August 8, 2016
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It’s Monday, August 8, 2016. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
Will our brave new world include human-animal chimeras? NIH proposal erases ethical lines
Are chimeras now in our future? The headline as we went into the weekend in the New York Times was this:
“N.I.H. May Fund Human-Animal Stem Cell Research.”Show Full Transcript
Reporter Gina Kolata, one of the most informed science reporters of our time tells us that,
“The National Institutes of Health announced on Thursday that it was planning to lift its ban on funding some research that injects human stem cells into animal embryos.”
This is indeed the creation of a chimera. That word comes from the ancient Greek in mythology in which there was a combination of human and animal. We now know that this is no longer just a matter of ancient mythology, nor even a futuristic science fiction. It’s now the matter of our experimental present. There are huge dangers here. For one thing, we need to keep in mind just what we’re talking about. We’re talking about combining the DNA of animals and human beings. Now someone might respond, “Well, that’s been done to some extent for a number of years now.” Yes, but not in the creation of an embryo. Kolata goes on to report,
“The purpose is to try to grow human tissues or organs in animals to better understand human diseases and develop therapies to treat them.”
Researchers, as she said,
“have long been putting human cells into animals — like pieces of human tumors in mice to test drugs that might destroy the tumors — but stem cell research is fundamentally different. The stem cells are put into developing embryos where they can become any cells, like those in organs, blood and bone.”
She then summarizes,
“If the funding ban is lifted, it could help patients by, for example, encouraging research in which a pig grows a human kidney for a transplant.”
Now let’s understand that there is huge promise here when it comes to the fact that we face a shortage of organs and any number of other medical needs, needs that just might be met by this kind of experimental science. But here’s where the Christian has to understand that science never comes without ethical and moral obligations. We’re talking here about the deliberate creation of a creature which has never existed before. Of course, even as NIH announced that its federal ban on this kind of funding might be lifted, it immediately followed that with assurances that all kinds of ethical dangers and complications can be faced and overcome. For one thing, we were told there are assurances that there will be no creature allowed to be fully developed who would be a combination of human and animal DNA. We are also being told here that human DNA cannot be put into embryonic animals in order that those animals might develop with something like, for example, a mixture of human intelligence.
But even as we are given these assurances, we need to recognize two profound things. First of all, the assurances were understood to be necessary—in other words, these are not abstract dangers. And secondly, we need to understand that the history of science demonstrates that every time we are told that this particular boundary will be drawn and not crossed, it is very shortly crossed, if not here then elsewhere.
Now as we were looking in recent months at the so-called CRISPR genetic modification technology, we see the same kinds of ethical issues. It’s not exactly the same technology, but it raises many of the same concerns. We’re looking here at the deliberate manipulation and modification of the human genome, the basic human genetic structure, and when it comes to this particular research, Gina Kolata gets it just right when she writes,
“But the very idea of a human-animal mix can be chilling, and will not meet with universal acceptance.”
That’s a journalistic understatement to be sure. Continuing Kolata wrote,
“In particular, when human cells injected into an animal embryo develop in part of that animal’s brain, difficult questions arise, said Paul Knoepfler, a stem cell researcher at the University of California, Davis”
Professor Knoepfler also said,
“There’s no clear dividing line because we lack an understanding of at what point humanization of an animal brain could lead to more humanlike thought or consciousness.”
Now this was the New York Times. We’re talking about language that would’ve been unimaginable a matter of years ago and would have been considered so outlandish it would have been consigned to science fiction, and for that matter the most speculative sort. But now we have an actual stem cell researcher at the University of California, Davis, warning the New York Times that, in his words,
“There is no clear dividing line.”
And why? Because we lack an understanding of at what point the humanization of an animal brain—just consider that language, “humanization of an animal brain”—could lead to,
“More humanlike thought or consciousness.”
Kolata also cited Jeffrey P. Kahn, who is the director of the Johns Hopkins University Berman Institute of Bioethics. Professor Kahn pointed to two looming ethical issues,
“One is to decide if there is a fundamental difference between adding DNA from one species into another — the technology used to produce genetically modified foods — and putting human cells into an animal.”
Kolata then writes,
“Many people can accept genetically modified organisms, but would a human-animal chimera eventually become acceptable? After all, Dr. Kahn said, in both cases, you could say ‘it’s just DNA.’”
That is one of those arguments we’re certainly going to hear, it’s just DNA, but remember what’s now just DNA can become a living creature tomorrow. Kahn then mentioned his second big bioethical concern, raising the question,
“If it is O.K. to put human cells into an animal, why does it seem clearly wrong to put animal cells into a human? As more and more human cells are added to an animal, at what point is the result different from adding more and more animal cells to a human embryo?”
The massively important question at the center of this was then raised by Kahn when he asked,
“What are we doing when we are mixing the traits of two species? What makes us human? Is it having 51 percent human cells?”
Kahn says that the questions he just asked are,
“Part of what make people react to this issue.”
Well, react is right and to this issue in particular. The two announcements that are related to this technology that came from the National Institutes of Health this past week remind us that we are living in a generation facing questions no previous generation has ever confronted. And this includes the huge question from a Christian theological and biblical worldview of whether or not we can actually say no to any scientific proposal or to any technology. One of the interesting things behind this is that, of course, there is huge money to be made in these new technologies. If there were to be the possibility of creating a new line of donor organs that wouldn’t have to come from human beings, but rather from genetically modified animals, there would be a massive good in that, morally speaking, but there would also be a massive opportunity for multibillion-dollar profits. One of the arguments that comes thereafter is this: if it won’t be done here, it will be done elsewhere. After all, the National Institutes of Health is the national endowment in terms of health science research for the United States of America.
The announcement that was made by the NIH has absolutely nothing to do with whether or not this research might be conducted or even funded somewhere else. That is an argument that is being used over and over again. It was used in the argument about 20 years ago when we first faced the prospect of a lot of this genetic modification and even the question of human cloning. We were told that it was inevitable and if it were not allowed here—and here you can hear the argument coming—under the adequate supervision of medical and ethical and scientific authorities here, then it will be done elsewhere. And who knows what kind of ethical boundaries will be crossed then? That’s the kind of argument that amounts to a kind of ethical coercion. It’s the suggestion that if we do not do something which might be truly immoral here, but do it carefully, it will be done both with an immoral end and an immoral means somewhere else.
By the way, the current August issue of National Geographic magazine features a cover story entitled,
“The DNA revolution. With new gene editing technologies we can transform life,” says the magazine.
But then it asked the question,
“But should we?”
Inside the magazine I read,
“In February of this year, U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper warned in his annual report to the Senate that technologies like CRISPR,” (that is the genetic modification technology we mentioned earlier), “ought to be regarded as possible weapons of mass destruction.”
So now we are outside the boundaries of the kind of medical research that was in the NIH proposal as we went into the weekend. Now we are being told by none other than the Director of National Intelligence of the United States that some of these genetic technologies could be weaponized or,
“Regarded as possible weapons of mass destruction.”
If a genetic modification technology, we are warned by the U.S. director of intelligence, could be weaponized, that tells us a great deal about the ethical complications we face. From a Christian worldview perspective the most important issue here, the central and unavoidable issue, is what it means to be human. Remember that Dr. Kahn asked the question,
“Does being human mean that we have just 51 percent of our DNA made up of human DNA?”
That can’t possibly be the answer. The biblical worldview reminds us that human beings are made in the image of God—the only creature made in the image of God—and human beings are distinct precisely because we are created in God’s image with a spiritual capacity that is not found in any other animal. The NIH announced that it will wait 30 days for public comment before finalizing its policy. Remember this: when this kind of box is opened, it can never be closed.
The misplaced trust of Scientism and the dangers of Neil deGrasse Tyson's "Rationalia"
Next, we shift to the danger of the worldview of Scientism. This is a worldview that emerged in the last century or so, and this worldview is defined by the fact that the ultimate authority for all knowledge, the singular means that is identified as the proper means of knowledge, is experimental science. The background of that is an infinite trust in human rationality. During the month of July, this became something of an issue with a tweet that was announced by Neil deGrasse Tyson. Tyson is very well known as an astronomer and also for his worldview. He is, like Richard Dawkins and so many others, an avid anti-theist, and he has made that abundantly clear in his well-publicized and popular appearances on television. But as National Review magazine reported, Tyson took the lead recently with his call for what he defined as a virtual country that he named Rationalia. That is a polity,
“with a one-sentence constitution: ‘All policy shall be based on the weight of evidence.’”
As National Review declared, the foolishness here is on a scale that an astrophysicist can appreciate, especially if that astrophysicist hasn’t read much history, such as that of the attempts to establish something very much like Rationalia in revolutionary France. As they explain—
“Short version: it ends with the reign of terror.”
National Review went on to comment,
“The idea that societies can be managed scientifically and hence liberated from politics is an old one and one without a very happy pedigree. The so-called scientific socialism of the 20th century produced horrors that were, at least in terms of gross body counts, the worst in human record, with at least 100 million dead.”
Now, as we’re looking at this particular argument, this is consistent with Neil deGrasse Tyson and the kinds of arguments he’s made before. Tyson is not just a scientist, he is an absolute representative of the worldview of Scientism. He wants to eliminate every other form of knowledge, every other intellectual authority. At the center of this of course is the repudiation and complete replacement of the Christian worldview. But not just that, as professors in the humanities and even in the softer, so-called social sciences recognize, Neil deGrasse Tyson really doesn’t want much to do with them either. As he sees it, everything important to be known can be known merely by experimental science. And he really means astrophysics.
National Review was absolutely right to point to the French Revolution as an example of just how badly this idea goes. The French Revolution explicitly repudiated Christianity and even the revolutionaries entered Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris and replaced the statuary there with a statue of the goddess Reason, establishing reason and human rationality as the ultimate human idol. Of course, just as the magazine argues, that was a colossal disaster in human terms followed in the 20th century by even greater disasters in terms of the number of dead.
One of the most important correctives to Neil deGrasse Tyson’s argument actually appeared in the magazine Popular Science. Kelsey D. Atherton wrote,
“Science is a beautiful, wonderful, fascinating, illuminating process. We at Popular Science wouldn’t be in this business if we didn’t love science. Which is why it’s painful to see Neil deGrasse Tyson, who does a great job at explaining plainly the beauty of science, suggest a science-inspired form of government that would lead to vast human suffering and stifle the progress of knowledge.”
The magazine goes on the cite Tyson’s form of government proposed as Rationalia, and then they say that
“Tyson is not advocating for a return to the days of phrenology when generally accepted science was used to support racist agendas.”
The point there being made by Popular Science is that science is whatever scientists declare it to be at the time. If you went back to previous decades, something like racist science would be mainstream science. If you went to Hitler’s Germany during World War II and even in the years preceding, the scientists there would have defined science also in racialist terms. If you go to other eras, you will see that in the United States similar things happened with the so-called science of eugenics. And here we’re not talking about hundreds of years ago; we’re talking about the early and middle decades of the 20th century. We’re talking about that which is argued as coming with a scientific authority but is quickly replaced by subsequent claims of even greater scientific authority. As a matter of fact, virtually everything that has been believed at one time or another has been argued by someone who has claimed the mantle of a scientist.
Atherton at Popular Science then writes,
“Science is not a window into a perfectly rational world. It is, instead, an ever-evolving tool used by humans to better understand the world around them, and a method for other humans to replicate the same work, so they see if the original findings hold true.”
That’s an amazing and very important statement of the humility of science. That’s a very clear statement of what a scientist should think in terms of imagining the scientific responsibility—both the glory of it and the limits of it. Atherton then writes a very important paragraph which should be affirmed by anyone holding to the Christian worldview. He writes,
“In a hypothetical world where a single person (let’s call him “Neil”) decided policy based on precisely measuring the weight of evidence, how that person selected evidence would matter a great deal, and would likely come down to values.”
We would just change it slightly to say, “and would always come down to worldview.” There is no such thing as “Science.” On the one hand, it’s merely a method. But that method is conducted by human beings. There are indeed scientists; there is no such body of knowledge that can simply be identified as “Science.” When science is declared to be either the solitary or the supreme form of knowledge, then it leads to human disaster. At this point Rationalia as an idea and as a fictional country exists only in the mind of Neil deGrasse Tyson. We have to hope for human flourishing that that’s where it stays.
Inconvenient truth: If science proved life begins at conception, this abortion activist wouldn't care
Next, sometimes we need people who tell us that if something can only be demonstrated by science they would believe it, they would accept the scientific authority having denied any kind of moral argument. We find this often in the issue of abortion and in the question of when human life begins. That’s what makes a recent story at Life News so important. Micaiah Bilger writes about an abortion activist who said she doesn’t care now if science says life starts at conception, she will still support abortion. Bilger writes,
“The president of a national pro-abortion group shocked a radio host this week when she admitted that she would still support abortion if science proves that life begins at conception.
“Terri O’Neill, president of the National Organization for Women (NOW), was a guest on KIRO Radio host Jason Rantz’s show this week in Seattle, Washington. When Rantz asked O’Neill about abortion and the beginning of life, she replied that no matter what science proves, she still will support abortion.”
The radio host was apparently shocked by how O’Neill responded to the question. Eventually, when pressed that if science determined that life began at conception would she still support abortion rights, O’Neill said,
“I don’t care. Of course I would support abortion.”
But later in the same appearance she made this astounding claim,
“Take religion out of it and we’re not even having this conversation.”
According to the reporter, O’Neill noted that religious motivations are,
“What largely contribute to the abortion debate.”
Well, that’s absolutely true and as a matter of fact, if you take Christianity out of it, if you take theism out of it, if you take the creation of human beings out of it, if you take the fact that human beings are made in the image of God out of it, we are increasingly hard-pressed in this secular society to define what makes a human being special. Just consider the announcement that came from the NIH we covered already. But this is what makes this story even more important than may first appear, because in this case the head of the National Organization for Women says that the entire abortion controversy is really because Christians won’t let it go. “If you take religion out of it”, she says, “the issue goes away.”
That means that she is presumably arguing that science is the only authoritative means of knowledge. This is an argument that has been made by pro-abortion advocates going back long before Roe v. Wade. They have been arguing that all of the arguments concerning abortion should be limited merely to matters of medical science. This was actually one of the arguments that was made by Justice Harry Blackman in his majority opinion in the Roe v. Wade decision. There’s the importance. When this radio host asked what would happen if indeed science demonstrated that life begins at conception, this abortion advocate went on to say she would still support abortion anyway.
So on the one hand you have the demand that everything be reduced to science, but then if we are told even hypothetically that science might make abortion itself clearly the murder of a human being, she would still be for it. What does that tell us? Well, it tells us that religion can be used in more than one way. You can tell us that there are those whose religion is abortion and a woman’s right to abort for any reason or no reason at any time or at any stage of pregnancy is that religion’s constant and unequivocal creed.
Should we floss? The (not so) surprising scientific discord surrounding dental hygeine
Finally, one little somewhat humorous, perhaps frustrating illustration about how science changes sometimes quite subtly and quietly. Just consider the fact that the latest health advisement coming out from the Department of Agriculture and also Health and Human Services, as the New York Times report,
“Quietly dropped any mention of flossing without notice.”
Well it eventually caught the attention of Associated Press that found out that the reason these government agencies dropped the recommendation concerning flossing is because their own scientists came to the conclusion that there’s no scientific argument for flossing making any real difference.
Now before you put the floss away, just keep in mind that this kind of argument coming from this kind of authority comes over and over again. We’re supposed to have more sugar; maybe then less sugar. We have too much salt; no, wait just a minute, that wasn’t actually right. We’re being told to follow this dietary advice and then the other dietary advice. We’re told that babies should have only this; next we’re told they should never have that very same thing.
Oh and by the way, when this kind of so-called science becomes a matter of debate, it really sometimes gets both interesting and humorous. In this case, the American Dental Association responded to the federal government’s dropping of flossing by saying that it was premature and that it was based on—you got it—weak science. Even though they can’t produce the science saying that flossing really matters, they said that the scientific studies cited by the government probably were undertaken by people who didn’t know how to floss.
Frankly, I think I’ll still stay with the advice of the American Dental Association, but it is interesting that the federal government decided to drop it, once again, because there isn’t an adequate scientific authority. But Christians here also understand, all humor aside, that this could be a serious issue, pointing in terms of worldview significance to this: on some issues, plain, common sense trumps the authority of science. You really don’t need a scientific report to know whether or not good dental hygiene is important. If you’ve got to have a scientific report yay or nay on something like this, you probably have too much time on your hands. But we also need to understand more importantly that science simply can’t, as an authority, bear the weight of the biggest questions of life. That can come only by a higher authority. And in the Christian worldview, that higher authority is clearly understood to be not creation, but rather the Creator.