Stem cell research advances will require acceptance

Tuesday, February 10, 2009 | 8:30 a.m. CST; updated 9:08 a.m. CST, Tuesday, February 10, 2009

It appears stem cell researchers had a few more cards up their lab-coat sleeves than previously thought. A recent article in Time magazine showcased a “revolution” in genetic manipulation, one that could put an end to many of the moral debates that have shackled scientists since George W. Bush placed a ban on stem cell research in 2001.

Douglas Melton, co-director of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute, has discovered a way to generate new cells using fully mature adult tissue, rendering the divisive issues about embryos potentially moot.

If the process proves viable, it will lessen the resistance to genetic research. The answer to the impossible question of when life starts will become irrelevant, the abortion-related cries of the opposition ushered out of the equation.

Though certainly a boon for research proponents, Melton’s advance still doesn't remove all obstacles. A prickly problem for geneticists remains: humanity's delicate ego. The idea that even a tiny amount of humanity can be created without the help of a man and a woman is simply too much revolution for many to swallow — given how unnecessary it makes members of a species that prides itself on individual significance (and how it encroaches on the supposed jurisdiction of Christian God).

A Time/CNN poll published in 1994 found that 58 percent of respondents believed “altering human genes is against the will of God.” Any such objection to genetic manipulation that connotes a “natural order” is, at the core, a manifestation of the ego-bruising issue.

Spiritually, any insult to a creator is considered a personal blow to millions. Secularly, the notion of a natural order connotes an irrational, prideful sanctity of the species.

Silencing these objections will require an overhaul of human pride, regardless of embryo involvement. That, anyway, is the bad news. The good news is that man has overcome similarly humbling prospects before. The most famous are referred to as the “three great discontinuities.”

Those are the three discoveries Sigmund Freud presented in a 1917 lecture on psychoanalysis as most damaging to mankind’s “naïve self-love.” The term “discontinuity” has come to describe how a scientific revelation can explode pedestals man has placed beneath his all-important self.

Nicolaus Copernicus gave humanity the first piece of humble pie in the form of heliocentricity, informing man that the universe did not, in fact, revolve around the Earth. Darwin brought the second with his theory of evolution, stripping man of the belief that he was a divinely appointed zookeeper and placing him in the cages with the rest of the animals.

The third, Freud said, was delivered by psychoanalysts such as himself. With the discovery of the subconscious, Freud proved “to the ‘I’ that it was not even master in his own home.” Thus, man started with the belief that he had a handle on the universe, the natural world and himself, and had to give up all three. 

A fourth discontinuity was proposed decades later by historian Bruce Mazlish. He suggested that mankind must give up the notion that he is entirely separate from and superior to the machines he’s created.

Now comes the discontinuity between genetics and the sanctimonious sense of self. If mankind is to take full advantage of the benefits genetic research has to offer — potential cures for diseases and improvements to the quality of life — humanity at large must get past the notion that the process of reproduction is too precious to be improved.

A primary reason the first two discoveries were widely contested at the time (and that the second remains contentious) is that they counter the notion of humans' peerless centrality. Copernicus told us humans we weren't the center of the universe; Darwin added that humans weren't so specially singled out as they had thought. Genetic work compounds the injury by suggesting that artificial genes might be as good or better than natural ones.

The intersection of ego and genetics is something that could be circumvented for a time, though we will have to face it eventually. It is important to note that Melton is not advocating making replicas of babies or inventing Franken-bunnies. In fact, he’s more interested in monitoring cells than transplanting them (for the time being). But genetics isn’t going to stop here.

There’s no doubt that it is a lot to swallow, but we should start viewing the potential for cures to diseases as enough spoonfuls of sugar to swallow disconcerting scientific revolutions. There may come a time when spare human parts sprout in labs like spring flowers. If and when that time comes, we should prepare to be excited rather than defensive about ourselves or our religions. 

Katy Steinmetz is a columnist and reporter for the Missourian. She moved to Columbia after spending two years teaching in Winchester, England, and one year in Edinburgh, Scotland. She has freelanced for a variety of publications, including 417 Magazine in Springfield, Mo., and the Guardian in London. Katy plans to complete her MU master's degree in 2010.

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Mike Zweifel February 10, 2009 | 4:07 p.m.

"In 2001, then-president Bush limited federal funding for stem cell research only to human embryonic stem cell lines that already existed."

Your last line in the first paragraph of your editorial misrepresents what President Bush's executive order stated.

All his order did was limit federal funding to embryonic stem cell research. There was never a ban on all stem cell research.

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