Monday, August 22, 2005

stem cells, part 2

As if to prove my earlier point about stem cells--that there is a lot to learn before cloning becomes necessary, if it ever does,--in today's Washington Post, Rick Weiss reports that a team of Harvard researchers managed to "reprogram" an adult's stem cells so that they became embryonic stem cells. Led by Chad A. Cowan of Harvard, the research team fused the adult stem cell with an embryonic stem cell to create a hybrid cell. They still need to find a way to separate the DNA from the adult and that of embryo, but their work, at least in theory, presents a way to provide stem cells carrying the patient's DNA--thus making it less subject to rejection--without cloning. The scientific paper will appear August 26 issue of Science (subscription).

Saturday, August 20, 2005

Plumeting Into the Black Hole of Ignorance

It almost appears that the San Francisco Chronicle's Jon Carroll had the New York Times's Jodi Wilgoren in mind when he wrote on Friday, August 19, about people who have learned to take advantage of the habit among American journalists of writing pieces that lay out "both sides" of an argument or issue--even if there are multiple sides or, more to Carroll's point, even if the "other side" is invented. Carroll uses "intelligent design" as an example, and it's a good one. As virtually every marginally sentient being who has looked at this "controversy" knows, "intelligent design" is not a theory; it's not even a particularly intelligent critique of evolutionary theory---and to say that is not to deny the right of people to believe anything they want about the origin of feces, but it is to say that they can't teach bogosity in schools, as if it were in any way credible. (Well, let's say they shouldn't be able to and avoid getting into the pathetic state of American schools.)

As if to prove Carroll's point, Wilgoren has a massive article in the Sunday Times, titled "Politicized Scholars Put Evolution on the Defensive" and subtitled "A Debate Over Darwin." Wilgoren's piece has some interesting material on the Discovery Institute and other purveyors of "unintelligent design," but the basic premise is wrong. Wilgoren gives a nod to the fact that there is no scientific debate, and then skates right on by to discuss the "controversy," the two-sided argument. Wilgoren writes: [Advocates of intelligent design] have mounted a politically savvy challenge to evolution as the bedrock of modern biology, propelling a fringe academic movement onto the front pages and putting Darwin's defenders firmly on the defensive."

Wilgoren's own incomprehension surfaces in passages like this: "As much philosophical worldview as scientific hypothesis, intelligent design challenges Darwin's theory of natural selection by arguing that some organisms are too complex to be explained by evolution alone, pointing to the possibility of supernatural influences. While mutual acceptance of evolution and the existence of God appeals instinctively to a faithful public, intelligent design is shunned as heresy in mainstream universities and science societies as untestable in laboratories." Evolutionary theory is difficult to test in laboratories, too, which is one reason the proponents of unintelligence attack it.

Wilgoren needs to read the literature, starting with the article by H. Allen Orr in the May 30, 2005 New Yorker, which I mentioned a few blogs ago. There is nothing to test. "Unintelligent design" is an assault on the values of the Enlightenment, specifically, in this case, rational inquiry into the nature of the universe--and make no mistake, the "big bang" is next--and life. Darwin and evolutionary theory will survive, even if the schools of America adopt the fundamentalist Christian version of the Taliban's fundamentalist Islam, but a lot of people will suffer, beginning with the school children, whose intellectual growth is already stunted by Antediluvian curricula. But John Scopes and Clarence Darrow are surely rolling in their graves. Wilgoren's piece represents another setback for quality journalism and intelligence.

The Times apparently is using Wilgoren's piece as the introduction to a whole series on "unintelligent design," a topic to which it has already paid too much attention.

We are plummeting into the black hole of ignorance.

stem cells

Jesse Reynolds, Center for Genetics and Society, and Susan Frank of the Steven and Michele Kirsch Foundation have a back and forth on stem cell research on

Reynolds wants to ban human cloning and genetic engineering while providing public funding and oversight for embryonic stem cell research and the harvesting of eggs from fertile donors. Whatever cloning techniques are used in that research will also be supervised.

Frank is all gung-ho for "therapeutic cloning" and anything that has "potential" for curing disease. Like all apologists for this kind of endeavor, she takes a wish--supposition or hypothesis--and turns it into a fact she then uses to justify a course of action that might make that wish come true.

No one is served by these inflated expectations. By now the scientists should know better than to raise them, even if the so-called science journalists do not. Stem cells appear a promising avenue for research, but much about them, including their efficacy in curing disease or repairing damaged spinal cords, remains unknown.

I'd certainly like someone to find a fix for Parkinson's and every other degenerative disease. I have no problem with scientists using embryos from fertility clinics that are unwanted and that their owners willingly donate for research purposes. And adult stem cells are more than worthy of study. But I can see no justification for human --animal--cloning at this time. I'm willing to admit that research might show no other way to obtain stem cells that can work miracles, but it hasn't yet and we lack the knowledge and wisdom to start mucking around with the genome.

That's not unusual for us humans. We can manipulate and alter far more easily than we can understand the full import of our actions and decide to let a technology lie fallow, perhaps forever.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Bomb Dogs

Borzou Daragahai in his article, "Servants--and Weapons--of War" in the August 10, 2005, Los Angeles Times reveals a new chapter in the sordid misadventure that is the war in Iraq--the use of dogs and other animals as biological bomb delivery systems. It's a tactic the Russians used in World War II against German armored vehicles: Lace the street dog with explosives and send it out to do what it does best--prowl for food. When it gets close to a target, blow it up. Like the use of dogs to torture prisoners, this is abuse and a violation of the dog-human bond, already strained among many Moslems because of various prohibitions against them. More than that it is further proof that we have no right to deem our species superior to any other. Quite the opposite.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Off-leash Hounds

"Keep Your Mutts Off", appearing in today's (August 9, 2005) Los Angeles Times, is the latest in a long series of laments and castigations over off-leash dogs despoiling nature, stirring fear in the hearts of wild critters and terrifying "normal" hikers. Reporter Hugo Martin invokes John Muir and the little dog Stickeen with whom he shared an adventure on what is now Muir glacier in Alaska, in order to say that even Muir would be amazed at how many dogs are now backcountry. "Stickeen," Muir's account of the adventure, is one of the great dog stories.

Martin's primary focus is the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area. Had Martin read more locally, say Two Years Before the Mast, Richard Henry Dana's classic of his hide training along the California in the 1830s, he would have learned that dogs were a feature of the landscape, kept on the rancheros and at the missions to manage cattle, eat offal, hunt coyotes and other game, and guard. Sometimes dogs outnumbered people; indeed, when their numbers got so high they became pestiferous, they were culled. Dogs were woven into the fabric of life, as they had been in the Americas since the first people arrived. So how don't they belong?

I'm not going to defend people who refuse to control their dogs on or off leash, but, as I've said time and again, I'm a scofflaw from way back when it comes to leash laws, and I've walked my dogs in parks whenever I can. Various of them have tangled with skunks (a certain dandruff shampoo kills the odor), swum with a beaver, until I could fish them out, and gone ice skating with otters--about like me trying to swim with them. Yes, they chase squirrels. Of course, sometimes, people want dogs to chase deer, squirrels, rabbits, bears, and big cats, context being all.

To say that animals who evolved in the presence of predatory canids get agitated when one is around is basically to state the obvious in a way that reveals the ideological bias that many "wildlife biologists" have against domestic animals, even if they keep a few themselves. These biologists were inculcated with the notions that "wild nature and its plants and animals" are vastly superior--physically, mentally, genetically--to their degenerate domestic kin and that the wild must be kept pure from the corrupting influence of civilization. Their attitude is as rigid and as dangerous in the long run as that of the slash and burn developers. Both believe that nature and the humanmade world are fundamentally at odds.

To that I say that it's long past time that we in the West learned to live in the world without destroying it or sealing parts of it off, like some precious virgin. Were we to do so, we might have more land for parks, not less. A prime issue here is that there is not enough park land [period] Competing interests battle over what is, with each side claiming the moral high ground. Despite all the talk about the number of dogs in this country, generally politicians side with non-dog owners when it comes to leash laws and access to public land, in part, I suspect, because none of them wants to be accused of preferring animals to people and, in large part, for fear of lawsuits.

In many places I've been a sort of tolerable detente is established between the dog and the non-dog people. It's more a disequilibrium than an equilibrium, but given the general lack of imagination and intelligence shown by elected officials in this matter, it's about as good as can be expected. Trouble comes in the form of people who let their dogs run wild, bothering other people, dogs and animals; and in the guise of morally rigid rule enforcers (including politicians, rangers, cops, and certain deranged dog owners).

We need more parks so people and dogs can get more, not less exercse--off-leash.

Saturday, August 06, 2005

What Designer?

I had planned to use this entry to talk about a timely study of why individuals fear people outside their racial, or ethnic, group, lead by Andreas Olsson of NYU. Appearing in the July 29 issue of Science (subscription required), the study shows how a bad experience with "the other" turns into global fear of all brown or black or different people or things. Citing and endorsing the work of Arne Ohman of the Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm, the psychologists suggest that primates have a genetic predisposition to fear snakes and spiders, because fearing them from the get-go and thus avoiding or, presumably, killing them provided an evolutionary advantage. A similar mechanism might be at work in fear of the other, they suggest, as does Ohman himself in a commentary in the same issue--convenient, isn't it? That assertion reminds me of the claim that pointers and setters are preprogrammed to hunt birds.

At least humans seem capable of working around, if not defeating completely, that fear though exposure to the "other." Olsson and his colleagues point to interracial dating as one form of socializing that breaks down those fears. Or as the old Smith and Hawken garden supply store baseball cap put it: "Miscegenation will save the nation."

These are eminent psychologists, who, I'm sure, have conducted brilliant experiments, but on the face of it, they seem to be engaging in the worst sort of genetic determinism. They certainly have never seen a child who is fascinated by snakes--lethal and benign--or begun to explain those people who delight in snakes and bugs of all sorts. Then, too, an erroneous assumption that all snakes and spiders are a threat underlies the experiment.

But that discussion will have to wait while I briefly add my voice to the chorus declaiming against Bushy's endorsement of "intelligent design," as a plausible alternate to the theory of evolution as put forth by Darwin and elucidated over the years. "Intelligent design" is not a theory; it explains nothing. It is a critique of evolutionary theory that is forcefully dissected in the May 30, 2005, issue of the New Yorker by H. Allen Orr.

Ignoring the "science" and politics, I'll say, as I've said before, that if the world we find ourselves in--if we ourselves--are the product of an "intelligent designer" then he/she/it is either really stupid or a sadist or both. There's just no way around that. The problem is that unable to defend their nutty notions through reason, the religious rightists fall back on "faith." It's my belief. I'm entitled to it and to forcing it down your throat, and you can't argue about it because then you'd be mocking my faith. And furthermore, my faith is as valid as any other, because I hold it to be true. In fact, it's better than all those wrong others.

With such faith, you can never lose. But you surely can make a holy mess.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Cloned Canine

We have bamboo in our backyard, and, like all bamboo--as far as I know--it reproduces clonally. Each new shoot is genetically a carbon copy--except for the glitches, an unknown number--of every other shoot in this stand and others. But each one is different, not only because of those errors in copying but also because they were formed and broke into light of day under different circumstances. I think of that bamboo whenever I read a new article about the next animal or plant that some hotshot geneticist somewhere has cloned. Today's news is full of the South Korean scientist, Woo Suk Hwang, and his lab at Seoul National University. They cloned an Afghan hound, no less, and named it Snuppy [Seoul National University puppy--cute]. The scientific communication is in Nature (subscription required).

Gina Kolata
, writing in the New York Times, calls their feat, "the Mount Everest of cloning." Initially, I thought the statement what I called in my editing days "hyperbolic exaggeration"--bad writing of the worst sort--but then I realized that it was, in fact, a runaway metaphor, one of those cases where the author says something they don' t intend, and that something, although the opposite of what they intended, is right on. Thus, Kolata presumably meant to praise the Korean work as heroic, forgetting that George Mallory when asked in 1924 why he wanted to climb Everest, reportedly replied, "Because it is there." Nothing "heroic" about that--maybe imperialistic, but not heroic.

Mallory died on the mountain's slopes, and now, 52 years after Tenzig and Hillary made the summit, the well marked routes to the top have become thoroughfares cluttered with climbers, littered with garbage and corpses. Similarly, the path toward a cloned dog is littered with rejected eggs, embryos, and expectations, not to mention dogs.

There are now more reasons not to climb Everest than there are to climb it, yet each year, base camp becomes more crowded because as "the world's highest peak," it remains the "ultimate" climbing challenge in the eyes of many. Call it the homogenization of experience--the end of diversity in adventure and exploration--as surely as cloning is an assault on genetic diversity--the driving force behind evoluion for most plants and animals, including humans. Sexual reproduction, involving, as it does, the mixing of genes is, at times, a sloppy process. but slop is more interesting than sameness.

Cloning is the genetic equivalent of having to wear the same clothes as everyone else; it's the scientific manifestation of the unfortunate trend of putting the same"branded" shops in every community in the world. Cloning is the enemy of diversity. Most people in the media can't even begin to make that connection.

What's the point to cloning a dog, then? First, bragging rights for the people who did it--no small thing. Second, refining the techniques for cloning humans. A world-class geneticist told me some years ago that the only reason for learning to clone the dog, was to master techniques for cloning a human, and to make cloning more acceptable! If my beloved Dawg, why not me? Hwang Woo Suk and his colleagues say that they want to use cloned dogs to study diseases in humans and dogs and that they would never clone a human. The Koreans might not, but people elsewhere want to be the first on their block to clone humans, for both the glory and the notoriety.

There is no reason to clone, where it is not the natural form of reproduction. Cloning is the ultimate limit on diversity. Selling it as some sort of resurrection of a lost pet is wrong; it plays upon people's naive genetic notions and nostalgia, for like my bamboo shoots, the two will not be the same. Claiming that cloning the dog will lead inevitably to the cure for diseases common to humans and dogs is bogosity, a play on people's emotions to justify something that shouldn't even merit a "yuk test." There certainly are no grounds other than propaganda for saying it will have any lasting scientific merit.

People want to clone in order to prove they can manipulate the forces of evolution. They probably can't, but even if they could, it must be said that judging from the mess people have made of purebed dogs, there are more good reasons to ban cloning of any sort, than to allow it.