Embryo Research Bill

At last Gordon Brown has found his way out of the ridiculous political cul-de-sac he had wandered into with regard to this embryo legislation.  A few thoughts on the ethics and politics of the issue.

First, I think we can all agree that the debate has been clouded by hyperbole and hysteria.  The legislation as it stands does not give scientists license to create their own little Island of Dr Moreau.  As I understand it, human genetic material is not being spliced with other species to create Greek-style chimeras.  Instead, it is proposed that human DNA will be inserted into animal cells, which are free of that animal’s genetic material.

I think it is important to make the distinction between two scientific-moral considerations here. The first concerns the identity of a set of genes: whether it is morally permissible for scientists to alter that gene, and whether its identity changes when they do. The second consideration is how the gene (regardless of whether scientists have altered its sequence or not) is allowed to develop, and for how long.

A cell is made up of many things.  In addition to DNA genes there are mitochondira and other structures which allow the cell to produce energy and function properly.  But we know that it is in the DNA that the potential for life is stored.  Genes are the instructions for life, while other matter inside the cells are tools for releasing that potential.  It is only in the DNA that identity rests, and that identity will remain regardless of where it is placed. So it seems to me that the current ethical controversy falls into the second category described above.

I think the animal cell is a sort of ‘surrogate’ that bears a similar relationship to the duplicating genes as a surrogate mother would to a baby that she carries.  Although a surrogate mother is essential for the development of the foetus into a baby, the instructions by which the baby grows are supplied from elsewhere.  The genetic link between the biological mother, father and child remains unchanged.  Likewise with this proposed microbiological technique:  The genetic link remains secure. Scientists are not ‘playing God’ by altering genetic material. Like surrogacy, all we are doing is allowing existing genetic material to grow in a new environment. If it can lead to medical breakthroughs in cancer treatment or Altzheimers, then it should be allowed.

Of course, “it’s just a surrogate” has moral limits too.  My stomach would turn at the thought of allowing such cells to develop into a foetus or a child, just as it would if someone were able to grow a human baby inside a non-human surrogate (say, an organgutang or a Huxley-esque vat of goo). Future ethicists may not be so squeamish.

Bride of Funes

Today’s Metro reports on a woman who can remember every detail of her life. Like many things in the Metro, its recycled news, in this case at least a couple of years old. Nevertheless, its a captivating story, reminiscent of Jorge Luis Borges Funes the Memorius:

We, in a glance, perceive three wine glasses on the table; Funes saw all the shoots, clusters, and grapes of the vine. He remembered the shapes of the clouds in the south at dawn on the 30th of April of 1882, and he could compare them in his recollection with the marbled grain in the design of a leather-bound book which he had seen only once, and with the lines in the spray which an oar raised in the Rio Negro on the eve of the battle of the Quebracho. These recollections were not simple; each visual image was linked to muscular sensations, thermal sensations, etc. He could reconstruct all his dreams, all his fancies. Two or three times he had reconstructed an entire day. He told me: “I have more memories in myself alone than all men have had since the world was a world.” And again: “My dreams are like your vigils.” And again, toward dawn: “My memory, sir, is like a garbage disposal.”

Forgetfulness is sometimes a blessing.

Shoot for the Moon

Here are two responses to the Apollo moon landings. First, Richard Nixon’s famous address on the optimism that the moon landings inspired:

Because of what you have done, the heavens have become a part of man’s world. As you talk to us from the Sea of Tranquility, it inspires us to redouble our efforts to bring peace and tranquility to Earth. For one priceless moment, in the whole history of man, all the people on this Earth are truly one.

The moon landings are probably the foremost example of what can be achieved when humans endeavour to co-operate. It is a story that has everything: from the insights of Gallileo and Newton; the imagination of Jules Verne; to the Leadership of Kennedy; to the bravery of Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins; to the scholarship at MIT that built the computer guidance systems on the Apollo craft; to quick thinking of Jack Garman and Steve Bales, who made a correct, key decision regarding some obscure computer error codes, as Neil Armstrong’s Eagle hovered over the moon’s surface.

However, the poet Gil Scott-Heron was not impressed. He penned this indignant plea to spend the money on something different:

Was all that money I made las’ year
(for Whitey on the moon?)
How come there ain’t no money here?
(Hmm! Whitey’s on the moon)
Y’know I jus’ ’bout had my fill
(of Whitey on the moon)
I think I’ll sen’ these doctor bills,
Airmail special
(to Whitey on the moon)

While it is surely worth a few billion dollars to bring mankind together as one, it is a lofty and imprecise ideal. Scott-Heron’s words ring in the ears, and anyone who is eager to journey back to the moon in our lifetime, or perhaps even to Mars, will have to justify the expense.

As I have said before, I begin with the idea that if one is going to design and build rockets, it would be more satisfying if we were to put astronauts in them, rather than nuclear warheads. It would also be more exciting, and (I think) more healthy for the collective human psyche. Spending several billions on “an ego trip” (as Bob Marley sang it), is a reprehensible thing when compared to the need for schools, a health system here in the UK, or AIDS medicines and mosquito nets in Africa. But compared to Trident, which is designed for the singular purpose of destruction, it is easier to argue that it would be money well spent.

Cancelling Trident and creating a bona fide British Space Programme would surely be an easy task, since the skills required for one project are easily transferred to the other. There is a place for rocket scientists and computer guidance systems engineers. And surely submariners would make perfect astronauts, accustomed as they are to spending long periods of time sealed in claustrophobic capsules?

Supporters of the nuclear deterrent remind us that for Britain to maintain an influence on the international arena, we need to be members of the nuclear ‘club’. Much of the argument is over what strategic advantage the submarines give us (if any), and whether it is relevant when our arsenal is dwarfed by that of the United States. Clearly if we were to cancel Trident in favour of a space programme, that programme would fare better politically and economically if it had some strategic importance too. Indeed, although the American’s cited the noble causes of ‘discovery’ and ‘wonder’ as the justification for their Apollo Programmes, the scientific and military imperatives were just as strong – As were the propaganda benefits.

One strategic project could be a replacement for the Galileo Project, the European satellite-navigation system that intended to rival the USA’s Global Positioning Satellites. The Galileo Project is in crisis, and it needs to be either replaced or reinvigorated. OK, so it is not quite an Apollo Mission… but the creation of a strategic technology that can be used in peace-time as well as war, seems to be a more imaginative side-step for a country like Britain, and certainly a better use of our rocket fuel. Once we’ve succeeded in that arena, we can set our sights higher, to the stars.

Earthrise, as seen by Apollo 15

In The Shadow of the Moon

One of the reasons for being at the various Edinburgh festivals is the opportunity to get ahead of the ‘curve’ on films, plays and actors that are destined to become successful in the coming year. I saw Murderball before everyone else, and it was festival audiences who provided a seal of approval for Black Watch before it went on a lengthy tour of Scotland, England, and television.

This year the gem was In the Shadow of the Moon, a documentary about the Apollo Project. It was actually made by a British film-maker, but features interviews with several of the astronauts who journeyed to the moon. It also includes some newly-released and restored NASA footage of the voyages. It is due for release in the US where it is set to be a success, one which encourages a little bit of patriotism in a country that has been hit with a bout of Iraq-induced self-doubt.

Noticeable by his absence from the film is Neil Armstrong, who is a notorious recluse. This is annoying at first, but when one ponders the enormity of what he did, I think it is an unsurprising result. Who could resist grabbing him by the collar and shouting “MAN, YOU WALKED ON THE FUCKING MOON!” He has probably been subjected to that kind of hysteria for many years.

And in retrospect, Armstrong’s non-participation is a blessing, in that it gives the other Apollo astronauts a chance to shine (no pun intended). Michael Collins, in particular, explodes the notion that he was somehow “unlucky” to be left on the Command Module while Armstrong and Aldrin made history. The intelligent musings of Collins and the other astronauts on the nature of their heroism and how they dealt with the enormous pressure to succeed is what makes the film so inspiring – After all, they have experienced the nearest thing to a Total Perspective Vortex that humans can create, and the footage they brought back from the moon is a delight to behold, especially on a large cinema screen.

My favourite quote is from Alan Bean, the fourth man on the moon.

Now, I never complain about the weather. I am just glad that there is weather.

Though the funniest is Charlie Duke’s once-and-for-all put down to conspiracy theorists:

We went to the moon nine times. Why would we fake it nine times?

He has a southern drawl that makes it work. Wise, yet human.

Astronaut Edwin 'Buzz' Aldrin walks on the Moon, 1969.
Astronaut Edwin 'Buzz' Aldrin walks on the Moon, 1969.

Blast off

Hooray! We’re off to the moon. UK scientists are working on the deisgn of a moon lander that would also be used on Mars missions.

It seems to me that if we are to spend billions of pounds on firing rockets into the air, how much better it would be if they flew off to the moon or Mars, in a spirit of discovery and exploration. Instead we develop rockets designed to vapourise hundreds of thousands of people. We are a very silly species.

Of course, supporters of Trident cite the unreliable regimes of North Korea and Iran as proof that we need to maintain a deterrent. But I reckon a trip to the moon would be better than a deterrent – it would be a demoraliser. Can you imagine a bigger “fuck you” to send to Ahmadinejad, than an YouTube message from the moon?

As an incentive, countries that disarm would be offered a seat on the spaceship. The sight of your country’s flag, billowing in the vacuum by means of a support wire. What could bring greater glory to your land and people?

Your Country Flag Here

Floating ball in the cosmos

A reader named Ray Storer makes a popular yet pertinent point over at the BBC NEWS Have Your Say pages:

Our common values are; We’re all human: All living on the same floating ball in the cosmos and if we don’t learn to get along with one another then the consequences will be our own doing or undoing.

Whenever a news programme brings us tidings from elsewhere in the world, they invariably begin with a map showing where they are reporting. The BBC uses a globe, which spins around from the Greenwhich Meridian, then zooms in on the flash-point of the moment (sometimes it spins the wrong way, but we can forgive that). During the Lebanon crisis, I felt there was something very disconcerting, about being reminded that we are marooned on ball of rock, immediately before watching images of the house-by-house destruction. Watching the tragic images of war in close-up, one gets lost in the complexity of the situation, and the grievances of both sides. However, the image of the globe, in all its enormous, lonely glory, streches our perspective, and we begin to look like a bunch of Liliputians.

Douglas Adams and his Hitch-hikers Guide to the Galaxy trilogy. Terry Pratchett and his Discworld series. I think that these guys have a better conception of our world and the humans on it, compared with the Holy Books of the God in whose name we maim and kill.

Crazy Creationists

I am not sure whether I am more scared of a British Police State, or an American Religious one. In the same five minute bulletin, I also heard that eleven parents in Pennsylvania USA are suing their school board, which has decreed that since evolution is just a “theory” it must be taught as such in schools, and only presented alongside alternative theories such as “intelligent design”, a form of creationism.

I continue to be both annoyed and puzzled by the shallowness of the “intelligent design” lobbyists, for a number of reasons. Why do they find evolution so offensive? What is wrong with being descended from monkeys anyway? I think it is demeaning to suggest that we simply appeared, perfectly formed, from the dust. I am not a clay model like Morph. The evolutionary struggle gives us a nobility, a triumph against ridiculous odds. How fantastic it is to believe in a theory which says that over the millenia, my ancestors evolved slowly from the trees, to the point where I can now be talking to the world from a laptop computer… And what rapture when I realise that despite the arbitrary and unjust nature of evolution, my genes and I have had the good fortune to succeed!

Why God cannot be described as a force of nature, or indeed the architect of the laws of Physics, has never been fully explained to me. For an omnipotent God, that should be a bagatelle! If one persists in beleiving in a God of the Abrahamic (i.e. Jewish/Christian/Islamic) ilk, then surely She would have the power to kick-start evolution at the beginning of the Earth. Since God is outside of time, She would presumably have the foresight of everything and everyone, including you, me, and Charles Darwin.

Why undermine the science that has introduced us to the idea of adaption, and therefore why species may become ‘endangered’? Why undermine the science that allows us to understand and cure genetic diseases?

Geologists deny that the earth created in six days. They say it is 4.55 billion years old. Are their theories criticised too? And if so, should we listen to what they have to say about volcanos, earthquakes, and tsunami?

Even if evolution is a theory, it is by the far the most rigorous we have. While we know we have not described the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth about evolution, there is huge intellectual gulf between a few paragraphs in Genesis, and the mountains of peer reviewed experiments and tests that together make up the cannon of evolutionary theory. Let Genesis into science labs, and you may as well let in the Spaggeti Monster, and the Fundamentalist Aesopians. Its enough to make you tune in to MC Hawking.

Update: I found a quote from W.N.P. Barbellion:

I take a jealous pride in my Simian ancestry. I like to think that I was once a magnificent hairy fellow living in the trees and that my frame has come down through geological time via sea jelly and worms and Amphioux, Fish, Dinosaurs and Apes. Who would exchange these for the pallid couple in the Garden of Eden?