The Magazine

Can We Talk?

About the moral dimensions of science.

Sep 8, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 48 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
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In the Shadow of Progress

Being Human in the Age of Technology

by Eric Cohen

Encounter, 181 pp., $21.95

Eric Cohen's measured, well-reasoned book on the ethical implications of new medical advances, In the Shadow of Progress, arrives like a spring breeze, fresh and calm and cleansing, something to be welcomed by anyone who follows bioethics and its controversies.

Let me tell you: It's getting brutal out there, this culture war between superstitious theocratic thugs and baby-killing pagan nihilists. By superstitious theocratic thugs, of course, I mean those religiously inclined folk who object to embryonic stem cell research, therapeutic cloning, genetic engineering, and other projects of today's biomedical science. The baby-killing pagan nihilists are the scientists themselves, or a lot of them anyway, along with their publicists and cheerleaders in the press, who think the objections to unfettered research are specious, irresponsible, and

Foremost among the second group, the pagan nihilists, is Steven Pinker, a psychologist at Harvard and a suave and gifted writer of popular science books. Pinker is rightly admired for his quick wit and light touch, yet even he has lately succumbed to the grinding, pitiless tone of the politico-cultural debate.

In a much-noticed, less-read article in the New Republic not long ago, called "The Stupidity of Dignity," he told a dark story of the reactionaries who would restrict the ability of scientists to do the research they want to do. The reactionaries form a "powerful" movement, Pinker said, that has its origin in such Christian strongholds as Georgetown University. The leader of this movement of Christian theocrats is--couldn't you just guess--a Jewish philosopher, Leon Kass. Like the Christian soldiers he captains, Kass is "pro-death [and] anti-freedom." His position as Maximum Leader was confirmed in 2001 when President Bush appointed him chairman of a government advisory council on bioethics. Kass proceeded to fill it with his theocratic allies. The council was stacked! When two commission members dared to oppose Kass on the issue of embryonic stem-cell research--he's against it--the chairman fired them. Just like that. As thugs do.

The thugs are philosophically shabby, too, according to Pinker. (This was the intellectual rather than the ad hominem part of his article.) Kass and his allies have fixated on this idea of "human dignity." Anytime a scientist wants to do something interesting with a human being, like harvest its stem cells or make an itty-bitty clone of it, Kass complains that the research violates something called human dignity. But the word "dignity" has too many meanings to be useful in describing reality, Pinker wrote. Much better, he said, to use the idea of "autonomy" as a guide to making judgments in bioethics. Autonomy is what makes human beings worthy of respect. Dignity, by contrast, is a "squishy, subjective notion," "slippery and ambiguous," "a mess."

Speaking of messes--Pinker's article not only lacked his usual humor and lightness of touch, it was unaccountably shot through with factual inaccuracies and clumsy thinking. Of the dozen blue-ribbon bioethics councils convened over the last 20 years, Kass's alone was genuinely diverse, as Pinker must know. It was the first not to be stacked with members of the research establishment, especially bioethicists in the employ of hospitals and corporations who all pretty much agree with each other. On Kass's panel there were researchers, philosophers, theologians, physicians, psychiatrists, and neuroscientists--even, God help us, a journalist.

In contrast to previous councils, Kass took care that his panel represented the full range of views on hot subjects like cloning and stem cells, from full-speed-ahead to whoa-nelly. And Pinker should have known the easily findable truth about those two "dismissed panelists." One was asked to leave because she attended fewer than half the council's meetings, and the other denied he was dismissed at all, in a public letter that praised Kass and the council's work. Other panelists who disagreed with Kass were never dismissed.

Along with the canards and the tone of paranoia, Pinker's piece was full of unintentional ironies. Shall we talk about "powerful movements"? Kass's band of skeptical bioethicists is dwarfed by the movement that Pinker is a member of, the one that aims to remove as many barriers to biomedical research as possible. This movement is lavishly funded by high-tech corporations, not-for-profit foundations, free-floating venture capitalists, and massively endowed research universities like that school in Cambridge where Pinker works.