Pharyngula

Mohler fears the cookie-eating mouse

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The operation was a success. Later, the duck, with his new human brain, went on to become the leader of a great flock. Irwin, however, was ostracized by his friends and family and eventually just wandered south.

Dr. R. Albert Mohler, Jr., president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, is worried. He’s afraid we’re going to put a human brain in a rodent’s head. No, really — it’s not just a joke in a cartoon. He seriously wants to suppress research in transgenic and chimeric animals “before a mouse really does come up and ask for a cookie.” Now, seriously, his worry isn’t that mice will be smarter than he is and eat all his cookies. No, he has better reasons.

The scariest part of this research is directed at work done in hope of curing or treating diseases of the human brain.

They might cure debilitating neurological diseases like Alzheimer’s or cerebral palsy or schizophrenia! Those horrible, horrible scientists—how dare they cure our god-given afflictions. We deserve them!

OK, to be fair, I think that was just a badly written sentence. I hope he isn’t appalled at the idea of developing animal models that would be useful in curing human diseases (although he might be), but he’s more concerned that mice might acquire some human mental abilities.

Saletan reports that ethicists at Stanford at first rejected the proposal, but have since come to approve it, allowing the researchers to produce mice with “some aspects of human consciousness or some human cognitive abilities.”

This raises the frightening prospect of a human brain within an animal species. The proposed research at Stanford would not reach that point, but granting a mouse brain “some aspects of human consciousness or some human cognitive abilities” should be enough to set off the ethical alarms.

First, some perspective: the human brain weighs about 1500 grams. The mouse brain, about 0.4 grams. That’s 3,750 times smaller—nobody is worried that implanting a few thousand cells will suddenly make a batch of mice that can do algebra and speak English and pester passers-by for cookies. The effects will be negligible—what the researchers are aiming for is minimal molecular compatibility, so that pathogens will affect them in the same way as they do us, or that we can more directly examine the effect of heritable diseases. The ethicists are erring on the side of caution to a ludicrous degree, reacting as if miniscule quantities of brain tissue or slight changes might send mice on the path to being Stanford professors. They won’t.

I think the best they could hope for is turning mice into Southern Baptist theologians, which, as we all know, requires almost no brainpower at all.

Nah, I’m joking. These will be mice that, at best, have slightly disordered brains with some compatibility at the neural level with humans. Again, sort of like Southern Baptists, I suppose. Maybe Mohler should worry. Or maybe he should see this as an opportunity to greatly expand his flock.

Now here’s the real reason Mohler is opposed. He quotes Nancy Jones, a bioethicist for the Center for Bioethics and Dignity, a Christian think-tank, who has a fully cited argument against chimeric and transgenic animals.

A more fundamental Christian concern involves violation of the divinely created order. The Bible tells us that God designed procreation so that plants, animals, and humans always reproduce after their own kind or seed. (Gen 1:11-12, 21) In the biblical view, then, species integrity is defined by God, rather than by arbitrary or evolutionary forces. The fusion of animal-human genomes runs counter to the sacredness of human life and man created in the image of God.

So the source cited is the Bible…that’s a science book to these people.

It’s a ridiculous objection. The biblical view, on this matter as it is on many others, is wrong. Species integrity is defined by reproductive barriers, not an invisible man in the sky. Evolutionary forces lead to new species all the time, and interspecies hybrids occur both naturally and in the lab. There are legitimate reasons to object chimeras (Jones mentions just one, that it would also allow viruses from the two species to mingle and possible acquire new possibilities for virulence), but trying to use the several-thousand-year-old myths of nomadic tribesman to whom plows were a radical new technology to argue against modern biotechnology is absurd. There’s simply no relevance.

I say let the scientists do their work. I’d like to see progress towards a cure for Alzheimer’s before I show any symptoms. And if a mouse asks me for a cookie, I’ll give him a few crumbs, without any resentment. I will try to persuade him that atheism makes for a better way of life than that crazy Baptist nonsense, though.

Comments

  1. #1 David Marjanovi?
    June 25, 2007

    Horizontal gene transfer is of evil, then.

  2. #2 David Marjanovi?
    June 25, 2007

    Horizontal gene transfer is of evil, then.

  3. #3 Brownian
    June 25, 2007

    Ha ha, God! Once we’ve shown we can breath a soul into a mere animal, there’ll be few of Your inventions we can’t duplicate. All we’ve got to do is invent bigotry, hatred, genocide, the subjugation of women, and an obsession with sex, and we’ll have You beat!

    Who’s a jealous God now, byatch?

  4. #4 Brownian
    June 25, 2007

    “BTW, it isn’t just a matter of size”

    Yeah, you keep telling yourself that, mikmik ;)

  5. #5 Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    June 26, 2007

    Of course organized religion is concerned o’ mice an’ men, since their best laid schemes may gang aft agley.

    But it may not take a chimera to give them problems, since characteristics such as human-like altruism is now claimed in chimp:

    Past work has failed to turn up un­equiv­o­cal ev­i­dence that chim­pan­zees act purely al­tru­is­tic­ally to­ward peers, ex­cept family mem­bers. But in new re­search, Fe­lix War­ne­ken and col­leagues of the Max Planck In­sti­tute for Ev­o­lu­tion­ary An­thro­po­l­ogy in Leip­zig, Ger­ma­ny, re­ported what they called strong ev­i­dence that chimps do so.

    Both chim­pan­zees and 18-month-old hu­man in­fants helped al­tru­is­tic­ally re­gard­less of any ex­pecta­t­ion of re­ward, they wrote–e­ven when some ef­fort was re­quired, and even when the re­cip­i­ent was an un­fa­mil­iar per­son. All these fea­tures were pre­vi­ously thought to be un­ique to hu­mans, the re­search­ers said.

    (Of course there are caveats:

    But past stud­ies, us­ing dif­fer­ent ex­pe­ri­men­tal se­tups, have not­ed lim­its to chimp help­ful­ness–sug­gest it will take more re­search to de­fine the bound­aries of this be­hav­ior, ac­cord­ing to sci­en­tists.

    )



    maybe he should see this as an opportunity to greatly expand his flock.

    When they start experimenting on sheep, sure.

    Meanwhile, intelligently designed mouses as we are discussing here will be a problem for creationists. I can see the future William Ratski discussing with Mouchael Behe, improbably parodying the inimitable:

    WR: “My Cheesical Spiceries Infolisting lists roquefort as both curdled and spiced. It is very unlikely to be produced by natural processes, so it must be created in a factory by fully artificial means.”

    MB: “And my Impossible Cheesicality criteria says the same – you can’t naturally cut a cheese an infinite number of times. There are no holes in our cheesiness!”

    Oh, and what about if mice invent religion? Wouldn’t giant cheese-making mice gods be a problem for the anthropomorphic theologists?

  6. #6 Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    June 28, 2007

    Yet many here are very gung-ho about letting them do it, despite not really knowing why.

    Um, it’s pretty much fully described in the post. “”…curing or treating diseases of the human brain” They might cure debilitating neurological diseases like Alzheimer’s or cerebral palsy or schizophrenia”.

    To study a disease (and its treatments), an animal model is often necessary.

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