News last week that rival teams in China and Argentina are claiming that each was the first to develop a herd of genetically modified cows that produce human breast milk. Get the stories here and here.
From the first story:
The director of the research project, Professor Li Ning, said Western concerns about the ethics of genetic modification are misplaced. “There are 1.5 billion people in the world who don’t get enough to eat,” he said. “It’s our duty to develop science and technology, not to hold it back. We need to feed people first, before we consider ideals and convictions.”
If that sounds like an ominous twist in science, it isn’t. “Life is a series of trade-offs, Gerry”, has been the advice to me on several occasions by my dear mentor, Father Luke McCann. “The issue for the Christian gentleman is to ensure that we never trade principle for pragmatic accommodation.”
The argument made by Prof. Li Ning was made rather eloquently in the movie, Inherit the Wind, where Spencer Tracy plays the part of Clarence Darrow, the defense attorney in the famous Scopes Monkey Trial about teaching evolution in school.
Gentlemen, progress has never been a bargain. You have to pay for it. Sometimes I think there’s a man who sits behind a counter and says, “Alright, you can have a telephone, but you lose privacy and the charm of distance.”
“Madam, you may vote, but at a price. You lose the right to retreat behind the powder-puff or your petticoat.”
“Mr., you may conquer the air, but the birds will lose their wonder and the clouds will smell of gasoline.”
Darwin took us forward to a hilltop from where we could look back and see the way from which we came, but for this insight, and for this knowledge, we must abandon our faith in the pleasant poetry of Genesis.
And of course, Father Luke was right. We must never abandon or trade principle or faith for pragmatic accommodations.
There are several difficulties with these transgenic cows. Beginning with the science, the creation of such milk represents one of the largest unregulated experiments in medicine and agriculture. Simply because the milk tastes sweet to an adult, and perhaps even if it has no negative effect on adults in the short term, we do not know what the effects will be on infants who are developing. The Darrow character in the movie was right, progress has never been a bargain. We have to pay for it. In unregulated experiments, people pay with their lives.
In these experiments, human genes were inserted into cloned cow embryos. In the Argentinian experiment the resultant animal needed to be delivered by c-section, as she was twice the weight of normal Jersey cows. That alone is enough to give one pause. If the cow’s physiology is that aberrant, it doesn’t bode well for humans.
Beyond that, good science is not only that which solves human problems. Good science must solve human problems while respecting human dignity, and the dignity of the animal subjects of our experimentation. This is the radical point of departure for Prof. Li Ning, who says, “We need to feed people first, before we consider ideals and convictions.”
This is the intersection of bad science and bad ethics. Our ideals and convictions arise from an established understanding of who we are. Because of who we are, both biologically and ontologically, we do not feed the poor just anything, and we do not engineer livestock with human genes to take over for mothers and farmers.
There is precedent for engineering lower life forms with human genes. We do it routinely to get microbes to produce human insulin for diabetics. There’s a great difference, though, between engineering microbes to function as a surrogate pancreas, and engineering cows to perform human maternal function.
Our ideals and our convictions are the North Star in biomedical ethics. Without a reference point, we become predators in the name of doing good. Professor Li Ning has unwittingly pointed out the greatest flaw in scientific education today, which is the pitiful lack of ethical training graduate students receive as they receive the knowledge of techniques that can radically reshape the face of life on this planet. Prof. Li Ning also leads one to believe that we haven’t enough food to feed the world’s population.
In truth, we have an abundance of food. In fact, because of the insanity surrounding the bad science purporting global warming, we are burning our corn, literally, through its fermentation to ethanol as a gasoline additive. Corn is the base of our livestock feed and processed foods. When we decided to start burning it, the demand for corn skyrocketed, and prices followed. This in turn has caused the price of food to skyrocket as well.
As we have also seen, repeatedly, relief food supplies are commandeered by local warlords in famine-stricken nations as a means of waging war.
The solutions to world hunger are political and economic. Science has contributed by genetically engineering pesticide-resistant crops and crops that yield increased biomass per acre.
Making cows that give human milk is simply a bridge too far, scientifically, morally, and ethically.