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Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2008

NATURAL SELECTIONS

SCIENTISTS 1 - 1 CATHOLICS

Mass ignorance on 'half-human embryos'


On Sunday a couple of weeks ago, an extraordinary statement was read out in many churches in Britain. It had been prepared by the Catholic Bishops' Conference of England and Wales with the aim of fomenting protests to Members of Parliament.

News photo
Pope Benedict XVI recently ducked out of a speech in Rome after protests over his condemnation of 17th-century scientist Galileo Galilei. AP PHOTO

Parishioners celebrating mass heard their priests tell them what scientists were apparently planning to do: "To create embryos that are half human, half animal."

They would use the egg of a woman and the sperm from an animal, the public was told.

Some of those in the congregations must have thought they had been plunged into a science-fiction horror film. What sort of madness was this? If scientists went ahead, it "would be a radical violation of human dignity," the statement continued. Sure, it would be, but of course nothing of the sort was being planned.

So what was going on?

The Human Fertilization and Embryology Bill will be debated in the House of Commons in London later this year, and is expected to be passed into law.

What the bill will allow is for an animal egg to be hollowed out (for its nucleus and genetic material to be removed) and for this to be replaced with human DNA.

These experiments are being planned with the aim of finding ways to make those all-important stem cells. These cells have the ability to develop into any tissue type in the body, so finding a way to grow your own stem cells would allow all sorts of diseases to be treated in the future.

Stem-cell biologist Stephen Minger, of King's College London, says such an embryo is categorically human. The various regulatory committees that have been debating the new bill agree.

"The Church should carefully review the science they are commenting on and ensure that their official comments are accurate before seriously misinforming their congregations," said Minger.

"The Catholic Church is significantly ill-informed as to scientific issues related to this emerging area of science."

Minger's colleague Chris Shaw, professor of neurology and neurogenetics at King's College, agreed. "The Catholic bishops' statement on hybrids is not a radical violation of human dignity as they claim — it is a radical violation of the truth!"

If we were keeping score, we'd have to say that it's Scientists 1, Catholics O. But hang on, over in Italy there's been a huge fuss involving scientists and the boss of all those English and Welsh bishops — the Holy Father himself.

Pope Benedict XVI was due to give a speech at the University of Rome La Sapienza. But 67 professors wrote a letter of protest to the Vatican, and students at the university held demonstrations against the Pope's visit. The Pope canceled. This is unprecedented — popes never cancel engagements unless they are ill.

The reason? The academics were unhappy that in 1990 the present Pope, then plain old Cardinal Ratzinger, said in a speech that the Church had been "right and just" to condemn Galileo Galilei in the 17th century for arguing that the Earth orbits the sun. Galileo was tried and very heavily censured by the Inquisition, and Ratzinger was the head of its offspring organization, the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith.

Of course, it's crazy to try to defend what the Pope's predecessors did more than 300 years ago, but it seems to me that the academics were shortsighted in their action. This is Italy — Rome, no less — that we're talking about; the home of the Catholic Church. The people of Italy were not happy that the Pope had been dissed, as they saw it. The Pope's freedom of speech had been denied, they said. Tens of thousands rallied in St. Peter's Square to show their support.

I think Italy's Minister of Social Solidarity Paolo Ferrero put it best. "It is because there were people like Galileo who fought for freedom that everyone can talk," he said. An exchange of views is important, and to be encouraged. We must thank Galileo for this, said Ferrero. "We must thank him; he was condemned, but thanks to him we can listen to what the Pope has to say, even if we don't agree with him."

The Pope's views may be misguided, or even plain wrong, but he should be allowed to talk. The Pope's speech, which in the end was read out by a professor instead, stated that faith cannot be imposed but can only be freely chosen. Fair enough. Like the Pope, the Catholic Bishops' Conference of England and Wales should be allowed to issue statements. You just hope they get their facts right next time, or else — like the Inquisition — they will both scare and mislead people.

Recently, I had lunch with the great entomologist and evolutionary biologist Edward O. Wilson, of Harvard University. Now 78, he was sharp as a tack and clearly still highly curious about the world. A long-term hero of mine, he spoke a little of how he had drifted away from the tenets of his Baptist upbringing. He's not definitively anything, he said, not Christian, atheist or agnostic. Belief in God is a trait that has evolved through natural selection, he said. The way to understand it better is to talk to each other, and to study religion using science.

I find it hard to be as open-minded as Wilson, but I left our lunch meeting inspired. Scientists and the religious should work together, he said — it's the only way to save the world. On that note, let's even up the score: Scientists 1, Catholics 1.

How's that?

The second volume of Natural Selections columns translated into Japanese is published by Shinchosha at ¥1,500. The title is "Hito wa ima mo shinka shiteru (The Evolving Human: How new biology explains your journey through life)."


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