institutions which once embodied the moral traditions of the Christian West. The result is a gentler and kinder Reich, a more efficient version of the Bolshevik Empire. Every entity on earth, every bit of flesh, has become a means to the end of increasing the prosperity of society which defines prosperity not in terms of human and humane goals but rather in terms of material wealth, of safety, of comfort. We value long lives and have forgotten about good lives.

We haven’t seen the worst of it yet. If it now seems necessary to study ALS by observing multiple types of human cells grown in the laboratory, what will we do when we discover that ALS or some other horrible disease is really a complex disease of multiple parts of the human body? So far as I can predict the future, we’ll begin to grow human babies in the laboratory and not just any human babies but babies customized to have particular forms of those horrible diseases so that the progression of those diseases can be studied under controlled conditions. Our public morality is such that we’ll have no good arguments against doing this.

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14 Comments on “What is Stem Cell Research Really About?”

  1. Joe Says:

    Your argument against stem cell research is that it is a slippery slope to research on humans? If we were willing to do experiments on humans we would just do them now. What are our “good arguments” against doing this today?

    And regarding “We are a in a state of moral decay”. Do you have support for this? Why do you believe this?

  2. Dan Says:

    So far as I can predict the future, we’ll begin to grow human babies in the laboratory and not just any human babies but babies customized to have particular forms of those horrible diseases so that the progression of those diseases can be studied under controlled conditions. Our public morality is such that we’ll have no good arguments against doing this.

    Actually, the National Academy of Sciences has explicitly forbid “growing humans” in such a way, as noted in the NY Times 2 years ago:

    Third, like many previous committees, the academy says human embryos should not be grown in culture for more than 14 days, the time when the first hints of a nervous system appear.

    That’s straight from the words of scientists – so no, scientists aren’t immoral or evil in the way that you suggest. Thanks for the strawman argument though.

  3. loydf Says:

    Joe,

    My argument against stem cell research is not that it is a slippery slope to research on humans. My argument is that we don’t have moral absolutes that forbid anything. We are prevented from going too far at any point only by our squeamishness. And by the way, Flannery O’Connor shocked a lot of people in her essay where she claimed Americans are squeamish and not moral or compassionate by predicting that there would soon be pressures to abort a lot of babies, especially those who were ‘defective’. Has it happened?

    Are we in a state of moral decay? Well, are we in a state of moral integrity? Do we lead good, balanced lives where we respect the lives of other human beings, of other creatures, of the earth? Are our murder rates high? Are adults willing to make sacrifices for the future or even for their own children or do they divorce readily, push their children into activities which are bad for them? On the last, I’ve actually taken the trouble to read a lot of good science books and found that most developmental neurobiologists are greatly opposed to the way we raise our children, some claiming — as one example — that young children need free playtime for proper brain development and little league isn’t a good idea. But it’s fun for Daddy.

    To return to moral decay, do we Americans fight criminal wars and then get self-righteously angry when others commit crimes against us? Robert McNamara was given access to the Johnson and Kennedy presidential libraries and found we were systematically killing or seriously injuring 3,000 civilians a month in Vietnam and the information was in front of them at cabinet meetings. They didn’t notice because he said they were busy taking care of their todo lists so they could get home to their nice homes with their nice wives and nice children and a nice car in the driveway. Did anyone care at the revelations? After we found out the conspiracy theorists were right about the Lusitania — it was a floating armaments storehouse and a legal war target, did anyone pay attention and ask if our government has changed the way they operate. To be sure, that was mostly a British government conspiracy but there is plenty of circumstantial evidence that Americans collaborated.

    In a powerful book, “On Killing”, the Army historian, psychologist, and former Ranger, Lt. Col Dave Grossman said that more recent revelations tell us that the Germans were sending telegrams to the highest levels of American and British governments and those telegrams were buried. He also said that an informed military historian knows that every war the U.S. has fought in since at least the Spanish-American war has been a criminal war to start or was turned into one by the way our government forced the military to fight. Two of our great warriors, MacArthur and Patton had the same opinion.

    In the preface to the abridged version of “The Gulag Archipelago”, Solzhenitsyn tells of a report in a major American newspaper that was based upon Pentagon records — under the orders of Truman, the U.S. Army carried out a large scale roundup of healthy young men from the refugee population in Eastern Europe and shipped those men to Siberia to be slaves for Stalin. Did any of the many Americans involved in that roundup come back and say anything? Even the clergy or doctors or Red Cross employees?

    To get back to “On Killing”, Col Grossman talks a lot about Army knowledge of the effects of seeing violence, even on the screen, and said that it is known that the sorts of movies that young Americans see are damaging to their moral natures.

    There is far more, so don’t get me started. I fear Solzhenitsyn was right in saying that the American ability to commit crimes, smaller and fewer than other great powers to be sure, and then walk away thinking we’re pure is a sign of a unique sort of evil.

  4. loydf Says:

    Dan,

    Why is 14 days binding? What legal or moral authority does the National Academy of Sciences have? When has the moral protests of a few scientists stopped politicians or businessmen from finding many scientists to work on projects at least morally questionable?

    And, no, I didn’t say scientists were evil. In other writings, I have said scientists are no better than the rest of us, including businessmen and lawyers and politicians. Would you be insulted if I implied that there are businessmen or politicians or lawyers who do evil things? Did you notice the head of Enron was a prominent economic scientist? In this entry, I did say our public morality gives us no reason to stop at any particular point — such as the arbitrary point of 14 days. If the embryo is a human being, creating it as a means to other people’s ends is a grossly immoral act no matter when it is killed. And killing it young doesn’t make it morally respectable.

    If you’re interested in these issues, you may be aware of Francis Crick’s argument for infanticide. Crick, the co-discoverer of the shape of the DNA molecule, was a supporter of abortion and helped to make it legal in his native England. Later on, he argued that there’s no real difference between an embryo and a young infant. He suggested parents should be able to kill children who turn out to be defective or inconvenient up to six months — though six months is also pretty arbitrary. It’s only squeamishness that prevents us from killing babies after they’re born. They’re cuddly and have such big eyes. Nature manipulates us in that, but we should be able and willing to go well beyond the bare minimum of moral responsibilities towards children that come from our hormonal flows. As rational and moral creatures, at least in potential, we should be able to do far better than that.

    I do think you should question that arbitrary standard of the appearance of a nervous system as the sign of being human. Do you think that the life of a more intelligent or more creative person, one with a more effective nervous system, is a more worthwhile life? Maybe enjoyment of life makes it more worthwhile. In that case, I’d ask why so many prospective parents abort Downs Syndrome babies. Most of those I know who have Downs Syndrome enjoy life far more than most without that ‘defect’. Maybe it’s because a man or woman with Downs Syndrome won’t have as much success in life, won’t make as much money or gain as much power? You don’t see many buying 4,000 square foot houses or expensive SUVs. You do see a lot of scientists nowadays living the good life.

    One climate scientist, Patrick Michaels, who believes in the global warm-up suggested that we take all the money used for computer modeling, which he considers useless, and use it to build sea-walls for the low-lying regions of the world such as Bagladesh. He also pointed out we have a lot of climate scientists who are highly specialized and have no way of making such a good living if we were to just go ahead and solve problems instead of running computer models.

  5. Dan Says:

    To “moral authority,” yes, there is none, other than the potential consequence of being ostracized from the scientific community. So, in principle, yes, it means nothing. In practice, however, I’ve never heard of such a guideline, set for scientists by scientists, being violated. Have you?

    And, no, I didn’t say scientists were evil.

    No, you just implied it, along with implying without proof that there are scientists who disregard reasonable guidelines. It’s an argument based on the assumptions that scientists do not contemplate the ethical situations in which they are placed, and arguments based upon the deeds of non-scientists are irrelevant and non sequitur.

    If the embryo is a human being, creating it as a means to other people’s ends is a grossly immoral act no matter when it is killed.”

    Even when the embryo in question is still at the blastocyst stage? At this stage, it looks no different from a common starfish embryo. Human cells and human organisms are not one and the same, just as surely as a sperm or egg cell is not.

    And please, don’t change the subject to abortion, or climate change.

  6. loydf Says:

    Do you really believe that scientists are turned into moral giants by the process of studying brain structure or organic chemistry? Maybe we should just send our budding politicians and businessmen through such courses and we would solve many of our moral and social problems.

    To answer your question about scientists violating their own guidelines, read “Adaptive Minds” by Gerd Gigerenzer, a German psychologist and statistics expert for examples of two scientists who marginalized or prevented from publishing for the crime of going against the mainstream beliefs of their field. One of them, John Garcia, flat-out proved that one of B.F. Skinner’s assumptions was wrong and couldn’t publish in major journals for 13 years. He began to receive awards after everyone finally realized he was right but what the principle of open discourse, supposedly a foundation stone of modern science. You can find other examples in “Chance and Chaos”, a small autobiographical book by David Ruelle, a major founder of chaos theory, in the writings of Michael Polanyi and elsewhere.

    I didn’t even imply anything other than: scientists are no different from us. There’s nothing in scientific education or the scientific process to make scientists more moral than their fellow-citizens. The peer-review process enforces honesty in technical matters, but you should go back and research the affair with that South Korean scientist who faked so much work in the field of stem cell research. His work received contributions an supposedly peer reviews from scientists all over the world, including many Americans.

    What I said was:

    We are a in a state of moral decay where all powerful technologies are potentially evil. Some of the technologies which are potentially of good moral use are at least as dangerous as the technologies which are evil from the get-go.

    So far as abortion and climate change go: you can make claims about the moral sanctity of scientists but I can’t discuss scientific corruption, or possible corruption, in fields outside of strictly defined “stem cell research”. But I’ll persist. The strongest ethical guidelines in the history of the West were those in the Hippocratic Oath which forbade doctors to participate in abortions until it was edited in recent decades. Even in societies where abortion was legal, even in societies where abortion was morally respectable. Medical doctors were to save lives, not end the lives of some for the alleged good of others. And my comments upon the scientists who work on climate change models hold and can be generalized: scientists, like many others, now have careers and incomes, sometimes very good incomes, dependent upon one particular line of research. That does introduce a bit of a bias unless you think scientists are immune to those pressures of paying bills on their large houses and fancy SUVs.

    It’s arguable that scientists had very high moral standards in many ways in the days when most of them were gentlemanly amateurs or professors who were dependent only upon their modest salaries with no grants or large laboratories. Science is now a big business with universities and scientists in court against each other with very large amounts of money at stake. Check out another article in the April 2007 issue of “Brain in the News” published by the Dana Foundation (www.dana.org): “Proteins Make Light Work of Nerve Control”. It’s about some technology which might revolutionize neurobiological research, and might also make it possible to control individual brains in ‘real time’, though surely the saintly scientists wouldn’t develop this technology in profitable but immoral directions. Stanford and MIT are pursuing patents and various scientists are preparing to fight over the rights to the technology.

    Science is a big business and subject to the same corruptions as big business in general. Unless scientists are moral saints who remain purer than their allies in the business and legal worlds as they battle over patent rights and prepare for multi-billion dollar stock offerings some day.

  7. Dan Says:

    Do you really believe that scientists are turned into moral giants by the process of studying brain structure or organic chemistry? Maybe we should just send our budding politicians and businessmen through such courses and we would solve many of our moral and social problems.

    Again, what’s with the hypothetical/non sequitur? Can you please just move this out of the realm of the abstract and unprovable, into areas of concrete examples? Or do you not have any examples on your mind to speak of?

    To answer your question about scientists violating their own guidelines, read “Adaptive Minds” by Gerd Gigerenzer, a German psychologist and statistics expert for examples of two scientists who marginalized or prevented from publishing for the crime of going against the mainstream beliefs of their field. One of them, John Garcia, flat-out proved that one of B.F. Skinner’s assumptions was wrong and couldn’t publish in major journals for 13 years.

    What does that have to do with stem cell guidelines???

    I didn’t even imply anything other than: scientists are no different from us.

    And yet, with examples involving non-scientists, we don’t go around infringing upon their ability to do their jobs without concrete examples of wrongdoing, do we?

  8. Joe Says:

    I guess in 1993 we were REALLY in a state of moral “decay”.

  9. Dan Says:

    Additional thought on the comment “I didn’t even imply anything other than: scientists are no different from us.”:

    Yet you speak of scientists as though they were not worthy of the trust that we endow accountants, businessmen and lawyers with everyday.

    And Joe is right, despite the increase in wrongdoing by our government in the last 7 years, our society is reducing its ills, not making them worse.


  10. […] All Scientists Evil? When I published the article What is Stem Cell Research Really About?, I got some feedback that indicated that I didn’t make my point clearly. One reader claimed I […]

  11. Loyd Fueston Says:

    I never said scientists deserve more or less trust than accountants, businessmen, or lawyers. I put all of us in the same boat and all activities which affect the public are subject to debate and criticism by all members of the public. I also am not interested in narrow issues of obeying professional ethics guidelines. I’m interested in the moral questions: Should we be developing the sorts of technologies which allow control over the human body? and Are we morally well-ordered to the extent where we can make such decisions which will reshape human society?

    Can I give examples of ethical abuses by stem cell researchers? Other than the case of Prof. Hwang in South Korea, no. It’s also a new field and there’s no reason to expect it will prove different in patterns of behavior from the new fields of the past. That requires a discussion of the moral failings by scientists in other fields and by the moral failings of non-scientists. You’re not interested in that discussion. Again, I ask: is there some reason to believe that scientists are morally pure or have ever been morally pure? Is there any reason to believe that scientists will act differently from other human beings when billion dollar startups can be seen?

    The more important issue is what sort of society do we wish to have? Read the books of Jacques Barzun (especially “From Dawn to Decadence”) or Hannah Arendt (especially “Eichmann in Jerusalem”, “The Origins of Totalitarianism”, and “The Life of the Mind”) for frightening views of where our society stands and what the long-term historical trends are. You’re not going to find many historical thinkers more knowledgeable or more profound than those two.

    Stem cell research isn’t an island isolated from the rest of human society, a law unto itself. Nor are stem cell researchers a new species of man, morally pure — or at least strict upholders of ethical rules. And my point in a prior response about the editing of the Hippocratic Oath in recent decades to eliminate the ban on doctors every performing abortions is that we modern human beings don’t honor any absolute values: we will change moral or ethical rules to suit our current needs.

    I think at this point, we can agree to differ but you should realize the differences are deep and moral and don’t revolve around technical issues of a positive ethics code or the short history of stem cell research, though as I noted above, that history does already include one major scandal.

  12. Dan Says:

    Can I give examples of ethical abuses by stem cell researchers? Other than the case of Prof. Hwang in South Korea, no.

    Exactly. Which makes the entire rest of your argument amount to a “what if” scenario, except that the Hwang case and your “growing babies” strawman are still grossly out of proportion. The former was an act of unprofessional data fabrication, and the latter would be an abomination.

    There’s no “agreeing to disagree,” there’s only the gross exaggeration that you’ve made in order to prop up a scandal of horrendous proportions that would never occur. You do know what a strawman argument is, don’t you?


  13. […] Legal/Ethical Flux A reader posted some objections to an article I posted about a week ago, “What is Stem Cell Research Really About?”. I tried to meet some of his objections but he insisted on certain types of details I didn’t […]


  14. […] being (including babies murdered years ago) as the means to the ends of other human beings. (See What is Stem Cell Research Really About and Are All Scientists Evil? and Human Cloning: Legal/Ethical Flux for such […]


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