Back to Stem Cells

The confusion around stem cells is due, I think, in large part to a fundamental misunderstanding of the function of DNA. In the popular mind, DNA contains a complete description of a person’s body. From this perspective, the DNA in the 100 or so stem cells in a balstocyst fully describe what the person will eventually become. Now, if this were true, there would be a meaningful sense in which a blastocyst is a “potential” human being. But in fact, this is not how DNA works at all. Rather, DNA functions as a set of instructions and tools for building simple things, like proteins, for example. It’s more like a recipe book than an encyclopedia. When you understand this, it becomes easier to understand how human and other animal development occurs, starting with extremely simple structures, which over time become exponentially more complex. Leading eventually, by the way, to things like minds. This is the sense in which reductionism is unassailable.

4 Replies to “Back to Stem Cells”

  1. The hardcore pragmatist gripes, part one…

    Methinks your argument is actually a refutation of reductionism, not a support for it. You are saying, rightly, that genetic information does not directly determine the ultimate form of an organism, but rather guides the manner in which that organism develops in its specific environment, which is contingent and extremely complex. In other words, the same genetic information would produce different results given a different developmental history. That being the case, a full description of the factors responsible for any given organism’s specific form would have to account for a huge range of contingent and unrepeatable factors. Now in theory such a description might be a “reduction,” since it would be *somewhat* smaller than the full set of events experienced by the organism. But maybe not by much. And certainly, such a description would not resemble a compact set of general formulas of the sort most people have in mind when they think of a reduction.

    Also, I think a lot of the worry over stem cell research has more to do with questions about where the cells are going to come from, and what people might do with the resulting technologies. Not to say that these problems are insoluble, but an ethical debate over the issue is going to hinge on these rather than on the genetic determinism question.

  2. Like what you said about contingency & such. My point was simple and elliptical almost to the point of non sequitur, but remember who you’re talking to. 100 cells: no brain, no mind–need we add “soul” or are we agreed that that is an obselete concept unless coupled with -food and -music? I would not try to reduce mind or brain to just cells–how they are wired together is also somewhat important.

    Interesting what you say about stem cells. But the people against stem cell research are generally not against IVF, which is where are these blastocysts, the majority of them headed for the dustbin, are coming from. This is not a consistent position, unless the difference lies in the “intentional” destruction of the blastocysts in stem cell research v. their “unintentional” destruction in the case of IVF. This is the “argument from collateral damage” and carries a lot of weight with, e.g., supporters of the GWOT, or wars generally. But I also still think that there is some murky form of homunculus theory behind the “life begins at conception” school.

  3. I don’t really know the ins and outs of different anti-stem-cell constituencies to be honest. I just wanted to assail the anti-assailability claim for reductionism.

    It’s probably true that some kind of homunculus theory lurks in there for some. Although I can imagine at least two other religious/conservative objections. One would hinge on some kind of ‘divine intention’ view, which would not need to assume a homunculus, but could say something like ‘once a human being has been *started* in its development, that should be respected and protected.’ And the other would be a conservative take on the old ‘when does life begin’ question. I guess both of those boil down to the same arguments as surround abortion.

    At the end of the day, it’s happening anyway. So the arguments that I have more sympathy for (ethics of harvesting and who controls the resulting technologies) can only function to slow things down a little and to encourage caution. Generally liberal as usual…

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