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Apr 23, 2004 10:07 am

Sometimes I Feel Like a Fatherless Mouse....

I was going to entitle this post "Lesbian Babies: No Men Required" until my more musical wife gave me the more musical title. A Japanese geneticist has succeeded in producing live mice with the genetic material from two female mice, something previously thought impossible. Though, as visionary Arthur C. Clarke once put it,"If an elderly but distinguished scientist says that something is possible, he is almost certainly right, but if he says that it is impossible, he is very probably wrong."

It wasn't easy: he created over 450 embryos, of which only ten produced live births and one lived to adulthood. And in order to make the genetic material come together, he had to create a new strain of mice whose female genetic material had some missing elements that made their DNA more masculine. And there was some pretty sensitive chemical manipulation of the eggs and DNA to bring the DNA together and keep it from falling apart.

This isn't for human application. A couple of lesbians can't go down to a fertility clinic and produce a child that really is equally theirs. Not yet, anyway. And there's a couple more steps to go through before a dual-male offspring is possible (and, as my wife pointed out, since you need an egg, even with the nucleonic DNA removed, there's still the mitochondrial DNA, which means that the child would be a very small part related to the egg donor) and there's still the problem of carrying the child which isn't yet possible for males.

But the science is proceeding. Someone will refine the process so that the success rate increases. And someone else will refine the process so that DNA from an unmodified pair of female mice can be used. And someone else will refine the process for higher-order mammals: the researcher responsible for this, Tomohiro KONO, is going to try pigs next, which is a genetic single step from humans for most purposes. Then someone will try it on humans. And eventually, they'll succeed. Don't think that a Republican-controlled Congress will stop them, either, because if we make interesting research illegal in this country, it'll just happen elsewhere: this pseudo-parthenogic mouse was produced in Japan with Japanese funding.

Then what? Well, for one thing, the procreative argument against same-sex marriage goes out the window. There are some Christians who are already moving it towards the door [scroll down to"More Thoughts on Marriage"], but anyone who was using a biological or evolutionary argument pretty much just lost.

What else? Well, the human species has an evolutionary opportunity: no longer will we be limited to matching male and females for breeding purposes, and it increases the likelihood of good, bad and just plain interesting genetic results.

What else? Well, as I've said before, we have an ethical discussion ahead of us, and we have to decide if we're going to have it now, when we have time to think things through, or later, when we don't.

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Anne Zook - 4/26/2004

You can't stop learning just because the world also spawns psychotics, nor should you fail to celebrate major accomplishments just because some day, someone, somewhere, is going to a Bad Thing with that knowledge.

There is no discovery in the history of humanity that someone, somewhere, hasn't turned to evil.

You can minimize the risk by not developing, for instance, an atom bomb, but an atom bomb isn't the only way to kill tens of thousands of people and you have to live with the trade-off...any positive good that might have come as a sideline to atom bomb research will remain unknown.

As a species, we're child geniuses. Our ability to acquire new knowledge far outstrips our ability to deal maturely with the consequences.

Jonathan Dresner - 4/23/2004

Hmm. As I read this, they are fine with the use of cellular and molecular technology, as long as it has nothing to do with reproduction. That's my point. They're drawing a line around one sub-field and saying "it's bad, no matter what you do with it." Maybe it's justified, but I'm not convinced.

The argument they make is, if I can put it differently, based on the ethical priniciple (with which I agree, though it would obliterate our culture, economy and politics if we applied it broadly and earnestly; I'm not saying that's a bad result, either....) that individuals should be treated as ends, not as means, and on the theological principle (which I find unconvincing) that embryos are individuals. There is also no sense of balance, of the importance of considering competing valid claims.

Hugo Schwyzer - 4/23/2004

The Catholic church hardly rejects all use of technology!

I quote my beloved JP2:

I express the hope that, thanks to the work of so many generous and highly-trained people, scientific and technological research in the field of transplants will continue to progress, and extend to experimentation with new therapies which can replace organ transplants, as some recent developments in prosthetics seem to promise. In any event, methods that fail to respect the dignity and value of the person must always be avoided. I am thinking in particular of attempts at human cloning with a view to obtaining organs for transplants: these techniques, insofar as they involve the manipulation and destruction of human embryos, are not morally acceptable, even when their proposed goal is good in itself.

Science itself points to other forms of therapeutic intervention which would not involve cloning or the use of embryonic cells, but rather would make use of stem cells taken from adults. This is the direction that research must follow if it wishes to respect the dignity of each and every human being, even at the embryonic stage. In addressing these varied issues, the contribution of philosophers and theologians is important. Their careful and competent reflection on the ethical problems associated with transplant therapy can help to clarify the criteria for assessing what kinds of transplants are morally acceptable and under what conditions, especially with regard to the protection of each individual's personal identity.

Jonathan Dresner - 4/23/2004

While I agree with most of what Anne wrote, there is a piece of me that can't help but quibble with her characterization of "the Great Mouse Experiment as a triumph." It is an achievement. But whether it is a triumph (Am I making these things up as I go along? You bet!) really depends on how we make use of the knowledge and abilities which result.

The scientific assumption that new knowledge is always good is as problematic as the Catholic Church's assumption that certain knowledge is always bad. The study of new fields for military purposes is problematic, I agree (though not necessarily always bad: for example, though their research into non-fatal weaponry is widely decried as being anti-activist and potentially dangerous, it also suggests a very new and interesting approach to the use of force, and should be encouraged as long as we get to have a public discussion about whether prototypes become production models and what conditions they should be used under.), but there's also the valorization of "pure" research that sometimes bothers me. Does it solve a problem? Does it create new fundamental knowledge? Or is it just tinkering to tinker, and the consequences be damned. (Would that be a tinker's damn?)

I'm really in the middle on technology. Great stuff, but responsibility is required.

Anne Zook - 4/23/2004

Imagine you hear polite applause coming from my corner as I finish reading Jonathan's response.

We have to live with science and technology. Indeed. My sorrows lies around our apparent inability to mature to the point where the invention of an airplane does not, in fact, inevitably lead to airborne bombers.

My concern around cloning is the idea of the "engineered" soldier. Absurd, paranoid fantasy? Yes, today it is, but I've read reports of the DoD's experiments on trying to recruit, train, or medicate to make a more efficient soldier, so it's not paranoia. "Breeding" to create a better soldier isn't possible today, but....

(At this point, the only real question is whether or not they'll achieve their goal before advancing automation does away with the need for armies.)

The biggest problem I have with technology is the inevitable way every discovery is examined for a military application. (I'm not unaware of the many military developments that have had civilian application.)

(I'm very parenthetical today.)

Apart from those kinds of concerns, I can't help but see something like the Great Mouse Experiment as a triumph.

As someone who lives on the agnostic/aethist divide, I couldn't care less what stuff written before people understood the connection between dirt and death says about our right to regulate reproduction.

In fact, I'll go further. If we could put the superstitions to one side and look at scientific advances logically and sensibly, we might just be able to think of a way to stop taking that step from Kitty Hawk to Hiroshima.

Jonathan Dresner - 4/23/2004

I know the Roman Catholic church has taken a pretty strong blanket stand against any kind of technological intervention in reproduction but I think that is a terribly shallow position for a church which accepts modern technology as a boon in other areas of life.

Yes, the potential abuses and unintended consequences of this technology are terrifying, but that doesn't distinguish this technology from so many others. Did the Wright brothers forsee Dresden and Hiroshima and 9/11 when they flew? Did van Leuwenhock imagine anthrax letters? Did the inventors of anesthesia imagine date-rape drugs? I'm sorry, but even the hammer is a weapon if you hit someone with it, but we live in houses anyway.

We have to learn to live with science and technology. Yes, there may be something fundamentally different about reproductive technology (though I'm not entirely sure). But we need to articulate ethical systems which clearly and persuasively set useful guidelines and encourage pre-discussion without having religious faith as a prerequisite.

Hugo Schwyzer - 4/23/2004

I may be a liberal Mennonite, but I'm with the Church on all of this... terrifying.

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