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Newcastle Science Festival 2004

Genetics and the Human Person
John Polkinghorne, March 15th, 2004
Review by Geoff Ridley

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Professor Polkinghorne gave an informative and stimulating lecture accessible to listeners from diverse backgrounds on the ethical dilemmas and problems created by recent advances in genetic research. He emphasised that new results and techniques could present novel moral challenges. Wide general agreements on "right" and "wrong" activities were abroad, but decisions on specific courses of action opened up by continuing advances in knowledge and understanding could prove to be sources of great anguish and differences of opinion. In such instances, he argued, expert knowledge in a pertinent field of study was of vital importance, but that workers in this field might be in some danger of a form of "tunnel vision" (Writer's analogy), and some form of dialogue with non-experts might lead finding a better path forward. Not every experiment that could be done, should be done, Professor Polkinghorne counselled.

Vocal pressure groups, Professor Polkinghorne continued, while having valid perspectives, were in some danger of arguing their views from single issue bases, leading to situations of conflict rather than of constructive discourse.

On the topic of reproductive cloning in humans, Professor Polkinghorne suggested that there was an almost unanimous "No" in contemporary thinking. "Dolly the Sheep", he cited, was a success after some 277 failed cloning attempts. Risks of experimental failures in humans resulting in malformations would be irresponsible behaviour by experimenters, and not permissible, thus issues of safety and efficacy were unavoidable. Even if risk-free techniques were available, the reasons for wishing to produce human clones required close examination. For instance, in the cell nuclear replacement method of assisting a childless couple, the new individual would be a clone of the father. Genetically, the son would be an identical twin of his father, resulting in the possibility of significant psychological problems for the family. Deliberately determining the genetic nature of an individual had serious implications. Such an individual was being regarded as an "object", or an "end". In addition (as was expanded upon later in the Paper), the individual was far more than the "sum of the genes", that is, the "properties of the person" (Writer's phrase) could not be predicted even if the genetic "construction kit" (Writer's phrase) were to be specified in advance.

A moral dilemma was outlined by Professor Polkinkhorne in that, with continuing advances in the understanding of genetics, there now existed objective knowledge about the causes and mechanisms of some human disorders (Parkinson's and Alzheimer's Diseases were mentioned) from the genetic perspective. Such knowledge should, surely, be put to use to assist sufferers, and perhaps even lead towards the elimination of certain conditions by developing "therapeutic cloning" techniques, based upon stem cell studies. Indeed, it was later asked, would it be wrong to refrain from such research? Experimental investigations requiring the use of human embryos for these "serious purposes" were licensable on a case-by-case basis in the U.K. under present legislation.

Professor Polkinghorne addressed the ethically difficult area of the use of human embryos in clinical research was outlined. Here, attempts to use general moral principles have to be made in specific situations. The early embryo is not in able to make informed consent in plans concerning its own future. Can the embryo be regarded as "human", and which criteria for any decision are used? It was suggested that universal abhorrence at experimentation would be felt if the embryo was regarded as "human". Much of the remainder of the Paper dealt with views on what it was that constituted the "human" state of existence.

The Roman Catholic Church identifies humanity as existing from the instant of fertilisation, and thus is opposed to the use of viable embryos in research. The Warnock Commission, however, suggests the embryo to be potentially human in the first 14 days after conception, "ethically entitled to respect", but not actually human. Professor Polkinghorne aligns himself with the second view, basing his decision on the finding that, before 14 days, structure in the D.N.A. of the embryo is not discernable.

Professor Polkinghorne moved into a more abstract and philosophical realm to describe his thinking on that which constitutes or identifies "the person". He invited consideration of the new study of complex systems analysis in mathematical sciences, citing the work of Stuart Kauffmann, and the phrase "more is different". There seems to be a spontaneous "self-organisation" in complex interactive models. Though almost incomprehensibly large numbers of theoretically possible states might exist for a system, sometimes relatively very few patterns of dynamic order are actually observed when computer models are run. Energy exchange mechanisms, Polkinghorne suggested, are insufficient to explain the "self-organisation": "information flow" considerations were required. He sees a possible allusion to the development of the human "self", here. The self is something other than the explicable or predictable outcomes of a responsive complex system (Writer's paraphrase.)

The dualist view of humanity advanced by Plato and Descartes - that the soul and body are separable - and also Gilbert Ryle's "Ghost in the Machine" are not accepted by Professor Polkinghorne. We were reminded that to Aristotle and Aquinas, an instant of "ensoulment" took place a finite time after conception: 40 days for a man, 80 days for a woman. Polkinghorne advocates an integrated, psychosomatic view of body and soul, a "package deal" where the two are inseparable. Is the soul the "real me", he ponders. Is the "self" or "me" the information-bearing package that features some pattern continuity? He gave the example of his image in a photograph of sixty years ago. Through the natural biological processes of growth, development and repair, the literal body which formed the image on the photograph no longer existed, but his "self" had continued to the present, even though there had been no material continuity. An additional analogy offered was that of a ship which, during a voyage, suffered a series of breakages and repairs, such that when it arrived at its destination none of the original structure survived as all had been replaced. Had the "ship" eventually arrived in port, if not, what had? (Writer's comment: Perhaps this example has a similarity to Xeno's Whirlpool Paradox where the water moves on, but the "whirlpool" remains?) In contrast, it was also suggested that in a human who experienced the effect of a drug or traumatic experience, the "material continuity" could be maintained, but the "character" could be changed.

The attention of the audience was directed to some of the dilemmas created by the possible effects on an individual of the acquisition of knowledge from genetic testing on this individual. The individual had a right not to know information, even though this might be reliably obtained. The disorder, Huntingdon's Chorea, was used as an example in this context. It is known that this disorder is genetically perpetuated by the male parent, with any son having a 50% chance of inheritance from an affected father. The symptoms usually do not develop until early middle age, thus it would be possible for a son to suspect, from knowledge of family history, that he might develop the condition, even though his father might not have displayed any symptoms. If the son requested a genetic test, and this proved positive, then this result would also confirm that the father would develop the condition. The son might have a desire to know, but the father might not. Before a reliable genetic test for Huntingdon's was available, some 80% of potential carriers said they would prefer to take such a test, if it became available. When testing actually was developed, this proportion fell to 50%.

Professor Polkinghorne's closing remarks were cautionary. New knowledge and techniques from genetic research might lead to the elimination of certain distressing disorders, but might also open up the possibility of deliberate enhancement of certain traits: a "comodifying" of children. Science leads to knowledge, after which technology can convert knowledge into power. Wisdom, he suggests, is the power to "discern the good and reject the bad".

Some websites of possible interest:

Rev. Dr John Polkinghorne KBE FRS
Stuart A. Kaufman
The Guild of Catholic Doctors: Comments to the Chief Medical Officer’s Expert Group on Cloning
Bioethical Issues of IPRs

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Geoff Ridley, 19-03-04

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