Study their behaviors. Observe their territorial boundaries. Leave their habitat as you found it. Report any signs of intelligence.

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Sunday, November 25, 2007

When Technology Outraces Theology & Ethics

Pluripotent stem cells can now be generated from cells of the ordinary connective tissue of mature humans, according to forthcoming articles in Cell and Science. The Cell article's abstract reveals:
Successful reprogramming of differentiated human somatic cells into a pluripotent state would allow creation of patient- and disease-specific stem cells. We previously reported generation of induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells, capable of germline transmission, from mouse somatic cells by transduction of four defined transcription factors. Here, we demonstrate the generation of iPS cells from adult human dermal fibroblasts with the same four factors: Oct3/4, Sox2, Klf4, and c-Myc. Human iPS cells were similar to human embryonic stem (ES) cells in morphology, proliferation, surface antigens, gene expression, epigenetic status of pluripotent cell-specific genes, and telomerase activity. Furthermore, these cells could differentiate into cell types of the three germ layers in vitro and in teratomas. These findings demonstrate that iPS cells can be generated from adult human fibroblasts.
A development like this tempts one to poke fun yet again at certain religionists, but been there, done that. Reason's Ronald Baily links to his own pokings from 2004:
Is Heaven Populated Chiefly by the Souls of Embryos?

[B]etween 60 and 80 percent of all naturally conceived embryos are simply flushed out in women's normal menstrual flows unnoticed. This is not miscarriage we're talking about. The women and their husbands or partners never even know that conception has taken place; the embryos disappear from their wombs in their menstrual flows. About half of the embryos lost are abnormal, but half are not, and had they implanted they would probably have developed into healthy babies.

So millions of viable human embryos each year produced via normal conception fail to implant and never develop further. Does this mean America is suffering a veritable holocaust of innocent human life annihilated? Consider the claim made by right-to-life apologists like Robert George, a Princeton University professor of jurisprudence and a member of the President's Council on Bioethics, that every embryo is "already a human being." Does that mean that if we could detect such unimplanted embryos as they leave the womb, we would have a duty to rescue them and try to implant them anyway?

"If the embryo loss that accompanies natural procreation were the moral equivalent of infant death, then pregnancy would have to be regarded as a public health crisis of epidemic proportions: Alleviating natural embryo loss would be a more urgent moral cause than abortion, in vitro fertilization, and stem-cell research combined," declared Michael Sandel, a Harvard University government professor, also a member of the President's Council on Bioethics.

As far as I know, bioconservatives like Robert George do not advocate the rescue of naturally conceived unimplanted embryos. But why not? In right-to-life terms, normal unimplanted embryos are the moral equivalents of a 30-year-old mother of three children.

Of course, culturally we do not mourn the deaths of these millions of embryos as we would the death of a child—and reasonably so, because we do in fact know that these embryos are not people. Try this thought experiment. A fire breaks out in a fertility clinic and you have a choice: You can save a three-year-old child or a Petri dish containing 10 seven-day old embryos. Which do you choose to rescue?

Stepping onto dangerous theological ground, it seems that if human embryos consisting of one hundred cells or less are the moral equivalents of a normal adult, then religious believers must accept that such embryos share all of the attributes of a human being, including the possession of an immortal soul. So even if we generously exclude all of the naturally conceived abnormal embryos—presuming, for the sake of theological argument, that imperfections in their gene expression have somehow blocked the installation of a soul—that would still mean that perhaps 40 percent of all the residents of Heaven were never born, never developed brains, and never had thoughts, emotions, experiences, hopes, dreams, or desires.

But religious fundamentalists make too easy a target. In fact, modern science and prospective technology pose some fascinating ethical questions even for people whose worldview isn't derived from unsigned stories about an unpersuasive [Mt 11:20, Lk 10:13, Jn 6:66, 10:32, 12:37, 15:24] unpublished slavery-tolerating genocide-affirming [Mt 24:38, Lk 17:27] exclusivist [Mt 10:5, Mt 15:24] family-resenting [Mk 3:33, 10:29; Mt 10:37, 12:48, 19:29; Lk 11:27-28, 14:26] apparently-illegitimate [Mt 1:18-24, Jn 8:41] carpenter.

Skipping past the obvious examples regarding intellectual property and cloning, here is a sampling of other prospective technologies and the ethical questions they raise:
  • Corporate data-sharing and massive open-content community-maintained databases
    • What are a private citizen's reasonable expectations of privacy against other people sharing what they know about the person?
  • Photo-realistic computer-generated reality
    • Is child pornography always evidence of a crime?
    • Can recordings be trusted in court as evidence?
  • Miniaturized ubiquitous hi-capacity recording (ultimately, smart dust)
    • What are a private citizen's reasonable expectations of privacy against being recorded in public spaces?
    • For how long can those in power escape sousveillance?
  • Artificial wombs
    • Can abortion be tolerated when the fetus or embryo can easily be saved?
  • Cultured meat
    • Will killing animals for food be allowed when perfect meat can be grown artificially?
    • Will vegetarians eat cultured meat?
  • Virtual reality and designer psychotropics
    • As the cost of pleasure plummets while its intensity and realism skyrockets and its biochemical (as opposed to psychological) addictiveness declines, will it be a good or bad thing that so many people will be largely opting out of the traditional matter/energy economy?
  • Mass-production of persons (through any combination of AI, nanotech, and biotech)
    • How do inter-generational, inter-family, and international ethical relations deal with nearly-arbitrary potential increases in population?
For more such questions, see the (shockingly good) Metaphysics of Star Trek by Richard Hanley. My speculations on many of these topics are at

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