Monday, August 27, 2007

Boundary of the human

I am back in the US for the beginning of the academic year, with soaring temperatures, subtropical thunderstorms, and the occasional hurricane cruising across the Caribbean.

American academia looks increasingly like an embattled citadel, bracing to endure one more siege from the religious nuts who rule the country. Everything, from college textbooks proposing a Christian approach to linear algebra down to creepy creationism, contributes to the impression that the walls of the fortress of reason are crumbling. As in an old Hollywood movie, the name of the game seems to be to hold back the assailants until either Barak Obama or Hillary Rodham will come to the rescue. This not being quite a Hollywood movie, chances appear to be slim.

If in the past many American intellectual have brushed off the danger of a serious infringement of religion into the territory of higher education as a mere fringe phenomenon, now they are starting to pay attention. Finally, several scientists this side of the ocean are coming up with carefully written books addressed to a general audience of intellectually savvy Americans, as a wake up call of a very real danger.

One of the best picks is the book "Challenging Nature" by Princeton University molecular biologist Lee Silver. The book aims at two very different targets.

On the one hands he systematically attacks the Christian fundamentalist organized campaign against stem cell research and the ideological fallacies that are used by the pro-life campaigners to instill in the general public the idea of a magical "ensoulment" of embryos and clear-cut distinction between the human and the non-human. Silver uses an array of significantly chosen examples, illustrating the comtinuum that connects teratoma tumors, parasitic limbs, conjoined twins, and normal human beings. Another interesting example is the effect of surgical excision of the corpus callosum in the brain that effectively creates two separate minds inside the same body. All this illustrates how our mythological concept of a single and indivisible human body and mind (the human soul of religious beliefs) does not stand close scrutiny.

The problem is that the major world religions are a construction that is a cultural byproduct of civilizations that are thousands, or at best hundreds, of years old. The vision of the world that they portray is too far remote from the world as we finally discovered it to be. Needless to say, when science and human civilization finally progressed to the point that we can actually find an answer to some of the "big questions" that tormented our ancestors, we find that the answer and far more complex and interesting than what the imagination of our forefathers have made them up to be in their legends and myths. There are two possible answers. One can either deal with the world as it really is, learn about it and appreciate the marvels it offers, or one can shut one's eyes and continue with the pretend game, dealing with a non-existent reality of a fictional world as one's inherited prejudices would expect it to be like. The second option would be easy to call off as absurd, if it weren't for its recently acquired habit of camouflage. Especially in the US, religious nonsense has taken a habit of dressing itself up in pseudo-scientific jargon. It is a defense mechanism, aimed at tricking an otherwise reasonably intelligent (but not scientifically trained) audience into believing that they do actually have evidence to support their claims, or even better, to instill the doubt about the evidence accumulated by science to support our modern world view and make it look as shaky as the religious alternative they are trying to sell. This is where the real danger lies and this is why scientists can no longer be silent.

The examples chosen and discussed by Silver have a disturbing quality to them: the technically feasible thought experiments of headless human bodies grown as organ supplies or of animals genetically engineered to contain purely human organs do provoke an emotional response in the reader, which is exactly what Silver is trying to outline. Our emotions also are the product of an evolutionary process that enhanced our genes chances of transmission. This process took place in a prescientific world, where the fear of mutant "monsters" and a certain sense for the sacred nature of the human body had survival value. Inevitably our emotional responses as well as our ingrained beliefs are in stark contrast with what our scientific knowledge of nature has taught us in far more recent times. The contrast between our primitive mind and our rational knowledge is at the center of all the controversies surrounding the impact on society of modern biotechnologies.

Another target of Silver's book is a different sort of spiritual believes, often considered to be more "benign" that the Christian (and other) religious fundamentalism, but not any less irrational and anti-scientific. Since the time of the counterculture of the '60s, left-wing political movements around the world (but especially in Western Europe and in North America) adopted as part of their cultural identity a certain vein of spirituality, which emerged in the form of various New Age movements. The main theme is the existence of an all pervading "spirit" of nature (often perceived as a modern revival of an ancient feminine Mother goddess) that encompasses all living things. The growing movement supporting "organic foods" and "alternative medicine" is a byproduct of this general attitude.

Silver takes a close look at some of these claims about the "organic" nature of certain agricultural and farming practices and exposes detrimental effects on the environment far greater than those caused by more scientific and biotechnology enhanced methods. The roots of the "natural food" movement are traced back to Rudolph Steiner and his theosophical religious/spiritual movements, with its misappropriation and gross misunderstanding of modern science. Once again, the author exposes many instances of the use of pseudo-scientific jargon adopted to the purpose of covering up an underlying religious agenda. The author gives a good warning about the dangers of traditional medicine as opposed to the strict testing procedures and regulations adopted for the introduction on the market of officially approved drugs.

The theme of what it means to be a human being, and the fact that the advancement of technology makes it more and more difficult to devise a clear cut boundary, is an especially important component of the philosophy of out times. We are moving at the boundary of the human without being able to define where the boundary lies. It surfaces in our fictional imagination. I have already attempted to discuss this theme by looking at some of the recurrent mythologies from the human/machine interface problem to the literary role of the "mutant" as a human/not-quite-human hybrid. Silver approaches this issue from the point of view of contemporary existing biotechnology, not from the fictional literary viewpoint, and it is in that even more striking and convincing. The philosophical implications are deep and important and, most of all, it is clear they require developing a way of thinking and a sensitivity which is fully in tune with the world as science allows us to know it, and not through the distorting lenses of old preconceived ideas and prejudices that bear no relevance on the subject matter.