Soul of a New Stem Cell

The surface where philosophy meets science has always been amicable turf. Both Science and Philosophy tend to approach their respective subject matters with investment not in the outcome but rather the process; rigor over results; the soft, expansive space of better questions rather than a cold, hard slab where concrete answers are laid out like so many corpses.

Both Disciplines start with unknowing and the Unknown, with Zen’s Beginner’s Mind, and begin by populating the void with what is known, or what can be provisionally known. Both continue with drawing apparent connections, clear relationships between and among the sparse population of objects and ideas and notions, thus creating new objects and ideas and notions: something arises from nothing!

Built on the partially provisional, the Something New holds provisionally as well: a theory is born.

Philosophers may speak of the birth of new meaning; scientists may test the predictive power and the external consistency of the theorem. But both come from the same place: professional humility and an eye on the relative value of the new truth statement. Both groups have learned that with new knowledge comes change; with new thought comes new review; with new evidence may come the need to alter the truth statement to suit: mutability is an honest admission.

Honest admission? More like a necessity: life is change, existence is change. The nature of Truth changes daily. Creationism/Intelligent Design is a theory which works if you start with the axiom: the world is flat and at the center of the universe. Scientists are flipfloppers on the whip-tail knowledge, discovery and the need to make sense of disruptive technology and even more disruptive information.

Philosophers must swim in thought-liquid, afloat on strange tides and even stranger seas compassing drift as part of truth.

Both Science and Philosophy count on process, experimentation, constructive critique and the avoidance of absolutes to go where they must, do what they do, build what they must build and above all, discover what is there to be discovered.

Beginning with the void isn’t just necessary, it simply is (and that’s a strange thing to say of a void!). Science isn’t science with presumption and Absolutes. Philosophy isn’t philosophy without free rein of moral, ethical and cosmological territory.

Science with an investment in the outcome is merely Politics.

Philosophy with an investment in its own conclusions has devolved into Religion.

Setting aside Politics and Religion—as I’ve provisionally defined them—and limiting discussion to Science and Philosophy, the discussion of the origins of life—and the origins of a life—today takes the form of Stem Cell Research.

From a strictly and exclusively genetics standpoint, a new individual emerges when a sexual recombination of chromosomes comes together: fertilization. In humans this means a full single-set of chromosomes from the sperm matches up to a full single-set of chromosomes in the ovum, resulting in a genetically unique new individual.

From a strictly and exclusively developmental biology standpoint, a new organism is instantiated at the same time the genetics folks would state, but fertilization is just a trigger that leads to the construction of an organism eventually capable of doing the only thing it biologically can do: participate in sex. A single individual—in humans and in all species which sexually reproduce—is not driven to reproduce so much as to participate in the mechanics that lead to reproduction This is a fine point that gets lost when answers are all that is sought.

From a philosophical point of view, often the individual is of less interest than the greater picture of collections of individuals: families, groups, towns, societies, nations.

The South Koreans have successfully performed what is known as a “somatic cell nuclear transplantation”. A somatic cell is an cell that is not a sex-related cell. Meaning that sperm, ova and their progenitors are sex-related cells, but muscle, skin, brain, etc. are somatic. What the Koreans have successfully accomplished is to extract just the nucleus (present only in eukaryotic cells, a structure that contains the organismal DNA and has its own lipid bilayer that separates it from the rest of the cell) from a somatic cell and insert it into an embryonic cell, while destroying the embryonic cell’s native nucleus.

If we are to take the geneticist as the sole authority on the beginnings of a new life, then the destruction of the native nucleus was the genetic ‘death’ of that cell. But the Koreans’ success means that the cell remained alive.

Since the embryonic cell is now providing replication, protein synthesis and developmental mechanics to a totally different set of DNA, the developmental-biologist, taken at her exclusive word, would state that the organism continued to live, continued to be directed towards adulthood.

The resulting tissues that formed as a result of continued development would be genetically compatible, obviously, with the donor of that implanted nucleus. The not-yet-differentiated tissues could then be implanted into the donor’s body, into a specific chemical and physical environment (say, the brain), and that chemical and physical environment would then direct the differentiation of those tissues towards the appropriate end.

Philosophers might argue or discuss the personhood of the donor, but neither the embryo nor the donated nucleus, since those would ever reach cognitive or autonomous personhood.

“Life begins at conception,” say some religious. But they count on the genetic uniqueness of the DNA of the nucleus as the basis for that statement. If the DNA—but not the organismal embryo itself—is destroyed and the religious still have a problem with it, are we to assume that Life Exists in the Nucleus? Now they’re starting to sound like strict geneticists, when the world knows they’re anything but.

And the so-called Soul? Did it exit and go to its reward when the native nucleus was disrupted and destroyed? Did the Soul transfer to what would genetically and essentially be the donor’s twin, born decades after? Or is the modified organism without a Soul? And if so, does that make it the purview of Satan? Or just Soulless? And if Soulless, then how can a religious type call it human? And if it’s not human, then why do they treat it as anything more than a cheek-scraping of cells from the inside of someone’s mouth or a wasted bolus of sperm from a masturbating man?

The crime, the sin, in their minds is, of course, the destruction of that native nucleus.

The philosophers will consider individual uniqueness and the respect thereof as it applies to the greater human condition; the geneticist has it easy and delineates cleanly and without hesitation; the developmental biologist might applaud the superior technique that resulted in a successful nuclear transplantation.

Will the religious retreat once again from its current, relative stake in the ground of the Sacred Embryo and move ever more precisely into the Numinous Nucleus as the Momentous Miraculousness of Life?

For my part, part geneticist, part developmental biologist, part philosopher, part thaumaturge, I will enjoy watching the experts react to change, watch the religious pull up stakes and leave Absolutetown only to settle into Absoluteville just down the road apiece. I will enjoy the calm grace of philosophers as they note the beautiful shifts of reality as we stake claim to more knowledge, and I will watch the true scientists continue to revel in their work, settling one question and moving onto the new questions that they themselves created.