- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 26, 2004


The President’s Council on Bioethics


The President’s Council on Bioethics was established by President George W. Bush in 2001, charged inter alia “to conduct fundamental inquiry into the human and moral significance of developments in biomedical and behavioral science and technology” and “to facilitate a greater understanding of bioethical issues.”

Perhaps its most notable publication to date is “Being Human,” which council chairman Leon Kass, of the University of Chicago and the American Enterprise Institute, describes in his introduction as a “thick book on bioethics.” “Being Human” is certainly a thick book, but, like the condition it seeks to address, it is easier to describe than to explain.

The book is not really a shapeless mass, although it may at first strike the awed reader that way. The 628 pages are divided into 10 chapters, which focus on issues including “the age-old human aspiration to improve our native lot [and] improve our imperfections”; how scientists themselves view their goals and motives; the purposes of medicine as viewed by doctors and patients; the relationship between body, mind and soul; the stages of life; relationships between ancestors and descendants; the quest for immortality; the value of suffering; and the meaning of human dignity.

The 95 pieces collected here (Dr. Kass’ reckoning — 101 by my count) include short stories, poems, Bible passages, and excerpts from novels, autobiographies, philosophical works and plays. These writings were chosen to “make us think … [to] challenge our unexamined assumptions, expand our sympathies, elevate our gaze, and illuminate important aspects of our lives that we have insufficiently understood or appreciated.”

Further, “each reading is accompanied by a brief introduction … with some observations and questions designed to make for more active and discerning reading.”

The result of all this diligent reading and cogitation by the council’s 17 members, plus 18 staff members and consultants, is an anthology that spans the millennia from Homer, Plato and the Bible to e.e. cummings, Dylan Thomas and Richard Feynman.

It resembles nothing so much as those fat textbooks that high school English students love to hate. Even Silas Marner makes an appearance.

Dr. Kass tells us that in their discussions and reports, the members of the council have “on several occasions looked to these works for … insights and instruction”; he hopes that “others may discover for themselves the help that is available from wise, sensitive and thoughtful authors.”

Despite this endorsement, it is difficult to understand how the thinking of aspiring bioethicists is likely to be helped by some of the strange reading matter provided in this volume, most notably the first selection, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Birth-mark.”

For those fortunate enough to be unacquainted with this work, it is a classic mad-scientist tale: “[T]he story of a great scientist who applies his vast knowledge to removing a birthmark from the face of his otherwise perfect wife. The scientist succeeds, but leaves his wife dead.”

One of the questions asked in the editorial introduction to this story, referring to the unfortunate wife, is “What about Georgiana? Why does Georgiana allow her husband to do what he does?”

Following several more readings that make connections between life, imperfection and death, the book moves on to explore the reasons people become scientists.

E.O. Wilson reflects on how his boyhood fascination with nature led him to become a scientist and to abandon his faith in religion, but not the emotional feelings religion engendered. James Watson recalls the fevered competition that resulted in the revelation of the famous double helix structure of DNA.

No mention is made of the later hostile relationship, both in terms of their approaches to biology and their personal interactions, between Mr. Wilson and Mr. Watson when both men served on the Harvard faculty (the tone can be gleaned in one incident reported in Victor McElheny’s recent biography of Mr. Watson: Having just learned that Mr. Wilson had won tenure before he did, Mr. Watson was observed shouting obscenities as he walked up the stairs).

Perhaps the central concern of literature, and certainly of the examples found in “Being Human,” is that human beings behave in complicated ways, some of which are very strange indeed.

True, there is undoubtedly a fascination in reading about such extreme examples as the real-life Duke of Deception, as Geoffrey Wolff calls his father, a pathological liar and con man, or the fictional Hannah Owen in Richard Selzer’s story “Whither Thou Goest,” a widow who cannot rest until she has managed to listen to the beat of her late husband’s heart, which is still alive, transplanted into the body of a man she has never met.

However, if the distinguished members of the President’s Council on Bioethics had simply wanted to point out the paradoxes of human nature, they could have saved a great deal of effort, paper and ink by simply directing us to the old song that begins “Horses don’t bet on people: That’s why they never go broke.”

They do not explain how expanding our knowledge of human nature helps us find answers to specific problems of bioethics raised by our ever-increasing ability to manipulate human bodies, minds and the environment in which we live, the kinds of questions dealt with in their other reports, which have discussed such controversial issues as human cloning, stem cell research and reproductive technologies.

In a traditional society, general acceptance of a shared religion provides a source of authority that can offer answers to such problems. In modern America, pluralism and individualism rule out any such appeal to authority. Those charged with addressing controversial issues cannot provide definitive answers, and in seeking to justify their discussions are forced to defer to the inconclusive ambiguities of literature.

Jeffrey Marsh has written widely on scientific topics and public issues ranging from nuclear strategy to social policy.

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