Saturday, March 29, 2008

Elizabeth Blackburn and Leon Kass

Recently, MIT Press published Catherine Brady's biography of Elizabeth Blackburn--Elizabeth Blackburn and the Story of Telomeres: Deciphering the Ends of DNA. Blackburn is famous among biologists as the leading researcher in the study of telomeres. Telomeres are those regions of DNA that cap the ends of chromosomes. As cells divide, these telomeres tend to shorten, and eventually this shortening of the telomeres leads to the death of the cells. Some cells--such as cancer cells--continue dividing endlessly because of the enzyme telomerase that slows the shortening of telomeres. Blackburn's research on telomeres has become important both for aging research and cancer research.

In the fall of 2001, when President Bush established his Council on Bioethics with Leon Kass as the Chair, Blackburn was appointed as one of the original 17 members. Although Kass was careful to appoint members who would generally support Bush's political agenda--particularly, his opposition to embryonic stem cell research--Blackburn emerged as one of a group of four members who argued with Kass and criticized the President's agenda.

Early in 2004, Kass demanded that Blackburn be removed from the Council. She and two others--William May and Stephen Carter--were removed and replaced by three new members--Peter Lawler, Diana Schaub, and Benjamin Carson. This provoked a public controversy because it seemed that Kass was manipulating the membership of the Council to weaken any opposition to Bush's political agenda on bioethics. Although Kass tried to argue that there was no political motivation behind his moves, he was unpersuasive, particularly since the three people joining the Council--Lawler, Schaub, and Carson--were friendly to Kass's positions. (In 2005, Kass resigned as Chair of the Council, although he remains a member of the Council.)

Brady recounts this controversy, with a clear bias towards Blackburn and without much intellectual depth. Blackburn herself is a great scientist, but she lacks any understanding of the deep philosophic implications of the debate surrounding Kass and the Council. For example, she was baffled by Kass's assertion that there is "a disjunction between the way science understands things and the way human beings on the plane of human experience understand things" (p. 280 in Brady's book). Blackburn was unfamiliar with the intellectual legacy of Kass as influenced by Martin Heidegger, Jacob Klein, Leo Strauss, and Hans Jonas--particularly, the legacy of phenomenological philosophy and its account of early modern science as abstracting from the common sense experience of human beings for the sake of fostering a technological conquest of nature.

The serious flaws in Kass's reasoning arise from his dubious assumption that Descartes's materialist reductionism "sets the program of all modern science" and his failure to see how Darwinian biology refutes Cartesianism. Some of my blog posts on these points can be found here, here, and here. I also have an entry on the President's Council on Bioethics in the Encyclopedia of Science, Technology, and Ethics (4 vols., 2005) and a chapter on Kass and biotechnology in Darwinian Conservatism. Some of the material in the book chapter can also be found in my article for The New Atlantis (summer 2003), which can be found here.

In May, I will be directing a Liberty Fund colloquium in New Orleans on "Biotechnology and Liberty." We will be reading Beyond Therapy: Biotechnology and the Pursuit of Happiness, one of the reports of the President's Council edited by Kass, and Ron Bailey's Liberation Biology: The Scientific and Moral Case for the Biotech Revolution. There is a good debate between these two books. Kass's book reflects neoconservative fears about the dehumanizing effects of trying to use biotech to conquer nature for human benefit. Bailey's book is a libertarian defense of biotech as a tool for advancing human liberty through the scientific mastery over nature.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The issue stinks of the dead corpses of several million Americans who have died, or will die due to bush's ban on embryonic stem cell research funding. And it is effectively a ban per all the researchers I've spoken with. 580,000 dead per year from cancer, another 500,000 butchered. 500,000 dead from heart disease per year another quarter million disabled and butchered. Then there is diabete's death toll. Bush and his destruction of the wall between church and state have/will have murdered several million American citizens before this monstrosity is done. Please post when and where the """""bioethics""""" committee meets, perhaps some dying cancer patients would like to address them, or join their social circles?