Staring down a microscope too long gives you tunnel vision

So, much in the news this last weekend about Catholic bishops criticising the forthcoming embryology bill… The issue? Mainly that of making human-animal ‘hybrids’; scientists say its good progress, and will help develop useful new treatments; the bishops didn’t like it, one going so far as to call it ‘Frankensteinish’. 

Since then, there has been much too-ing and fro-ing between scientists, clergy and politicians on this issue. [Some key quotes can be found here.] This is a thorny issue and I don’t want to go in to it too much, because I have neither the time nor the ability to treat it with the care it deserves. What I do want to comment on is the fundamental difference in perspective between the bishops and the scientists, which was touched on by the Today programme this morning, and can’t be over-emphasised.

When a scientist in this field looks down their microscope at the small bundle of cells they are working on, they see a small bundle of cells. These are the Lego-bricks of life, but grouped together in too small a bunch to actually build anything. To the scientist these amazing micro machines are of great interest, even wonder, but the difference between a small bundle of cells (with no opportunity of implantation) and a human being is immense.

For many people of a religious persuasion (and in fact, for many non-religious people of non-scientific backgrounds), when they look down the microscope at the same bundle of cells they see something similar, and yet profoundly different. They look at the same cells with the same wonder and interest, but see something more: they see life, or at least the potential to become life. That potential is in itself something sacred, something of great mystery. Whether those few cells constitute life or not may be up for debate, but if those few cells were implanted in a womb they could continue to grow and divide and develop and become something wholly more wondrous.

For many people of a religious persuasion, the idea of experimenting on these cells is already a controversial, to some even immoral, one. This is especially true when the cells in question are of human origin; especially human embryonic origin. How can we treat as mere mechanisms the very cells from which we all began? Those that in a different context could well become another person like ourselves?

The suggestions in the bill coming before parliament take this already-thorny issue much further, by legislating the provision of creating chimera from the fusion of human adult cells and animal (probably bovine) eggs.

To the scientist, these chimera are merely useful alternative mechanisms on which to test their theories. An egg, stripped of its DNA is to them simply a vessel in which the mechanics of the human cell can function; the blank framework in which to mount the cogs. The resultant ‘cell’ is to them no different from the other cells on which they work, because all these cells they see down their microscopes are the same Lego bricks, the same clockwork contraptions.

I wonder if the scientists are actually able to understand the opposition from the Catholic bishops and others? Most of the reporting I have heard over the weekend suggests that those questioned simply think the issue is of a lack of appropriate education on the part of the bishops: if the science was only properly explained to them then they couldn’t possibly object so vociferously…

To me, this shows a fundamental inability to grasp the basis of the disagreement. I really don’t believe that those bishops that have spoken out have failed to understand the situation. I think they understand the science perfectly (or at least, as perfectly as any laymen can). It seems to me that it is those scientists that have been in the news that have the lack of understanding, because they have quite evidently failed to comprehend the basis of their opponents position.

If you look at a bundle of cells down a microscope and see them as devoid of life (in a meaningful, rather than technical sense), then there are going to be few manipulations of those cells that you would object to on a moral basis. In fact, it would be quite hard for you to connect that small bundle of cells with the concept of morals at all. If you look down that microscope and see something greater than the sum of the parts, see some however-distant reflection of yourself, then you are going to believe quite strongly that there needs to be a moral basis to working with such cells; that there are possible manipulations that should not be permitted.

While there have been many in the news who have criticised the bishops position, it is the voices of the scientists that I have heard that I feel I must criticise. Gentlemen, please lift your gaze up from your microscopes, rub your eyes, and try and understand the world around you. There are many, religious and non, in our society who have great qualms with the work that you do, because they fail to separate themselves from the small bundles of cells you work with as fully as you do. Please try to understand that, before you dismiss the objections of your detractors.

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