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Merchants of Immortality: Chasing the Dream of Human Life Extension.

(Boston, Massachusetts: Houghton Mifflin, 2003); 439 pp; $25.00 cloth

Could humankind, by tinkering its genetic code, gain immortality? Is humanity sufficiently morally evolved to assume the role of God? And if there is no god but humanity, "is everything permitted" (to borrow a phrase from Fyodor Dostoyevsky)? As humanity ushers in the brave new world of genetic engineering, these thoughts acquire an altogether new twist. For humankind will indeed have to take ethical responsibility for tinkering with the genetic code that may allow the human species to re-create itself, extend the frontiers of longevity, and cure innumerable diseases. It is a responsibility that is full of promise and fraught with peril.

Writing about all of this with incisive clarity in Merchants of Immortality: Chasing the Dream of Human Life Extension, is Stephen S. Hall, a respected science journalist whose work has appeared in the Atlantic Monthly, the New York Times, Science, and the Smithsonian.

Hall's book has arrived at a propitious moment. On August 9, 2001, President George W. Bush addressed the nation from the Oval Office to discuss his much-anticipated decision regarding the future of embryonic stem cell research in the United States. As Hall notes, no president had ever addressed the American public "on an issue of such great biomedical import," let alone discussed reproductive science in such frank terms. In the span of ten minutes Bush managed to present a reasonably accurate outline of the potential benefits and moral quandaries that embryonic stem cell research presents. Stem cells are undifferentiated cells that have the potential to become any type of cell in the body, including neurons, heart cells, and liver cells. By harvesting stem cells from early embryos, scientists might be able to grow replacement organs for transplant or even replace damaged neurons in degenerative brain diseases like Parkinson's and Alzheimer's. But as Bush noted, these potential benefits must be weighed against the moral value of embryos which, he argued, isn't exactly nil. Bush contended that to destroy an embryo after harvesting its stem cells is to snuff out a nascent human life. In the end the president announced his decision to halt all federal funding for embryonic stem cell research except where the "life and death" decisions for the relevant embryos have already been made. Federal funding for stem cell research could only continue, Bush insisted, on some sixty stem cell lines whose embryos had already been destroyed.

White House aides went to great lengths to portray the president's decision as a model of soul-searching deliberation, a compromise worthy of wise King Solomon himself. As a political decision it was masterful, managing to defuse the anger of conservative right-to-life factions who invariably see compromise on embryonic matters as a sign of moral turpitude. And it caught many scientists off guard, who were initially surprised and encouraged to learn that so many stem cell lines would be available shortly (part of their early encouragement was due to the fact that most had expected Bush to ban federal funding outright). But as Hall methodically and rigorously recounts, Bush's claims that sixty stem cells lines are readily available later proved, to put it charitably, exaggerated.

Upon closer inspection, the number of viable stem cell lines turns out to be fewer than a dozen. And most scientists contend that at least one thousand stem cell lines will be needed to adequately pursue this research. But beyond the inflated numbers there are decidedly negative consequences that follow from Bush's decision. Besides inhibiting scientific progress on regenerative medicine, the president's decision will likely encourage overall looser ethical oversight on embryonic stem cell research--research that, courtesy of Bush's ban on federal funding, now takes place in the regulatory vacuum of private enterprise and foreign laboratories. As Hall makes dear, the British government has arrived at a far clearer and ethically sound approach to the issue of stem cell research, having convened a parliamentary committee chaired by the philosopher Mary Warnock. This committee, in tandem with Parliament, created a process that involves a remarkably high level of civic debate, one in which the government accepted responsibility "for establishing regulations controlling embryo research" for both private and public clinics. Hall illustrates that the process in the United States, on the other hand, has been distorted from the beginning by abortion politics, which rarely lends itself to reasoned discourse. As a result, the United States has the worst of all possible outcomes: it has set back the cause of basic scientific research on stem cell matters, while leaving the private sector largely unsupervised and unaccountable, both scientifically and ethically.

For better or worse, the foreseeable future of genetic engineering may be in the hands of entrepreneurial mavericks like Michael West. Oscar Wilde once said that paradox is the way to truth; Michael West, as Hall portrays him, is certainly a man of contradictions. West began his intellectual expedition as a student of creation science (if that isn't an oxymoron) as part of an in-depth quest to mine the troth of Christianity. West's quest was no idle or superficial endeavor; he studied Greek and Hebrew in order to read the Bible in more original forms. His mission soon eventually led him to study biology where, he admits, he finally let Darwin into his life "kicking and screaming every inch of the way." West's rejection of creationism wasn't, as it turns out, some deflating anti-epiphany but a catalyzing moment that spurred him on toward doctorates in biology and molecular gerontology, a medical degree, and significant roles in founding bio-tech companies devoted to life extension. Ironically, the same missionary zeal and self-promotion that West has brought to his crusade to further the cause of therapeutic cloning and life extension is sounding alarm bells among his former fundamentalist allies and others who would like to stop this kind of research in its tracks. West does come across as someone with a fair degree of scientific credibility (unlike some of the groups and individuals Hall describes) but there is little doubt that his aggrandized proselytizing on the future benefits of cloning and stem cell research creates the kind of publicity that can invite a backlash from theological and conservative comers.

Science needs people with West's intellectual and entrepreneurial zeal but, after reading Hall's account of the potential and pitfalls of genetic engineering, it isn't hard to come away with the impression that federal involvement in stem cell research would be for the better. He who pays the piper calls the tune and federal funding would almost certainly mean better supervision in an area that is certain to attract the unscrupulous, reckless, and even fanatical just as much as it does adventurous mavericks like West. Whether one believes that life begins at conception or that there is a fundamental difference between a human person and cell lines incubating in a laboratory with no chance of implantation, the lack of federal funding only increases the likelihood that, for many experimenters, ethics will an afterthought.

On the opposite end of the spectrum from West's brash Promethean scientific spirit, Hall finds the sober superego of science/ethicist Leon Kass, who happens to chair Bush's Council on Bioethics. Hall acknowledges Kass to be one of the most erudite, thought-provoking, and eloquent public thinkers wrestling with the moral issues surrounding genetic engineering and the like. But whereas West would like to push ahead full steam, Kass wants to apply the brakes on human cloning and stem cell research to allow ethics to catch up with science. As Hall reports, Bush hasn't always been well served by Kass' counsel. Prior to his stem cell decision Bush reportedly asked to hear two ethicists with opposing viewpoints debate the issue in his presence. Kass invited bioethicist Daniel Callahan to argue the matter with him before the president but, unbeknownst to Kass, Callahan had since grown opposed to stem cell research altogether. As a result Bush came away from the encounter with the impression that, if both the conservative Kass and the liberal Callahan opposed stem cell research, then he was on firm ground to oppose it himself. In fact, however, Bush had heard only one side of the debate.

Even more troubling, according to Hall, is Kass' role as the chair of the council. By all accounts Kass and the council members diligently and capably considered the issues before them, concluding by a slim majority that stem cell research should proceed, albeit with strict regulation. By the time the council's report was released to the public, two of its members had changed their vote and speculation swirled that someone--though not necessarily Kass--had engineered a change in the council's recommendation in order to keep Bush from being embarrassed. Hall does little to hide his disappointment that Kass allowed the council's work to be governed by politics, not science.

Kass and West represent opposing poles in the stem cell debate and the future of bioengineering. Whereas West envisions remarkable advances in life extension and the treatment of disease, Kass worries about the potential of genetic engineering to usher in a brave new world in which reproductive cloning will rob humanity of its dignity. Hall's book sensibly steers clear of either extreme, suggesting that between the Scylla of West's optimism and the Charybdis of Kass' pessimism a scientific course that leads to gradual improvements and modest advances can be found. In his conclusion Hall muses at the possibility that advances in stem cell research could lead to a world in which the life expectancy of his own children could well exceed ninety--a far cry from the immortality promised by genetic medicine's most zealous proponents but a tremendous boon considering that the average life expectancy at the beginning of the twentieth century was about forty. There will, of course, be missteps and slides backward and Kass is surely to be commended for his trenchant reminders that scientific progress doesn't necessarily entail moral progress or wisdom. Ethics does indeed have some catching up to do. Kass believes that we should slow science down to allow ethics to make up the distance. But in many respects this means slowing down the pace of the most promising research into diseases like Parkinson's and Alzheimer's--diseases that rob people of their dignity and humanity--in order to avoid a hypothetical loss of human dignity somewhere in the future. Ironically, the lack of oversight on private research and the lack of federal funds to support basic science may make the former less likely and the latter more likely.

In short, Hall's book is an example of scientific journalism at its best. Pundit Karl Kraus once quipped that a journalist was someone who didn't have any ideas of his own but nevertheless knew how to express them. Hall unquestionably knows how to express himself, writing about cutting-edge biology with a fluidity and accessibility that both the layperson and the expert will appreciate. And he isn't afraid to share a few of his own ideas and conclusions with the reader; his reflections are refreshingly down to earth. As humans begin to tinker with the genetic code they are in effect assuming godlike powers. Humans can assume no divine guidance as they venture down this path, nor should they assume infallibility. But Hall reminds the reader that, beyond the promise and the peril, progress can sometime occur by accident--as when a spore unexpectedly drifted into Alexander Flemming's window, contaminating one of his Petri dishes, and setting the stage for the discovery of a true scientific miracle: penicillin.

Scott D. O'Reilly is an independent writer who has been published in Philosophy Now, Think, and the Philosopher's Magazine. He contributed to The Great Thinkers A-Z and is working on Deconstructing Demagogues, a book that examines how politicians use and misuse language.
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Author:O'Reilly, Scott D.
Publication:The Humanist
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Nov 1, 2003
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