Friday, February 5, 2010

Kyle Loh is not a Cannibal

So, Kyle Loh, who is a prominent user at Halopedia, put out some videos at Big Think about 10 months ago, in which he talks about being a stem cell researcher at Harvard. In the video Kyle Loh Introduces Embryonic Stem Cells, Kyle discusses the need for embryonic stem cells and how because extracting an embryonic stem cell from a human embryo causes the destruction of the embryo, and all the ethical issues there, his team is working on developing a way to chemically turn other cells into embryonic stem cells. It all makes sense to me, which shows how much he must have dumbed it down, and he gets his point across pretty clearly.
In the comments section, however, this guy Michael Roach posted the following:
Not only religious people, but most followers of Aristotle or other philosophical Realists and some Pragmatists would argue that since the soul is the form of the body (animating principle), the destruction of one individual, although less developed, for the sake of another, more developed is both a murder (the intentional killing of an innocent) and an act of cannibalism (the consumption of one individual of a species for the sustenance of another of the same species). This ethical burden deserves more attention than it got in your otherwise excellent presentation. I look forward to reading yours and other’s comments.
This completely misses Kyle’s point. He was specifically trying to avoid getting into the ethical concerns of abortion, instead promoting a way to get embryonic stem cells without abortion even coming into it. I suspect Michael Roach watched the video looking for an ethics discussion and was so disappointed by Kyle’s barely touching the subject that he didn’t bother to learn what the point of the video was really supposed to be.
That aside, I find Michael Roach’s reasoning poor. I’m not very knowledgeable about Aristotle, so I can’t comment on that directly, but I think ancient philosophers aren’t good representatives of biology in comparison to modern day biologists. While the ancient philosophers may have developed good ideas about insubstantial a priori concepts, anything scientific is sure to be obsolete. Modern day science shows us things that the ancient philosophers never had any clue about.
I don’t believe in a soul per se. There may be some metaphysical part of every human that represents their personhood, but there is no empirical evidence to suggest such. It is a purely faith-based concept.
“The brain controls every human action, voluntary or involuntary. Every breath, every heartbeat, every emotion. If the soul exists, scientifically speaking, it exists in the brain.”
–Chandra Suresh, Heroes
If we’re talking about the soul in a metaphorical way, in that a soul is simply a word to indicate personhood and identity, I would agree with Chandra Suresh from Heroes and say that the brain is the only part of the body that would be the soul or be host to it. The other parts of the body support the brain, support reproduction of genetic material, or serve no useful purpose.
On the subject of abortion, I take the controversial stance I usually take and say that there’s no personhood to embryos. They may be capable of developing personhood later, but in the fetal state there’s nothing but an empty vessel. Even if there is personhood, I think the woman has a right to abort given that it’s her body subjected to the parasitism with all its negative effects. I won’t go into that, as that could be an article in itself, but I’ll make it clear that I’m in favor of the women’s right to choose whether or not to terminate pregnancy.
It’s the claim about cannibalism that baffles me. How is this cannibalism? There’s no… consumption. The cells aren’t consumed. It’s a part of a human body that is more or less implanted in another body to support the latter’s life or life functions. Does Michael Roach think organ donations are cannibalized? Blood transfusions?
“Eating people alive? Where does that get fun?”
–Jayne, Serenity
Just by slapping the label of cannibalism on this, he thinks that it would automatically imbue it with immorality. I question that. Cannibalism brings to mind the image of the savage island peoples in the South American region, generally exaggerated by the European settlers. I’m not sure what’s real, but there at least were some peoples for whom the practice of cannibalism after military raids was an accepted cultural norm. This is often seen as horrific.
What’s really horrific is that people can war, often senselessly. I won’t get into an anti-war rant here, but the point is that the murder is the bad part. What’s done with the corpses afterward is largely irrelevant. Now, eating a dead enemy may be done in a way to hurt the enemy’s living family, but if there’s some accepted cultural practice or if the dead guy let it be known that he wants his corpse eaten or something, then cannibalism is not innately harmful.
In the case of organ donation, it’s entirely voluntary for the person from whose body the organs are taken. It’s after their death, so no harm there. They’re most likely not going to be killed by the government for use of their organs. And if a person can live longer because of this, that’s a good thing as far as I’m concerned. Is it cannibalism? No, in that there’s no literal consumption. Even if you were to stretch the meaning of cannibalism to have voluntary organ donation count, it wouldn’t be innately bad because cannibalism is not innately bad.
And now we come back to the stem cells. Let’s just skip over the whole abortion issue here, as Kyle wasn’t even advocating that, and talk about what he was talking about. To take a non-embryonic stem cell and turn it into an embryonic stem cell is not bringing forth an embryo, but rather giving the cell qualities of a cell that might otherwise be found in embryos. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe this does not even necessitate another human being donating such base cells, and that the same human with the injury could provide the cells from another organ. Even if that’s not true, I don’t think it matters ethically. Even if it is cannibalism, which it’s not, it’s not automatically immoral.
So, to sum up: Kyle rocks, and Michael Roach really missed the point. Harvesting stem cells is not cannibalism, and even if it were you have yet to explain why it may be bad.

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