Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Michael Gazzaniga Is Intellectually Dishonest [SK]

Pardon me for reposting what follows (it originally appeared before I accidentally deleted the LTI Blog late last year!), but you've got me all worked up over Gazzaniga. As you correctly point out, he wants to position himself as a neutral scientist while he hoodwinks us with his speculative meataphysics. His response to President Bush's 2006 State of the Union Address (regarding the President's remarks on cloning) is a case in point. It's laced with his own personal views dressed up as science. Below is what I said back then.

In today's New York Times, we get yet another cloning puff piece, this time by Michael Gazzaniga, the director of the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience at Dartmouth and member of the President's Council on Bioethics.

Gazzaniga makes his intentions clear up front: He's out to correct President Bush's (and the public's) "nonsensical" concept of human life:
It has been weeks since President Bush's State of the Union speech, and I have not heard any outcry over his policy statement on cloning: "Tonight I ask you to pass legislation to prohibit the most egregious abuses of medical research: human cloning in all its forms." I can only guess that this means the public doesn't care, or doesn't understand what Mr. Bush means by this, or agrees with his nonsensical concept of what "human" means, or that somehow the stem cell scandal in South Korea has led to widespread agreement that we should just give up on such research. Any of these possibilities would be a mistake, not just for American science, but for the very human life the president seeks to protect.
Presumably, what Gazzaniga finds so nonsensical is the pro-life view of human value that was implied (though not defended) in the President's speech--namely, that 1) Humans have value in virtue of the kind of thing they are rather than because of some function they perform, and 2) you and I are identical to the embryonic human beings we once were--meaning that although you were once small as an embryo, your small size and lack of development did not change the kind of thing you were. You were the same being then as you are now. To put it simply, You didn't evolve from an embryo; you once were an embryo.

We're then told, in part, why the President's take is nonsense:
The president's view is consistent with the reductive idea that there is an equivalence between a bunch of molecules in a lab and a beautifully nurtured and loved human who has been shaped by a lifetime of experiences and discovery. His view is a form of the "DNA is destiny" story. Yet all modern research reveals that DNA must undergo thousands if not millions of interactions at both the molecular and experiential level to grow and develop a brain and become a person.
Notice the unsupported claims here. First, why should anyone suppose that being loved and nurtured, or having a lifetime of experiences, changes (or determines) the kind of thing one is? Is an abandoned day-old infant not a human being? What if he dies alone in the woods and is never nurtured by caring adults? (And if he lives only a day, he'll have few life experiences and no lifetime of discovery.) How would this sad state of affairs in anyway call into question the kind of being he is ontologically? At this point, I'm not even asking Gazzaniga to say whether a day-old infant or a day-old embryo has value; I just want to know how my loving something determines the kind of thing it is?

Second, why should we believe that brain development bestows value on a person? As usual with pro-cloning advocates, Gazzaniga does not tell us why development matters, nor does he say why certain value-giving properties are value-giving in the first place. True, he later appeals to one's immediate capacity to experience memories, loves, and hopes, but isn’t that just question-begging since the issue is whether one is a human subject even if one does not have memories, loves, and hopes? Newborns lack all of these qualities--Does it follow they are fitting subjects for destructive research?

Gazzaniga then says that it squares with our basic intuitions to accept that adults and children are people while clumps of cells in a petri dish are not:
In his State of the Union speech, President Bush went on to observe that "human life is a gift from our creator — and that gift should never be discarded, devalued or put up for sale." Putting aside the belief in a "creator," the vast majority of the world's population takes a similar stance on valuing human life. What is at issue, rather, is how we are to define "human life." Look around you. Look at your loved ones. Do you see a hunk of cells or do you see something else? Most humans practice a kind of dualism, seeing a distinction between mind and body. We all automatically confer a higher order to a developed biological entity like a human brain. We do not see cells, simple or complex — we see people, human life. That thing in a petri dish is something else. It doesn't yet have the memories and loves and hopes that accumulate over the years.
For starters, this is sloppy science. Gazzaniga is making the rather elementary mistake of confusing parts with wholes. Living human embryos are not mere "hunks" of cells, but distinct, self-integrating organisms capable of directing their own maturation as members of the human species. Dr. Maureen Condic points out that embryos are living human beings "precisely because they possess the single defining feature of human life that is lost in the moment of death—the ability to function as a coordinated organism rather than merely as a group of living human cells." Condic, Assistant Professor of Neurobiology and Anatomy at the University of Utah, explains the important distinction between clumps of cells and whole human embryos overlooked by Gazzaniga:
The critical difference between a collection of cells and a living organism is the ability of an organism to act in a coordinated manner for the continued health and maintenance of the body as a whole....Embryos are not merely collections of human cells, but living creatures with all the properties that define any organism as distinct from a group of cells; embryos are capable of growing, maturing, maintaining a physiologic balance between various organ systems, adapting to changing circumstances, and repairing injury. Mere groups of human cells do nothing like this under any circumstances."
As for Gazzaniga's own ad-hoc version of mind/body dualism, there's a host of problems with the idea of personhood coming into existence only after some degree of bodily development. One is that you end up saying things like "I came to be after my body came to be." Or, "I inhabit a body that was once an embryo."

Notice also that nowhere in his essay does Gazzaniga defend his metaphysical assumption that personhood is an accidental property rather than something intrinsic to the human subject. I wonder: Other than the embryos he’d like to arbitrarily exclude, has he ever met a living human body that wasn't a person? Have any of us? That’s the problem with so-called personhood arguments: They’re ad-hoc, arbitrary, and prove too much. For example, abortion-choicers Mary Ann Warren, Michael Tooley, and Peter Singer all concede that any argument used to disqualify the embryo as a person works equally well to disqualify the newborn.

Meanwhile, Gazzaniga's appeal to our intuitions-- "these embryos don't look like your relatives, do they?" (my paraphrase)-- is naive, though I agree that some people will not be impressed with a 2-week human embryo. For them, it’s counter-intuitive to suggest that something the size of a dot is a human being. But many others consider that same embryo and experience a very different intuition, one that tells them we should protect (not harm) the weakest members of the human family, regardless of their body size, location, or degree of development. The question now becomes which intuition is the na├»ve one, the pro-cloner's or the pro-lifer's? You can never resolve a conflict between two competing intuitions by merely describing our feelings about something. We must go back to the evidence. What do the facts of science say? What they say is that from the earliest stages of development, the unborn are distinct, living, and whole human beings. (Incidentally, a century ago many people thought it counterintuitive to suggest that slaves were human.) In short, intuitions are not infallible, though we’re justified believing them until presented with superior evidence. In this case, Gazzaniga's appeal to intuition does not refute the strongly evidenced claim for the humanity of the embryo; it merely side-steps it.

Next we get from Gazzaniga the same old tired distortions of fact we've heard before:
Calling human cloning in all its forms an "egregious abuse" is a serious mischaracterization. This makes it sound as if the medical community is out there cloning people, which is simply not true. The phrase "in all of its forms" is code, a way of conflating very different things: reproductive cloning and biomedical cloning.
Different? How so?

The alleged distinction between "bio-medical cloning" and "reproductive cloning" is totally misleading because all cloning is reproductive. So-called "reproductive" cloning means allowing the cloned human to be born alive. "Bio-medical" (or therapeutic) cloning means creating him for research, but killing him before birth. In either case, the act of cloning is exactly the same and results in a living human embryo. Remember: A cloned human being is created when the nucleus is removed from a human egg and replaced with genetic material from a donor. Once this occurs, the act of cloning is complete. After that, the only question is how we will treat the cloned human being—kill him for research or allow him to grow and develop.

Gazzaniga continues:
But in fact human cloning has not been attempted, nor is it in the works; so it's a theoretical ban in the first place, like banning marriage between robots. (emphasis mine)
Huh? Have we forgotten already Michael West at Advanced Cell Technology? Hwang Woo Suk in Korea ? True, both men made questionable claims about their research, but make no mistake: Both were attempting to clone human embryos. The only way to close your eyes to this is to assert that cloning isn't cloning unless you get an embryo you intend to cheerish rather than destroy.

Ironically, Gazzaniga praises New Jersey's cloning laws which make it legal to create a cloned embryo, implant it in a willing woman's womb, and then gestate it through the ninth month of pregnancy--as long as you kill it before birth, the point at which it magically becomes "a new human individual." Yes, the NJ law allows you use late-term (cloned) fetuses for spare parts-- which is why cloning opponents accurately dubbed it a "clone-and-kill" law.

And Gassaniga thinks this is a good use of public money?

He leaves us with two parting shots. First, we're reminded that 10 of the 17 members of the President's own bioethics council did not support a ban on bio-medical cloning. That's true and it's regrettable. But what Gazzaniga forgot to tell you is that the same council helped clarify the debate by avoiding the very doublespeak employed by Gazzaniga--namely, his contention that a cloned human embryo is not a human entity. On the council, with a few exceptions, even the supporters of cloning avoided such language. Second, he asserts that non-embryonic alternatives (presumably adult-stem cell treatments which qualify for federal funding) are a waste of time and money.

Hum...Last time I checked, adult stems cells were treating over 70 different illnesses/injuries while embryonic cells were treating none. Of course, it's ridiculous to claim embryo cells will never work, but it's even more ridiculous for Gassaniga to call current successes with adult cells a waste.

All in all, not a very persuasive piece.

1 comment:

  1. It's amazing how unscientific so many of these "men and women of science" become when they try to defend ESCR and cloning. An embryo isn't a person because "it doesn't look like your relatives?" What?


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