We are all living on a slippery slope. I read that assisted suicide, while still illegal, is gradually becoming acceptable. It will soon be so customary that legislation in its favour will pass through on the nod. The champions of the embryonic stem cell maintain that the potential benefits from this line of research outweigh the ethical problems caused by the production and extermination of embryos. This utilitarian argument pitches the interests of the embryo against the possibility of, say, finding a cure for Parkinson’s disease. Since the embryo is regarded as not yet a human being, and thus has no human rights, it is, in their view, no contest.
Ethics in our society, particularly those concerned with human life, have changed considerably. This is a step-by-step process which enables substantial ethical change to accumulate through a series of what appear at the time to be minor changes. So I was interested in an article in Wired magazine which listed seven experiments which could lead to very valuable information. All these experiments would be regarded today as unethical. But I wonder how many of them will be regarded as common sense in a generation or two’s time. I will only give four examples here, but Secondsightblog.net will give you a link to all seven.
A current method of discerning which human characteristics are attributable to genes is through studies of identical twins. When the twins are, for whatever reason, separated at birth and brought up in different circumstances, good information on the effects of nature over nurture can be made. But this is only approximate since the effects of upbringing are multiple and so liable to confuse results. If only we were able to split pairs of twins with identical genes and bring them both up in strictly controlled environments, our measurements would be much more accurate and yield much more useful information on the effects both of genes and of different types of upbringing.
But babies in the womb have already started the process of growing up, and various features of their environment are known to make a difference. For instance, obese mothers tend to produce obese children and anxious mothers tend to produce anxious children. The mother’s diet can affect the child, and the hazards of smoking and drinking alcohol are broadly known. But again the knowledge is neither complete nor exact. What we require is womb swapping. If we were to take the embryo (fertilised in vitro) from an obese woman and implant it in the womb of a slim woman – and vice versa – we could establish whether obesity in the child is related to the genes or to the diet of the pregnant woman. It might not be easy to persuade women to swap their babies but I am sure that a little silver crossing palms would bring forward volunteers. And think of the benefits to thousands of future children.
A big need in genetic research is to discover precisely how cells work in the brain. Although great advances have been made, we are only at the threshold of understanding. Currently it is possible to turn mouse brain cells off and on by giving them a harmless virus which makes the switching mechanism susceptible to light. By beaming through fibre optic wires, scientists can change the firing rate of specific cells and watch the effects. But that is only mice. The human brain is far more interesting. Might we, for example, track down the phenomenon of self-consciousness? As the effects are reversible no one could possibly object to having their brain cells manipulated by a benign scientist.
So far we have only been playing about with the periphery. We have good genetic evidence that we have interbred with Neanderthals, and it is probable that some human groups have interbred with Denisovans, who are an Asian variety. And fascinating studies on fossils from possible antecedents of man, dating back two million years, have recently been published. But what we really need to do is to experiment by cross-breeding humans with chimpanzees.
We know the main areas of genetic change since our lines split, but to be able to examine a half-human, half-chimpanzee would tell us a great deal about the difference between the two species. And of course that knowledge could well bring invaluable advantages to us in the future.
Other possible experiments, which I do not detail here, cover ground such as far more testing of various chemicals and drugs on human beings. Then there is the possibility of treating one embryo as a scientific experiment, using fluorescent tracking genes to see exactly how stem cells turn into specialist adult cells. And we would be much helped by being able to extract and analyse samples of the brain.
I think it would interesting to think up other possible experiments which could provide benefits. My first suggestion was to develop hermaphrodites – if only to see what hoops that presents for moral theologians to wiggle through. But I am already too late: “Sperm cells have been created from a female human embryo in a remarkable breakthrough that suggests it may be possible for lesbian couples to have their own biological children,” wrote Roger Highfield in the Independent on September 13. You couldn’t make it up, could you?
Link to Wired magazine: