Friday, February 14, 2014

Getting a Grip About Dr. Moreau, Pigs, and Human Dignity

Mystery aphids attack Texas crops while scientists experiment with human DNA. There's an old-school sci-fi movie scenario or two there: but the issues are real.
  1. Rise of the — Aphids?
  2. Serious News, Sensationalist Prose
  3. The Pancreas of Pig 29
As I said yesterday, it might be easier to either denounce all new ideas as Satanic plots, or any criticism of new technology as superstitious ignorance. I don't think easier is always better, so I try to think about the ethics involved.

"...Things Man was Not Supposed to Know..."

The only places I've run into the phrase "tampering with things man was not supposed to know" are in complaints about 'those ignorant people over there,' and the occasional freewheeling spoof of mad-scientist tales.

Ignorance isn't really bliss, that's not what Thomas Gray meant, and that's another topic. (September 2, 2012)

I think the notion that science and technology will solve all our problems is as silly as assuming that science and technology will kill us all.

New ideas aren't necessarily good, or bad: and neither are old ones. I've been over this sort of thing before:
Most folks have probably gotten used to the idea that lightening rods won't provoke God's wrath, that powered flight doesn't flout the laws of God and nature, and that inoculation will not trigger plagues of Biblical proportions.

We still see the familiar 'it's new, therefore it's evil' reaction, though: which occasionally gets in the way of noticing that something bad really is happening. My opinion.

Olive Trees, Parapets, and All That

I don't share the fear and loathing some folks apparently feel toward taking genes from one plant or animal and inserting them in another. That's partly because I know a little about the history of agriculture, and partly because I don't see a significant difference between grafting genes and grafting branches: apart from the scale of the processes.

Romans 11:19-24 uses grafting olive trees as a metaphor, but doesn't seem to condemn the practice.

Someone's probably assumed that Deuteronomy 22:9 forbids grafting, or condemns marrying someone outside your village, or whatever. I don't: particularly since it's about seeds, and is sandwiched between a rule about parapets and another about using draft animals.

I could assume that I've violated the unchanging laws of God by not having a parapet on my roof: but I live in Minnesota, and nobody's likely to try standing between the ridge and the eaves.

1. Rise of the — Aphids?

(From AgriLife Extension, photo by Dr. Raul Villanueva, via Houston Chronicle, used w/o permission.)
"Populations of the sugarcane aphid are seen on the underside of grain sorghum leaves. They decrease yields and secrete a sticky waste called honeydew that gums up combine harvesters."
"Mysterious pest threatening billion-dollar Texas crop"
Carol Christian, Houston Chronicle (February 11, 2014 (updated February 12))

"A tiny bug that has mystified Texas farmers and agriculture researchers is threatening to eat a big hole in the state's economy.

"According to a news release from Texas A&M University, the insect of unknown origin - which measures about 1/16 inch - is poised to inflict big damage to the billion-dollar Texas grain sorghum crop.

" 'For now, we're calling this pest the sugarcane aphid,' Raul Villanueva, an entomologist with A&M's AgriLife Research and Extension Center at Weslaco, said in the release...."
Researchers first noticed this pest last year. It's either a new sort of aphid — or sugarcane aphids that switched to feeding on grain sorghum.

Either way, these aphids are eating their way through this year's crop. Some fields were completely wiped out. That's very serious, since the crop is worth $974,000,000 to Texas growers.

Grain sorghum is used as cattle feed, so folks who raise cattle are affected when aphids eat their herds' food supply. An AgriLife Extension agricultural economist said that the total economic impact in Texas will be around $2,000,000,000.

Good News, Bad News, and Aphid-Eaters

The good news is that Transform WG® is an insecticide that's proven effective against aphids.

The bad news is that farmers in Texas need permission from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to use Transform WG® on grain sorghum. Frustrating as the bureaucratic process is, I understand why we have these rules.

Sulfoxaflor, the active ingredient in the insecticide, plays hob with the nervous system of insects. It's less toxic to mammals, but is corrosive and can cause permanent eye damage.

Understandably, Texas researchers are looking at alternatives: like encouraging ladybugs, lacewings, sweat flies, or other aphid-eaters to set up housekeeping near grain sorghum crops. Not that sweat flies build houses, of course.

The problem with using biological controls like aphid-eating lacewings is that these aphids reproduce fast.

The Houston Chronicle didn't say, but my guess is that tweaking aphid-eaters so that they reproduce as fast as the aphids might create another sort of problem when the aphid supply ran out. Maybe before.

That reminded me of "There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly," and that's yet another topic.

2. Serious News, Sensationalist Prose

"Human-animal hybrids, disasters in the making"
The Voice of Russia (February 4, 2014)

"Scientists worldwide are creating bizarre human-animal hybrids that could wreak havoc on society. In the past ten years alone, unforgettable advances in the field of genetic modifications have left researchers and on-lookers stunned.

"Nowadays, it is possible for a couple of university-age students to concoct...."
The article keeps going: 589 more words of emotion-drenched prose, including:
"... the entities being created are not at all illegal but by all means could pose a risk to society by and large. There is no telling what may happen if these life forms are allowed to mate...."

"...transferring cells from human embryos into the brains of mice. These very cells began to grow, and in time made the mice more intelligent...."

"...The consequences of creating such hybrids could pose a hazard to communities near and far...."
(The Voice of Russia)
I don't blame The Voice of Russia for the sensationalistic style. They probably have bills to pay, like everyone else, and need to sell advertising: or, if they have a print version, newsstand copies.

Folks get excited by news about the machinations of mad scientists and irresponsible college kids: particularly if the news includes a few solid facts. I found this article thanks to someone sharing it on Google Plus the next day: which in turn led to me writing this post.

Beware the Mutants: Movie Science

I enjoy movies like "Them!," "Godzilla," 1954 and 1998; and "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles:" but don't take their "science" seriously.

I am not overly concerned that mutant mice or other "entities" may take over the world. For that matter, I'd be astonished if a rabid squirrel-man breaks out of a campus lab and wreaks havoc on the terrified citizenry.

The risk of a giant mutant safflower ravaging Tokyo is (very) slightly more probable. Scientists grafted genes that humans use for producing insulin into safflower plants.

Although "Kusumbha! — Attack of the Demon Weed" might make a dandy movie title: no, I really do not believe that we need to fear mutant safflowers.

I do, however, realize that ethics matter. We need to think about new technology: not let either fear or fascination outvote reason.

3. The Pancreas of Pig 29

(From BBC News, used w/o permission.)
"Pig number 29 is a white pig, but has black hair"
"Quest to grow human organs inside pigs in Japan"
Rupert Wingfield-Hayes, BBC News (January 2, 2014)

"I am standing in a fully functioning operating theatre. A surgeon and team of specialists in green smocks are preparing to operate. But I'm not in a hospital. I am on a farm deep in the Japanese countryside. On the gurney about to undergo the knife is a six-month-old female pig.

"Standing over her, scalpel in hand, is Professor Nagashima. He carefully cuts open her abdomen and pulls out her uterus. To me, it looks more like intestines - but he assures me this is what a pig's uterus looks like. Then with a syringe and a catheter, he begins to inject 40 embryos into the uterus.

"The unconscious pig is about to become a surrogate mother - and the embryos she is now carrying are very special. They are chimeric, that is, they carry genetic material from two different species....

"...Halfway down the long white shed, I am introduced to pig number 29 - a large, hairy male with jutting tusks. Number 29 is a white pig, but he is covered in coarse, black hair. More importantly, inside, he has the pancreas of a black pig...."
The BBC article doesn't say, but I'm guessing that pig 29 is a Ukrainian White Steppe, Welsh pig, or other breed that's usually white. Then again, maybe not.

Genetic code for the black pig pancreas inside Number 29 might be a Beijing Black, or not. Again, the article doesn't say.

Although grafting genes for a specific organ from one pig to another is a remarkable achievement, I'm not sure that the 127 or so domestic pig breeds are different species.

Professor Nagashima's work probably doesn't violate ethics. Swapping parts between pigs is new, but grafting from one creature to another isn't.

The Clonus Horror Meets Dr. Moreau

The basic rules are simple: love God, love your neighbor; everybody's your neighbor. (Matthew 5:43-44, 22:36-40Mark 12:28-31, Luke 10:25-30; Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1825)

Those rules haven't changed. But after two millennia of folks trying to weasel out of loving God and neighbor, discussions of how we apply the rules got complicated: detailed, anyway.

As I've said before, scientific research can help folks; but ethics still apply. (Catechism, 2292-2295)

Organ transplants, for example, are okay: but we're not allowed to kill one person to save another's life. And because human life is sacred, we shouldn't produce a 'test tube baby' to serve as spare parts for someone else. (Catechism, 2258, 2274-2275, 2296)

Oddly enough, a comparatively action-packed commercial product called "The Clonus Horror" (1979) dramatized serious ethical issues: partly from the viewpoint of an escaped clone.

The BBC article mentions "The Island of Doctor Moreau." It makes sense, in context.

H. G. Wells' 1896 novel centers around a scientist's creation of human-like beings from animals via vivisection: and discusses "moral responsibility, human identity, and human interference with nature." (Wikipedia)

One of the movie versions of H. G. Wells' tale may have offered profound philosophical insights. The 1977 version I saw, not so much. Good story, though:
Project Gutenberg has text of H. G. Wells' novel in HTML, EPUB, and other formats, by the way. (

Pigs are Not People

I have found no indication that producing "artificial" organisms like dogs and macaroni wheat is evil. All that's changed recently is the technology we use for modifying creatures.

We're expected to use the animals, plants, and mineral resources of this creation: ethically, with kindness, taking future generations into account. But animals other than humans are not people. (Catechism, 2415-2418)

That's why I do not see a problem with swapping genes between pigs. So far, professor Nagashima's research seems to be ethical.

The ultimate goal of this research is isolating specific genes from a human being, grafting that code into an animal embryo, and eventually harvesting a custom-grown human organ.

A donor organ grown this way would be an exact match: because the organ would be grown using their own gene. Waiting until the host animal grew to maturity might be a practical issue.

So far, Nagashima's research sounds beneficial. Unhappily, there's a thorny ethical issue involved.

Safflowers, Insulin, and Ethics

Developing techniques for custom-grown donor organs is a good intention. But "I meant well" doesn't excuse an evil act. (Catechism, 1759)

It looks like inserting human genetic code in non-human creatures is wrong. Those safflowers that produce human insulin represent a violation of ethics.

That does not, as far as I can tell, mean that any "artificial" insulin is morally wrong. Mixing human and safflower genes: that's probably wrong. I'm assuming that a principle which applies to animal and human DNA extends to plants.

This is where it gets a bit technical.

Oocytes, Somatic Cells, and Human Dignity

"Instruction Dignitas Personae on Certain Bioethical Questions" (2008), 33., starts with: "Recently animal oocytes have been used for reprogramming the nuclei of human somatic cells...."

We generally don't hear "oocyte" and "somatic cell" in everyday conversation. An oocyte "is a female gametocyte or germ cell involved in reproduction...." (Wikipedia) A somatic cell is any cell that's not a gamete, germ cell, gametocyte or undifferentiated stem cell. (Wikipedia)

Most cells in our bodies are somatic cells.

I think a reasonable summary of "Dignitas Personae," 33., English translation, is that mixing human and animal DNA is "an offense against the dignity of human beings." I put a copy of that section at the end of this post.1

Bioethics and International Law: Work in Progress

As I've said before, right now we do not have an international authority with the necessary competence to act as a world government. (January 6, 2012; September 11, 2011)

Until and unless we build something like Tennyson's "Parliament of Man," we have to make do with outfits like UNESCO's International Bioethics Committee. (IBC)

I don't trust the United Nations and its committees any more than I trust America's Congress. But right now, organizations like that are what we must work with: and improve.

The IBC's Universal Declaration on Human Genome and Human Rights, International Declaration on Human Genetic Data, and Universal Declaration on Bioethics and Human Rights, apparently are more suggestions than laws.

Specific facets of bioethics, like cloning, are covered by a patchwork of national laws in more than a half-dozen countries, and by a non-binding United Nations Declaration on Human Cloning.

Once legislators and diplomats start thinking about cloning, most seem to think it's a bad idea. I'm inclined to agree.

We're far from seeing this nascent sense of ethics grow into the sort of awareness that's made traditions like genocide a comparative rarity.

But we're making progress in that direction. It's a start.

Related posts:

1 Excerpt from "Instruction Dignitas Personae on Certain Bioethical Questions," Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (June 20, 2008)
"33. Recently animal oocytes have been used for reprogramming the nuclei of human somatic cells – this is generally called hybrid cloning – in order to extract embryonic stem cells from the resulting embryos without having to use human oocytes.

"From the ethical standpoint, such procedures represent an offense against the dignity of human beings on account of the admixture of human and animal genetic elements capable of disrupting the specific identity of man. The possible use of the stem cells, taken from these embryos, may also involve additional health risks, as yet unknown, due to the presence of animal genetic material in their cytoplasm. To consciously expose a human being to such risks is morally and ethically unacceptable."


Brigid said...

I have do not? "I've don't share the fear"

Missing word: "and nobody's likely try standing between the ridge and the eaves."

Extra space: "Sulfoxaflor , the active ingredient"

The Friendly Neighborhood Proofreader

Brian H. Gill said...


Syntax perplexing of the grammatical structures having trouble with me, yes?

Also extra space deleting is myself doing in most recent past time linearly.

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What's That Doing in a Nice Catholic Blog?

From time to time, a service that I use will display links to - odd - services and retailers.

I block a few of the more obvious dubious advertisers.

For example: psychic anything, numerology, mediums, and related practices are on the no-no list for Catholics. It has to do with the Church's stand on divination. I try to block those ads.

Sometime regrettable advertisements get through, anyway.

Bottom line? What that service displays reflects the local culture's norms, - not Catholic teaching.