Tuesday, March 23, 2004

Suzanne Fields Ponders Bioethics
The Softer Side of Leon Kass?

In today's (3/22/2004) edition of Townhall.com, a conservative newsletter, there is an essay by Suzanne Fields.  She was fortunate enough to get a copy of the President's Council on Bioethics (PCBE) publication, Being Human: Readings from the President's Council on Bioethics.  Unfortunately, this is no longer available to the general public:

Notice:  If you are interested in receiving a copy of Being Human, we regret to inform you that we have run out of copies due to the unforeseen demand for this publication. Unfortunately, our copyright agreements prevent us from posting the book on our website or from printing further copies at this time. We are looking at different options and if you have already requested a copy, we will keep your name on a waiting list. We thank you for your understanding.

Being Human is a collection of writings by a wide array of authors, with a sampling of fiction, Classics, philosophical treatises, etc.  Although the book itself is not available, the table of contents, several selections of text, and the Council's introductory comments to each section, can be found on the Bioethics.com site. 

The Corpus Callosum today presents you with, not a review of Being Human, but a review of the review; this is because the actual book is not available.  Others have written about Being Human, but I chose to not try to include the material from all the other reviews.  That would take too long.  Check out these links if you want to see for yourself what others have had to say about the topic: 1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8.

Ms. Fields starts by commenting about the book's cover, which is graced with a variety of visual arts:

Together, these illustrations tell you that this book wants to create a dialogue between biology and art, science and the humanities, medicine and poetry.

Ok, that sounds akin to the mission of this blog: "to develop connections between hard science and social science, using linear thinking and intuition; and to explore the relative merits of spontaneity vs. strategy."  So it is natural for me to have an interest in Being Human.  This interest was piqued by Ms. Fields' comment:

What's so extraordinary about this volume is that it's devoid of grandstanding, lobbying by "experts" and pompous recommendations of what to do and how to do it. It asks, with a certain humility, for the reader to think for himself about the implications of the scientific discoveries that can make our lives happier, healthier - and scarier.

Getting people to think for themselves is a good thing.  I was a bit skeptical of this at first, since encouraging free thought is not a common practice in any political bureaucracy in general, and especially not among the current Administration.  Having read some of the other works by the PCBE, I am faintly encouraged that there are some persons within the Bush camp who do think for themselves and want others to do the same.  Despite my earlier criticism of the Council and some of their recent actions, I do think that much of what they have written is serious, thoughtful work.  Not all of it is fully congruent with prevailing neoconservative thought.  Ms. Fields points out:

The new book neither pontificates nor philosophizes. Instead, it presents an anthology of poetry, essays and fictional narratives for the whole family. Leon Kass, the chairman of the President's Council, rightly says it "can contribute to a richer understanding and deeper appreciation of our humanity, necessary for facing the challenges confronting us in a biotechnical age."

I happen to agree with this.  Although I have read only some parts of the book, it appears that the book is a collection of works that are intended to provoke thought; to serve as a source of inspiration, not indoctrination.  It is not entirely free of bias.  For example, the book contains a passage from Drugstore Athlete, by Malcolm Gladwell  (published in The New Yorker; also noted by Nick Schulz on Corante).  Ms. Fields picks up on a passage from the end of the story:

Malcolm Gladwell, in "The Drugstore Athlete," is an ambivalent consideration of artificial enhancements, such as steroids, to increase an athlete's ability. We don't like the unfair advantage drugs give to athletes, but we have no problem cheating nature in other ways: "We have come to prefer a world where the distractable take Ritalin, the depressed take Prozac, and the unattractive get cosmetic surgery."

Although the works cited in Being Human are not intended to be pronouncements of policy, the inclusion of that passage could be taken to imply that depressed people taking Prozac are in some way comparable to unattractive persons getting cosmetic surgery; and, that both constitute "cheating nature."  Neither implication is accurate.  Indeed, I would argue that it is dangerous to trivialize such treatments.  Ms. Fields' commentary at the end of her review is:

Leon Kass is eager to establish a national dialogue about issues both rarified and as down-to-earth as science fiction. We're wandering over terrain studded with hidden landmines. How do we balance regulation and responsibility, limitation and aspiration, our longing for the stars when our feet are made of clay? How do we resist allowing the light of information to shade into the darkness of manipulation?

I am left wondering about the purported intent of Being Human.  If, as Ms. Fields' states, the intent is to "establish a national dialogue," I think the book may contribute to that end.  The heretofore unspoken question is: could there be some other agenda?  That is, could the intent be, not only to start a dialogue, but also to influence the outcome of that dialogue?  After all, setting the starting point for a process can have a big influence on the end point, even if the process itself is free of bias.  (This is seen in the founder effect, one of the principle mechanisms of evolution.)
If my article had ended with the above paragraph, you would have been left with questions but no conclusion.  Much of the output of the PCBE does exactly that.  They cite a bunch of stuff, ask provocative questions, then wrap it up with no real conclusions or recommendations.  That may be an effective way to generate dialogue; indeed, it has generated a great deal of chatter in the blogosphere.  However, I find it unsatisfactory.  The practice of asking questions without drawing a conclusion makes it difficult to argue against whatever you just read.  It presents the Columboesque appearance of one merely asking questions, without appearing to lead to a specific conclusion, when in fact, there is a specific conclusion you are establishing.