Archived Posts October 2005 » Page 3 of 5 | Acton PowerBlog

Spurred on by the specter of miraculous cures to horrible diseases, Irving Weissman, director of Stanford’s Institute for Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine, is working on experiments combining human brains and mice. The Stanford Daily reports that Dr. Weissman “has worked with the transfer of human neurons to the brains of mice for several years now. He has already bred mice whose brains are composed of 1 percent human neurons, finding that transplanted human brain cells could successfully connect to a mouse brain.” Such experiements yield what are known as “chimeras,” the creation of organisms composed of material from multiple species.

But what a mere 1% can’t tell you, Dr. Weissman bets the other 99% will. Dr. Weissman “wants to initiate a new experiment by transplanting human brain-stem cells to an inbred strain of mice whose natural brain cells die before the mice’s birth. Human brain cells would then replace the mice’s own, creating a breed of mice whose brains are composed entirely of human neurons.”

This kind of transplantation seems to be a rather different from other kinds of brain transplantation that has been discussed before, since the brain-stem cells would develop once they had been implanted in the mice. With respect to the possibility of the transplant of a completely developed brain, Dr. Ben Carson, who has been director of pediatric neurosurgery at the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions for over 20 years and is a member of the President’s Council on Bioethics, says, “As a brain surgeon, let me say we don’t have to worry about transplanting human brains into other animals because we’re already dealing with billions and billions of neurons and hundreds of billions of interconnections, and it’s not going to happen.”

But even this supposedly less complex kind of transplant proposed by Dr. Weissman has been acknowledged by him that it “may not even work at all.” For the time being, Dr. Weissman’s proposals are on hold until a clear scientific consensus is reached on the ethical dimensions of the research.

Recent testimony given by members of the President’s Council on Bioethics attests to the diversity of opinion on these issues. Dr. William Hurlbut, himself a consulting professor in human biology at Stanford University and who was not quoted in the Stanford Daily article, says:

It is possible using certain technologies to transplant whole modules of developing portions of the embryo from one species to another. This has been done by Le Dourian and Balabon, where they actually transplanted a portion of the developing brain, early neurologic system at that stage, and got the crowing capacities of a quail put into a chick.

And so he actually transplanted a unit of behavior. Just to draw that a little farther, I think we should also be careful to not do that with elements of human form. In other words, it isn’t just a matter of cognition that we’re concerned about. The categories of our world, the conceptual categories that organize our world provide an intelligible world to us. These are not to be taken lightly.

The way we understand our world is by the separations within the world. For very serious purposes we might mix those, but I think we should be careful not just to see that as a matter of inner psychological or cognitive functions, but we need to preserve the human form, the dignity of the human form.

Diana J. Schaub, a professor of political science at Loyola College in Maryland, discusses a study on the subject and argues that “transplanting human neural stem cells into a mouse no more transforms the mouse than transplanting a pig heart valve into a person transforms the person. All of the rules that the authors recommend seems to me sensible, and although they don’t acknowledge it, those rules are based on preserving species integrity. Transfer the smallest number of cells necessary; use dissociated human stem cells rather than larger tissue transplants; and select host animals carefully, preferring distant relations over our nearer primate cousins.”

When Dr. Alfonso Gómez-Lobo, professor of metaphysics and moral philosophy at Georgetown University, discusses the possibility, he says:

Let me start with the most extreme and highly unlikely case. Suppose human neurological stem cells are transplanted into a primate so that the animal acquired some key human features. It seems to me that this would be morally troublesome in spite of the often heard argument that there’s nothing wrong with enhancing the capabilities of an animal.

In my opinion, this procedure should be viewed the other way around. It is not that an animal is thereby enhanced, but rather that what is essentially human is really debased. It is closer to the production of a human being in the wrong body.

And I often imagine what it would be like to wake up one day only to realize that I have the body of a chimpanzee. Luckily, we’re told that this is virtually impossible because the human body as we know it seems to be absolutely necessary for the development of the human mind, and I’m thinking about size of the brain, the cranial space, et cetera.

The US Conference of Catholic Bishops is among the groups endorsing an interfaith statement on immigration reform. Like the income tax system, it seems that everyone agrees the immigration system needs reform but there’s a lot of disagreement as to how to go about it.

As with most such broad consensus statements, the points articulated tend toward the innocuous, but there are a few sound ideas: for example, expediting family reunification. In general, the statement seems to be consonant with the arguments made in Acton’s Christian Social Thought Series volume by Andrew Yuengert.

The only caveat I would add is that there should be more emphasis on upholding the rule of law—a strong regime of which is a large part of what makes the United States an attractive destination for emigrants in the first place. The statement does stress legality and mentions “the legitimate task of implementing American immigration policy.” But the implication seems to be that immigration problems are due almost entirely to irrational laws and the difficulties they pose for immigrants. Part of the solution will also be better enforcement of the (one hopes) more rational legal system, and the statement would do well to say so.

The Verona-based Van Thuan Observatory has recently launched its website, reports the Zenit news service. The Observatory’s namesake, the late Cardinal Van Thuan, was the recipient of the the Acton Institute Faith and Freedom Award in 2002 (read the details in our new 15 Year Report).

On first glance, I think this resource has a long way to go. The ‘sources and documents’ page links you to only two documents. I don’t quite know how to repond to assemblies like this. It seems to me that if one wanted to dive into Catholic social thought, all the major encyclicals and other documents are on-line already at the Vatican (i.e. Centesimus Annus, Rerum Novarum, and many others).

However, hopefully sites such as this will serve as a starting points for many, leading them back to the source documents.

Blog author: jspalink
posted by on Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Dr. Jennifer Morse, a senior fellow in economics for the Acton Institute, argues in this week’s Acton commentary that the key road-block to successful economic development in impoverished nations is the lack of good “moral qualities, like the even-handed enforcement of law, and the transparency of government.” Dr. Morse cites a report from the World Bank Institute detailing the extensive bribery that occurs in developing countries, a practice that is considered “normal” by just about everyone. While this may seem to be a small thing (a few bucks here and there), the economic impact on the poor is very significant.

Another impact of the poor moral quality displayed by the governments of developing nations is the over regulation of business. Over regulation of business, argues Morse, discourages would-be business owners from pursuing their dreams and breaks the entrepreneurial spirit. According to the Harvard Institute of Economic Research, some nations may take up to 112 days to comply with all of the legal requirements before opening a business. In Canada, you can legally open a business in 2 days. Faced with four months of bribes, permits, and fees, many shrink away from even considering starting up a new business. Opening up a business outside of the law (about 30 percent of Mexico’s economy) requires even more bribes, and can be shut down at any time. The Harvard Institute report states in its abstract that “Countries with heavier regulation of entry have higher corruption and larger unofficial economies.”

Morse proposes that the solutions to these problems are simply holding these nations accountable, encouraging transparency, and reducing semi-legal corruption.

Without a legal system that protects those who take bribes, those who produce jobs are at a serious disadvantage. Reforming the legal system in underdeveloped countries is a necessary part of any strategy for economic advancement.

Put another way, sin is not cost-effective.

Read her full commentary here.

Also see Transparency International’s just-released 2005 Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI). More than two-thirds of the 159 nations surveyed scored less than 5 out of a clean score of 10, indicating serious levels of corruption in a majority of the countries surveyed.

The 2005 Index bears witness to the double burden of poverty and corruption borne by the world’s least developed countries, TI said.

“Corruption is a major cause of poverty as well as a barrier to overcoming it,” said Transparency International Chairman Peter Eigen. “The two scourges feed off each other, locking their populations in a cycle of misery. Corruption must be vigorously addressed if aid is to make a real difference in freeing people from poverty.”

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Wednesday, October 19, 2005

I received an email today from the InnerChange Freedom Initiative, an independent outreach of Prison Fellowship Ministries. It seems the iniative is facing rising program costs due to legal battles over the legitimacy of its Christian makeup. And constant critics of the program, like Barry Lynn of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, seem rather incredibly cold-hearted to the plight of today’s prisoner.

The InnerChange Freedom Initiative is one of the few elements in prisoners’ lives that has the ability to give them hope. And this hope is not just hope for release from physical bonds, but hope for release from the spiritual bonds of sin and corruption. Here are some of the key facts about the initiative:

  • The corrections system in America is broken. More than 600,000 people will be released from U.S. prisons and jails this year, and 52% of those ex-inmates will be return to prison within three years.

  • Departments of Correction are seeking help, asking for proposals for values-based prisoner rehabilitation alternatives.
  • The InnerChange Freedom Initiative, a biblically based, round-the-clock prison program works. An independent study by the University of Pennsylvania showed that only 8% of prisoners who graduated from our IFI program in Texas were reincarcerated within two years of their release.

This final point gets at the heart of the prison problem in America. For a system that is supposed to be based in large part on “rehabilitation,” recidivism rates are disturbingly high. This remains the case because the root issues are spiritual, and the state is spectacularly incapable of addresses such concerns. Johnny Cash, a Christian who had to push to record Gospel albums, recorded a hit song in 1968, “Folsom Prison Blues.” The lyrics of this song attest to the spiritual nature of criminality (emphasis added):

I hear the train a comin’; it’s rollin’ ’round the bend,
And I ain’t seen the sunshine since I don’t know when.
I’m stuck at Folsom Prison and time keeps draggin’ on.
But that train keeps rollin’ on down to San Antone.

When I was just a baby, my mama told me, “Son,
Always be a good boy; don’t ever play with guns.”
But I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die.
When I hear that whistle blowin’ I hang my head and cry.

I bet there’s rich folk eatin’ in a fancy dining car.
They’re prob’ly drinkin’ coffee and smokin’ big cigars,
But I know I had it comin’, I know I can’t be free,
But those people keep a movin’, and that’s what tortures me.

Well, if they freed me from this prison, if that railroad train was mine, I bet I’d move on over a little farther down the line, Far from Folsom Prison, that’s where I want to stay, And I’d let that lonesome whistle blow my blues away.

We’ve discussed textual interpretation a bit on this blog here before (here, here, and here). Paul Ricœur, who is famous for his “attempt to combine phenomenological description with hermeneutic interpretation,” passed away earlier this year.

One of Ricœur’s important contributions involved an observation about the nature of textual interpretation in distinction to personal dialogue. He writes, for example in his book Hermeneutics and the Human Sciences,

Dialogue is an exchange of questions and answers; there is no exchange of this sort between the writer and the reader. The writer does not respond to the reader. Rather, the book divides the act of writing and the act of reading into two sides, between which there is no communication. The reader is absent from the act of writing; the writer is absent from the act of reading. The text thus produces a double eclipse of the reader and writer. It thereby replaces the relation of dialogue, which directly connects the voice of one to the hearing of the other.

Ricœur notes some effects of this “double eclipse” and formulates a theory of the “sense of the text” to norm textual interpretation. In Plato’s Phaedrus, Socrates makes a somewhat similar observation about the nature of writing:

I cannot help feeling, Phaedrus, that writing is unfortunately like painting; for the creations of the painter have the attitude of life, and yet if you ask them a question they preserve a solemn silence. And the same may be said of speeches. You would imagine that they had intelligence, but if you want to know anything and put a question to one of them, the speaker always gives one unvarying answer. And when they have been once written down they are tumbled about anywhere among those who may or may not understand them, and know not to whom they should reply, to whom not: and, if they are maltreated or abused, they have no parent to protect them; and they cannot protect or defend themselves.

Of course, general agreement with Socrates and Ricœur does not entail a necessary acceptance of a kind of “sense of the text” radically disconnected from any authorial intent.

Even so, the inherent limits to written communication form an essential point of reference for articulating any coherent interpretive scheme. Yale philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff, in his 1993 Wilde lectures, published under the title Divine Discourse, makes a key point in his critique of Ricœur on the pervasiveness of the “double eclipse” problem:

It is not only the temporal endurance of texts but also the spatial transportability of texts which grounds the difficulties of interpretation to which Ricoeur calls attention. But our technological ability to broadcast utterance, as well as record it, has the consequence that we are forced to interpret even “live,” non-recorded, utterance in situations spatially distanced from the originating situation. Thus what Ricoeur attributes to writing is in fact equally true of recorded and broadcast utterance. Ricoeur conducts his discussion as if we were living in a pre-Edisonian age!

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Monday, October 17, 2005

On the heels of a proposed city-wide tax on quickservice restaurants in Detroit, a state bill has been introduced in the Michigan House to implement a 2% tax on fast-food establishments. The “Fast-Food Restaurant and Food Service Tax Act” (HB 4804) would apply only to cities with a population over 750,000…and to the best of my knowledge the city of Detroit is the only one in the state that meets that criterion.

A key provision of the bill in its current form: “The treasurer shall remit, upon appropriation, all proceeds in the fund to the eligible city from which the proceeds were collected.” Given the negative reaction to Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick’s proposed fast-food tax of 2%, this House Bill seems to be a way to circumvent the city’s own policy-making mechanisms. If the people of Detroit decide for themselves they don’t want such a tax, it seems unjust for the state to impose it upon them. The House Fiscal Agency does note, “The city council would also have to approve, by resolution, the imposition of the tax,” but resorting to a state bill seems to be a back-door way of achieving the tax hike.

In any case, it looks like one way or another Mayor Kilpatrick is committed to getting his tax increase. And if the city ever passed its own measure in addition to the state bill, fast-food restaurants in Detroit would be subject to an additional 4%. These sniggling little tax increases can add up quickly.

My take on the fast-food tax is available here.

Economic reality is finally catching up with the big American automakers and their suppliers, as noted by Thomas Bray in Wednesday’s Detroit News:

Around Detroit, the bankruptcy of giant auto parts maker Delphi Corp. is seen as a precursor of what’s in store for the entire American auto industry. More fundamentally, it confirms the bankruptcy of the industrial welfare state.

The powers of denial ensure it may be some time before our politicians, unions and even corporate leaders catch up to that fact. Exhibit A was the knee-jerk rant by Gov. Jennifer Granholm, who pronounced herself “angry” at Delphi. She then went on to blame the usual catalog of left-wing villains: “globalization,” “outsourcing,” “upper management,” “lack of support from Washington for the industries that made our country great” and “so-called free trade.”

Oh yes, and not enough government spending on health care.

I must pause here to note that Governor Granholm seems to be of two minds on the issue of globalization. Sure, international trade and investment are great when German and Japanese corporations partner to open a new engine plant in your state, or when you go on a trade mission to Japan in order to urge Japanese companies to outsource their jobs to… (ahem) …”invest in Michigan.” But when Delphi feels the heat of international competition? Well, that’s another story.

But I’ve gotten off-topic. Returning to Bray’s article, we see that all of the reasons listed by Granholm for Delphi’s struggles lose their punch when faced with cold, hard reality:

But no amount of foot-stamping is likely to change facts. Among them: Delphi’s 33,000 unionized workers in the United States, like those of General Motors, Ford and Chrysler, still earn far above the national average in wages and benefits long after it was clear that this was no longer sustainable.


Bray closes with an observation that we would do well to take to heart:

Globalization isn’t the enemy. It’s simply the messenger, exposing the rotten structure of the industrial welfare state for what it is, a lumbering dinosaur that can’t see 20 feet ahead of itself. Like the broader welfare state, to which it is so closely tied through labor, tax and other laws, the industrial welfare state of the 20th century is badly overdue for a rethinking.

Related: Suspension of Davis-Bacon Act in hurricaine-ravaged areas leads to higher wages for workers.

Blog author: kschmiesing
posted by on Friday, October 14, 2005

I can’t vouch for the validity of any of the claims made in this new book from Laissez-faire Books, but I confess its publicity material piqued my interest. It argues that inordinate fear of radiation leads to unnecessary and even counterproductive energy policy. As one none-too-keen on radiation in general (stand away from that microwave!), I’m nontheless intrigued by this book’s argument.

Blog author: jspalink
posted by on Friday, October 14, 2005

An article appeared in Wired News today on the unintended consequences of wind farms. One of these consequences — among many others, I’m sure — is “an astronomical level of bird kills.”

Thousands of aging turbines stud the brown rolling hills of the Altamont Pass on I-580 east of San Francisco Bay, a testament to one of the nation’s oldest and best-known experiments in green energy.

Next month, hundreds of those blades will spin to a stop, in what appears to be a wind-energy first: Facing legal threats from environmentalists, the operators of the Altamont wind farm have agreed to shut down half of their windmills for two months starting Nov. 1; in January, they will be restarted and the other half will be shut down for two months.

Though the Altamont Pass is known for its strong winds, it also lies on an important bird-migration route, and its grass-covered hills provide food for several types of raptors. “It’s the worst possible place to put a wind farm,” said Jeff Miller, a wildlife advocate at the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity. “It’s responsible for an astronomical level of bird kills.”

In July, Anthony Bradley wrote a piece for Acton News and Commentary titled “The Answer is (not) Blowing in the Wind,” which touched on this point. While wind farms can provide a somewhat less polluting energy source, environmentalists now desire that they be placed in areas with the least biological and ecological impact. Good luck. Nature is all around us and it will never be possible to generate energy without impacting the environment. This has been true since cavemen discovered fire. And while the levels of impact vary (I think we can all agree that destroying the ecosystem of a river by dumping heated water from a powerplant is worse than some dead birds), there will always be an impact.

All of this (various examples from the Wired article included environmental impacts on sheep, bats, birds, marine animals, …) begs the question: If we’re going to have to shut down wind farms every other month to protect the environment, is it wasteful stewardship? While wind power may provide some (and by some, I mean very little) alternative energy, if it’s not a consistent source, shouldn’t we be investing in more efficient means of energy production rather than wasting time and space on wind power?

As a side note – another article in Wired suggests that nuclear power (cleaner and more cost effective than coal) can pave the way to efficient and economically driven power generation for the United States.