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Postmodernism Comes to Science

Wesley J. Smith

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"Postmodernism" is an intellectual movement, especially prevalent in European academic and literary circles, which asserts that there is no such thing as objective truth. Postmodernists not only deny the existence of universal principles, but also celebrate incoherence, fragmentation, and meaninglessness.

This might be fine and good when applied to art or literature where beauty and meaning are in the eyes of the beholder. However, postmodernism has absolutely no place in science discourse or moral analysis. In order to function, science by its very definition requires specificity, precise definitions. Moreover, if we are to be able to properly analyze whether a particular scientific endeavor is moral, we must be able to argue from precise understandings about what scientists are doing and trying to achieve.

I bring these matters up as our country, and indeed, the world, has become embroiled in an intense moral debate over the propriety of human cloning. To properly analyze this matter, people need to be clear on just what it is that human cloning produces.

There are now two ways of creating a new mammalian life, including humans. The first is "sexual," that is, via fertilization involving sperm and egg. The second is "asexual," commonly known as cloning, more precisely, somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT).

Whether created sexually or asexually, every new life begins as a one-celled human embryo. From the moment it exists, it is a distinct, unique, individual human organism with its own genetic makeup and sex. Assuming he or she is nurtured in the proper prenatal environment, each embryo has the potential to develop through embryonic and fetal stages into a newborn infant.

Many pro-cloning scientists believe-correctly in my view-that most Americans find it immoral to create human life asexually-whether for reproduction or to use in research. So, in an ironic betrayal of the rational scientific values they claim to be defending, some cloning advocates have adopted the postmodernist tactic of changing definitions and terms, and in the process, have begun to transform science into an imprecise and subjective enterprise instead of one steeped in precision and objectivity.

Making matters worse, this corruption of science is found commonly in some of the world's most respected science and medical journals. For example, an editorial in the February 21, 2004 edition of The Lancet protested the media's reporting that South Korean researcher Woo Suk Hwang had created 30 cloned human embryos, which he developed to the one-week stage known as a blastocyst. Rather than being embryos, The Lancet insisted, the cloning only resulted in a "line of undifferentiated, pluripotent [stem] cells whose 'parents' were an unfertilized oocyte [a human egg]?and a cumulus cell." (A cumulus cell is an ovarian cell.) Hence, the editorial pontificated, that Hwang's successful acts of human cloning didn't really create human life.

"Left where they were," The Lancet continued, "neither the cumulus cells nor the oocytes could have become separate human beings." True, but so what? It is elementary biology that no mere cells can be gestated into babies. That biological feat requires an embryo.

Indeed, in a sudden linguistic U-turn that belied all of its previous assertions, the editorial admitted that "such an artificially created blastocyst, if implanted back into a womb, could perhaps have developed further, eventually to a new person-that is, reproductive cloning." In other words, the clones really were embryos, after all. But to avoid the moral fallout The Lancet feared would follow from acknowledging that scientific fact, the editorialist simply redefined the biology.

Here is another recent example. An editorial written by the New England Journal of Medicine editor in chief Jeffrey M. Drazen in the July 17, 2003 edition, asserted that it is "unreasonable" to prohibit human cloning for biomedical research. Fair enough. Drazen had every right to express his moral opinion about the issue.

Unfortunately, to back up his moral arguments, Drazen wildly misstated the science of human cloning, writing:

There are two distinct uses of embryonic stem cells. The first, for which there is no support among members of the scientific and medical communities, is the use of stem cells to create a genetically identical person?The second use is to develop genetically compatible materials for the replacement of diseased tissues in patients with devastating medical conditions, such as diabetes or Parkinson's disease. This is important work that must and will move forward.

It is hard to believe that the editor-in-chief of one of the world's most prestigious medical journals wrote that an "embryonic stem cell" could create a "genetically identical person," a reference to the birth of a cloned baby. Stem cells are merely cells. Implanting them could no more lead to a pregnancy than could placing a blood cell or skin cell into a woman's womb.

Not only that, but SCNT does not produce stem cells per se. As described earlier, if successful, it produces cloned human embryos, from which stem cells could be extracted. While a stem cell is just a cell, an embryo is a distinct, individual human life, albeit in a nascent stage of development.

Whether a human organism, be it natural or cloned, has moral value, when that value attaches, and what constraints, if any, should be placed on its creation or use are not questions of science.

Judgments about such matters-which lie at the heart and soul of the cloning debate-belong to the realms of philosophy, ethics, religion, values, and ideology.

But before we can engage in proper moral reasoning, we must first have a precise understanding of the scientific nature of the subject being discussed. Unfortunately, in order to win the human cloning debate, many scientists seem willing to infect science with a postmodernist virus that is not only profoundly disrespectful of the American people but also is antithetical to science itself.

Wesley J. Smith is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute and a special consultant to the CBC.

Posted: 4/12/04



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