Thursday, February 16, 2006

Michael Gazzaniga's Confusion About Biotech

For a textbook example of confused reasoning about biotechnology, see the op-ed in today's New York Times by Michael Gazzaniga, director of Dartmouth's Center for Cognitive Neuroscience and a member of the President's Council on Bioethics. This op-ed is about therapeutic cloning, a complex issue, but its sort of sloppy reasoning is common and gets in the way of clear thinking about other biotechnologies.

Michael Gazzaniga begins by rejecting reproductive cloning. He defends only therapeutic cloning, cloning of stem cells for medical use.

His main argument, which he makes repeatedly, is that opponents of therapeutic cloning believe in "the reductive idea that there 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 experience and discovery. [This] view is a form of the 'DNA is destiny' story."

But this statement obviously implies that there is nothing wrong with killing or genetically manipulating a newborn infant, who has not yet been shaped by a lifetime of experience. It obviously implies that killing or genetically manipulating a ten-year-old child is not as serious a matter as killing or genetically manipulating an eighty-year-old, because the child has much less experience.

In fact, it seems to imply that there is nothing wrong with reproductive cloning, though Gazzaniga has rejected it earlier. If he were consistent, he would have to say that a cloned embryo is also different from a person shaped by a lifetime of experience, and that people who oppose human reproductive cloning are also buying into the "DNA is destiny" story.

There may be something to his distinction between the clump of cells and the human being, but it that distinction must apply to all humans, including infants. Gazzaniga shows that he has not even begun to think clearly about this distinction when he says it only applies to a person shaped by a lifetime of experience.

Second, Michael Gazzaniga claims that "medical innovations - from vaccine to anesthesia - have been initially resisted only to later be widely accepted. It will be the same with stem cells."

This is the typical argument of a technophile. Uncontrolled technology has brought benefits in the past, and therefore uncontrolled technology will bring benefits in the future.

But this argument fails because today's technologies are so much more powerful than past technologies. To give an obvious example, new weapons were always used in the past, but that does not mean that we should use nuclear weapons today. Everyone agrees that we must control nuclear weapons precisely because they are so much more powerful than the weapons of the past.

Likewise, new biotechnologies are so powerful that they could lead us to brave new world. Psychiatric drugs or genetic engineering could change what it means to be human.

Michael Gazzaniga recognizes that this issue exists when he rejects human reproductive cloning. Yet his argument that medical technologies that were initially resisted were later accepted could apply to reproductive cloning just as well as to therapeutic cloning.

This argument that medical technology was beneficial in the past and therefore it will be beneficial in the future, shows once again that he has not even begun to think clearly about the issue.

Finally, repeating a key error of technophiles, Michael Gazzaniga argues that there should not be political intervention in science. But the political choice of technologies - which would let us use technologies that are beneficial and control technologies that are destructive - is a crucial task of our time.

If scientists should decide for us which technologies to use, then the genetic engineers will decide what sort of crops we should grow, the traffic engineers will decide what sort of cities we should live in, and the cognitive neuroscientists should decide what it means to be human.

As a cognitive neuroscientist, Michael Gazzaniga is a techie who specializes in studying the nervous system and the computer programs that simulate its behavior. But he is far from being a philosopher, and as we have seen, he has not even begun to think clearly about the human issues that biotechnology raises. We should not abandon the task of controlling technology politically and instead let the Michael Gazzanigas of this world decide which technologies we should use.

Michael Gazzaniga's op-ed is available at


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