Secular Right | Reality & Reason

ThreeParentBabiesBioethicists are, for the most part, a pretty presumptuous bunch: who on earth do they think they are?

In this case, however, highlighted by the Washington Post, they have got things right:

An elite panel of scientists and bioethicists offered guarded approval Wednesday of a novel form of genetic engineering that could prevent congenital diseases but would result in babies with genetic material from three parents.

The committee, which was convened last year at the request of the Food and Drug Administration, concluded that it is ethically permissible to “go forward, but with caution” with mitochondrial replacement techniques (MRT), said chairman Jeffrey Kahn, a bioethicist at Johns Hopkins University.

No, I’m not sure why it is up to them to decide what is or is not “ethically permissible”, but still…

But the advisory panel’s conclusions have slammed into a congressional ban: The omnibus fiscal year 2016 budget bill passed by Congress late last year contained language prohibiting the government from using any funds to handle applications for experiments that genetically alter human embryos.

Thus the green light from the scientists and ethicists won’t translate anytime soon into clinical applications that could potentially help families that want healthy babies, said Shoukhrat Mitalipov, a pioneer of the new technique at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland, Ore.

“It seems like the FDA is disabled in this case by Congress,” Mitalipov said. “At this point we’re still not clear how to proceed.”

Congress should get out of the way.

The FDA released a statement Wednesday saying it will carefully review the report from the advisory committee, but added that the congressional ban prohibits the agency from reviewing applications “in which a human embryo is intentionally created or modified to include a heritable genetic modification. As such, human subject research utilizing genetic modification of embryos for the prevention of transmission of mitochondrial disease cannot be performed in the United States in FY 2016.”

The new clinical procedures should be used rarely, with extreme care and with abundant government oversight, and they initially should be applied only to male embryos, the advisory panel said. The group delivered its report at a morning news conference at the National Academy of Sciences headquarters in Washington.

The report comes at a time of dazzling advances in genetic engineering and a commensurate struggle to understand the ethics of “playing God,” a phrase uttered twice Wednesday by committee member R. Alta Charo, a professor of law and bioethics at the University of Wisconsin.

Then again, as it’s most unlikely that God played God…

The FDA last year asked the Institute of Medicine, now part of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, to review the ethical implications of MRT since this other method of genetic engineering would result in what has been loosely referred to as “three-parent babies.” British officials have already approved investigatory experiments involving the technique.

Certain serious congenital diseases can be passed from a mother to child via the tiny amount of genetic material contained in the mitochondria, which are small organs within a cell that are often described as the cell’s energy factories or power plants. New experimental techniques involving in vitro fertilization make it possible to replace mutated and potentially disease-associated mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) with non-pathogenic mtDNA donated from another woman.

Mitochondrial DNA contains 37 genes and is distinct from nuclear DNA (nDNA), which in humans has upwards of 20,000 genes. The mitochondrial DNA is not found in sperm, only in eggs, and thus is passed only from mother to child. That’s why the panel recommended limiting the experimental procedures at first to male embryos.

The males-only guideline is intended to prevent the introduction of unwanted, irreversible genetic changes to the human species. Any genetic changes associated with this kind of engineering will meet a dead end in males.

“If there are adverse events, they would not be reverberating down the generations,” Charo said.

The procedure should be extended to female embryos only after the long-term effects of such novel genetic engineering are better understood, the committee concluded.

Nuclear DNA is by far the more significant form of genetic material for determining most human characteristics. As the committee put it, “[W]hile mtDNA plays a central role in genetic ancestry, traits that are carried in nDNA are those that in the public understanding constitute the core of genetic relatedness in terms of physical and behavioral characteristics as well as most forms of disease.”

As a result, the modification of mitochondrial DNA “is meaningfully different.”

But panel members said that they took the philosophical issues seriously, noting that someone with genetic material from two different maternal bloodlines would potentially have to wrestle with questions about identity, kinship and ancestry.

Not really.  The babies who benefit from this technology will have about 0.1 percent of their DNA attributable to a third party. It’s a (very) crude way of looking this, but think how many great, great-grandparents away it would take to account for 0.1% of someone’s ancestry….

To describe the donor as a third “parent” is, to put it mildly, a stretch.

And, as a reminder of what this is about:

The donor provides only their mitochondria. Often called the “power plants” of the cell, the mitochondria converts energy from food into energy that can power a cell. When someone’s mitochondria don’t function properly, it’s bad news indeed…

As one ‘ethicist’ notes:

It is not part of what makes us genetically who we are.It doesn’t affect height, eye color, intelligence, musicality. It simply allows the batteries to work properly…

And as to what’s at stake;

Mitochondrial diseases can cause a whole host of life threatening problems, and it’s estimated that as many as 4,000 children are born with such conditions in the United States each year.

Again, politicians should get out of the way.

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MosquitoAmerica Magazine is, in its own way, an entertaining corner of the religious left published by Jesuits. It’s a reliable source of by-the-numbers leftism supplemented by pious distortions, holy evasions, extra helpings of sanctimony and regular hosannas for the Dear Leader, the (more or less) Peronist Jesuit now presiding over the Vatican.

So I suppose it wasn’t altogether surprising to read this there:

Like the Ebola panic of 2014, Zika reminds the complacent of the affluent world of a kind of enforced solidarity with folks in poorer regions, an impoverished and sometimes cruel imposter of the true solidarity we are called to embrace.

And for added points:

Zika joins an unhappy collection of diseases making the jump from tropical regions, where some of the world’s poorest people reside, to temperate zones of affluence. Global warming may be making previously hostile geography more amenable to the major vector for these illnesses, the humble mosquito.

Ah yes, global warming. Of course.

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Jan/16

24

Evolving with Gods

akhenatenHere’s John Gray in The New Statesman,  reviewing God Is Watching You: How the Fear of God Makes Us Human by Dominic Johnson:

An evolutionary biologist trained at Oxford who also holds a doctorate in political science, Johnson believes that the need to find a more-than-natural meaning in natural events is universal – “a ubiquitous phenomenon of human nature” – and performs a vital role in maintaining order in society. Extending far beyond cultures shaped by monotheism, it “spans cultures across the globe and every historical period, from indigenous tribal societies . . . to modern world religions – and includes atheists, too”.

Reward and punishment may not emanate from a single omnipotent deity, as imagined in Western societies. Justice may be dispensed by a vast unseen army of gods, angels, demons and ghosts, or else by an impersonal cosmic process that rewards good deeds and punishes wrongdoing, as in the Hindu and Buddhist conception of karma. But some kind of moral order beyond any human agency seems to be demanded by the human mind, and this sense that our actions are overseen and judged from beyond the natural world serves a definite evolutionary role. Belief in supernatural reward and punishment promotes social co-operation in a way nothing else can match. The belief that we live under some kind of supernatural guidance is not a relic of superstition that might some day be left behind but an evolutionary adaptation that goes with being human.

That’s not true for everyone, of course (as it happens, the idea of a meaningless, indifferent universe suits me just fine) but as a general principle it is convincing. And that means that religion is not going away any time soon, or ever.

In the course of an article for Politix on godless conservatives written a couple of years back, I noted this:

Godless conservatives however are rarely anti-religious. They often appreciate religion as a force for social cohesion and as a link to a nation’s past. They may push back hard against religious extremism, but, unlike today’s “new atheists” they are most unlikely to be found railing against “sky fairies.” Mankind has evolved in a way that makes it strongly disposed towards religious belief, and conservatism is based on recognizing human nature for what it is.

New Atheists (and plenty of old ones too) not so much…

Gray:

[The] “new atheists” are simple souls. In their view, which derives from rationalist philosophy and not from evolutionary theory, the human mind is a faculty that seeks an accurate representation of the world. This leaves them with something of a problem. Why are most human beings, everywhere and at all times, so wedded to some version of religion? It can only be that their minds have been deformed by malignant priests and devilish power elites. Atheists have always been drawn to demonology of this kind; otherwise, they cannot account for the ­persistence of the beliefs they denounce as poisonously irrational. The inveterate human inclination to religion is, in effect, the atheist problem of evil.

But what if belief in the supernatural is natural for human beings? For anyone who takes the idea of evolution seriously, religions are not intellectual errors, but ­adaptations to the experience of living in an uncertain and hazardous world. What is needed – and still largely lacking – is a perspective in which religion is understood as an inexhaustibly complex variety of beliefs and practices that have evolved to meet enduring human needs.

If the religious instinct is always likely to be with us, then, rather than railing against religion as a whole, it is much more useful to weigh different forms of religious expression against each other. All religions are not the same. Some faiths will be more benign than others. Equally there are different ways of following a faith. What a holy book says is one thing, how its followers behave can be quite another. Religions develop over time: what was, so to speak, writ in stone thousands of years ago, may now be read by many of the faithful as nothing more than folklore.

And man, of course, can shape the course of that development. If I had to design a religion, it would  be kindly, gently patriotic, theologically broad-minded, a quiet conservator of tradition and order with room (for those who want it) for a spot of the supernatural, but little time for superstition, the navel-gazing nonsense of mysticism or an over-insistence on dogma. In fact, it would look a lot like an idealized version of the Church of England of seventy or eighty years ago, a happy accident of history that is far from likely to be repeated.

But back to Gray:

Practically without exception, the atheist movements of the past few centuries testify to a demand for meaning that has led them to replicate many of the patterns of thinking distinctive of monotheism, and more particularly of Christianity.

For Christians, human history isn’t an endless succession of cycles – as it was for the ancient Greek and Romans, for example – but a story, and one of a distinctive kind. Unlike practitioners of polytheism, who seek and find meaning in other ways, Christians have found sense in life through a mythical narrative in which humankind is struggling towards redemption. It is a myth that infuses the imagination of countless people who imagine they have left religion behind. The secular style of modern thinking is deceptive. Marxist and liberal ideas of “alienation” and “revolution”, “the march of humanity” and “the progress of civilisation” are redemptive myths in disguise.

For some, atheism may be no more than a fundamental lack of interest in the concepts and practices of religion. But as an organised movement, atheism has always been a surrogate faith. Evangelical atheism is the faith that mass conversion to godlessness can transform the world. This is a fantasy. If the history of the past few centuries is any guide, a godless world would be as prone to savage conflicts as the world has always been. Still, the belief that without religion human life would be vastly improved sustains and consoles many a needy unbeliever – which confirms the essentially religious character of atheism as a movement.

Atheism need not be an evangelical cult. Here and there one finds thinkers who have truly left redemptive myths behind. The American journalist and iconoclast H L Mencken was a rambunctious atheist who delighted in lambasting religious believers; but he did so in a spirit of mockery, not out of any interest in converting them into unbelievers. Wisely, he did not care what others believed. Rather than lamenting the fact of incurable human irrationality, he preferred to laugh at the spectacle it presents. If monotheism was, for Mencken, an amusing exhibition of human folly, one suspects he would have found the new atheism just as entertaining.

Rightly so.

Read the whole thing.

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Jan/16

23

The Vatican and Brexit

henry-viiiThe Roman Catholic Church has always been somewhat suspicious of the nation-state, an institution it regards as an obstacle to its own claims of universal authority, so this story from the Daily Telegraph comes as no surprise:

The Vatican wants Britain to stay in the European Union, the Pope’s foreign secretary has declared.

Archbishop Paul Gallagher, Secretary for Relations with States within the Holy See, suggested “Brexit” could weaken Europe.

In an interview with ITV, the English cleric who has a weekly meeting with Pope Francis, gave a clear signal of Rome’s view of the best outcome of the forthcoming in/out referendum on continued EU membership.

“The Holy See respects the ultimate decision of the British people – that’s for the British electorate to decide,” he said.

“But I think we would see it as being something that is not going to make a stronger Europe.”

No, Brexit would not weaken ‘Europe’, and, if it dealt a blow to the EU (which is something very different), it might well even strengthen it. The EU, based on post-democracy and an ideology imposed from the top, may appeal to the Vatican, but it has evolved into a catastrophe for the peoples of Europe. Under the circumstances, anything that might ‘weaken’ it (and, regrettably, Brexit could easily have the opposite effect) is only to be welcomed.

As to the Vatican and specific question of Brexit (the UK’s departure from the EU), perhaps it’s appropriate to revisit yet again what the British politician Enoch Powell had to say  back in 1972 about Henry VIII’s assertion of English independence from Rome:

The relevant fact about the history of the British Isles and above all of England is its separateness in a political sense from the history of continental Europe…When Henry VIII declared that ‘this realm of England is an empire (imperium) of itself’, he was making not a new claim but a very old one; but he was making it at a very significant point of time. He meant—as Edward I had meant, when he said the same over two hundred years before—that there is an imperium on the continent, but that England is another imperium outside its orbit and is endowed with the plenitude of its own sovereignty. The moment at which Henry VIII repeated this assertion was that of what is misleadingly called ‘the reformation’—misleadingly, because it was, and is, essentially a political and not a religious event.

The whole subsequent history of Britain and the political character of the British people have taken their colour and trace their unique quality from that moment and that assertion. It was the final decision that no authority, no law, no court outside the realm would be recognized within the realm. When Cardinal Wolsey fell, the last attempt had failed to bring or keep the English nation within the ambit of any external jurisdiction or political power: since then no law has been for England outside England, and no taxation has been levied in England by or for an authority outside England—or not at least until the proposition that Britain should accede to the Common Market [the future EU].

Britain did, of course, go on to join that ‘Common Market’, not least because most Britons did not understand that ‘ever closer Europe’ meant what it said.

It’s time to reverse that now.

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Jan/16

17

Multiculturalism as Sacred Idea

Cologne Cathedral (Aug 1978) (AS)An intriguing suggestion from Ed West in The Spectator:

I’d go as far as to say it that immigration has become a sacred idea, and that many believe multiculturalism to be a moral good in itself, whatever the end result. This is why, uniquely among any subject discussed in the news, its downsides come with a caveat that ‘this subject will be used by right-wing extremists’. The outrageous behaviour of bankers, for example, is never reported alongside fears that the news will be ‘exploited by left-wing extremists’….

Perhaps the most telling comments came from Ralf Jaeger, interior minister for North Rhine-Westphalia, who said: ‘What happens on right-wing platforms & chat rooms is at least as awful as the acts of those assaulting the women. This is poisoning the climate of our society.’ One might suggest that importing 1.2m or so people from vastly different cultures – rather than the reaction – was more likely to affect the climate of the society. One might add that internet chatter, however extreme or poisonous, was not comparable to actual sexual assault, and that such a comparison was morally bankrupt.

But the point of sacred ideas is that they drive us towards irrational positions that we might otherwise find absurd. They also push people into making poor choices: if your obsession with the right-wing causes you to downplay or ignore major social problems that result from multiculturalism, then surely you are more likely to cause nationalist extremism to flourish? As I have said before, Europe is like Oedipus – by trying to avoid a disastrous future, it is doing everything to make it happen.

… The problem with taboos is that they can be broken by big events….

…The mass sexual assaults of New Year’s Eve are an example of a big taboo-breaker, and once the taboo about mentioning them is out, they tend to become enormous, and dangerous, subjects. It has almost not been noticed this week, because 69-year-olds keep dying, but in both Germany and the Netherlands, the radical right-wing parties have unprecedented levels of support. Meanwhile foreign-owned shops in Leipzig have been smashed up and Jews have been attacked both by asylum seekers and by right-wing extremists – who mistook them for Arabs. History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme, as Mark Twain probably didn’t say. It’s just not a very good rhyme in this case.

This will be fun.

So, the anti-Trump hysteria has reached a fevered pitch, with the unsurprising adherence to Godwin’s law in full effect. “He’s Hitler,” proclaims people supremely annoyed by Donald Trump’s over-the-top rhetoric. (Meditate on that for a second.) See for yourself:

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Put more succinctly:

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And of course the “hate speech” trope is levied on the Trump, and with gusto:

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The eagerness to disown – or in social media parlance, defriend – anyone who has warm feelings toward Trump (I suppose I’d include myself among them, by default; you don’t criticize people who hate Trump without suggesting that you don’t) is also on full display:

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Don’t argue. Don’t even try to debate. Just go away.

Another Facebook acquaintance upped the ante, opting to do the dirty work of mass defriending all by himself. After all, you can’t trust Trump supporters to choose to remove themselves from your cyberlife. You have to go find them. Root them out!

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Yikes. Note the third comment, however. Perhaps a glimmer of hope.

The dig at “uneducated white guys,” from a white guy no less, gives credence to the notion of a deep and growing cultural civil war among whites, in which minorities act mostly as abstractions with which to score political-moral victories over lesser paleskins. It’s a somewhat pathetic state of affairs, but here we are.

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Nov/15

30

Isaiah Berlin: Half Right

Riga, Aug 09 (AS)

Isaiah Berlin:

As for the meaning of life, I do not believe that it has any: I do not at all ask what it is, for I suspect it has none, and this is a source of great comfort to me — we make of it what we can, and that is all there is about it. Those who seek for some deep, cosmic, all-embracing, teleologically arguable libretto or god are, believe me pathetically deluded.

So far as I’m concerned, Berlin is right about that meaning of life thing. It’s nothing but a relief to me that there is none, and for the reasons he gives.  On the other hand, to describe those who have found some sort of god as ‘pathetically deluded’ is too smug and so far as that ‘pathetically’ is concerned, often inaccurate. As a species we seem to be hardwired for faith. Upbringing and culture will generally dictate the form that the faith takes, sometimes disastrously so, frequently not.

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Nov/15

29

“Another Emergency”

FourHorsemenThe Economist, at it again:

THE political masters of the world are gathering in a Paris traumatised by terror to consider another sort of emergency, climate change.

Trivialize much? Exaggerate much?

The magazine’s ‘Erasmus’ goes on to note:

The unusual thing about this gathering is that mankind’s religious guardians have also been preparing for it; their voices have been rising in a crescendo of moral concern.

Unusual? Not really: “mankind’s religious guardians” (a phrase so sycophantic and so syrupy that it beggars, well, belief) were pretty noisy before the failed Copenhagen climate conference too.

But we shouldn’t be surprised by those expressions of “moral concern”. The science of climate change is one thing (I’m probably a ‘lukewarmer’ myself), but the way it is understood is another, and the usual ‘narrative’ of climate change, with its implicit attack on materialism and warnings of an apocalypse to come,  fits very neatly into the teachings of any number of faiths. No wonder “mankind’s religious guardians” want to get involved.

Back to Erasmus:

When the French president toured typhoon-stricken areas of the Philippines in February, he brought along Patriarch Bartholomew, the “first among equals” in the Orthodox Christian world and a veteran campaigner for the planet. Then in July, Mr Hollande hosted an eye-catching “summit of conscience” that involved faith leaders of many stripes; they ranged from the Orthodox Patriarch to Sufi Muslim sages; from Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana (speaking for the pope) to indigenous people from fragile parts of Latin America. The co-organisers included R20, an environmental and green-energy movement started by Arnold Schwarzenegger, the former governor of California, and Alliance of Religions and Conservation, a British-based NGO launched by Prince Philip.

With the exception of Hollande (and, once upon a time, Schwarzenegger) these people are, of course, unelected, a reminder that much of the climate change ‘process’ is a post-democratic exercise.

And talking loftily about faith, morality and ‘the planet’ will not change that most inconvenient truth.

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Nov/15

29

Free Speech is not a ‘European Value’

VaginaprotestThe Local (Spain):

[Three Spanish feminists] are facing charges for crimes against religion for mimicking Spain’s Easter processions – replacing the Virgin Mary with a giant plastic vagina. Three women who carried a giant plastic vagina during a march to celebrate Worker’s Day, held every year on May 1st, are facing charges of “crimes against religious sentiment”.

The three women, who have not been named, allegedly mimicked Spain’s famous Holy Week processions that take place in the run up to Easter. The women “carried a plastic vagina a couple of metres high in the style of the Virgin Mary,” said the Seville-based judge.

Many Spanish religious festivals feature processions during which locals carry a statue of the Virgin Mary above their shoulders. The prosecution argue that the women made a mockery of this religious practice by lifting the plastic vagina onto their shoulders and parading it during a march organized by the Spanish union the General Workers’ Confederation (CGT) on May 1st 2014.

Some of the women also wore mantillas, the black lace veils commonly worn by devout Catholic women during religious celebrations in Spain while others sported the conical hoods commonly worn by the members of religious brotherhoods over Easter. The three women have been ordered to appear in court in February 2016 for a crime against religious sentiments….

Childish?  Sure, but it should not be criminal.

And as for the precedent that is being set, well…

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Nov/15

28

Must-Read Interview with Sam Harris

imrs

The New Atheist’s interview with Salon – a publication largely hostile to the Bertrand Russell-style liberalism of Harris and his ilk – is better read at Harris’s own website, in its unedited form. (A portion of the interview that badmouths Salon was cut by the site, not shockingly.) Below are some choice excerpts.

On American foreign policy and Islam:

You can make the list of U.S. crimes and missteps as long as you want, but it still doesn’t explain ISIS. The fact that we invaded Iraq is merely a background condition for a local explosion of jihadist triumphalism and horror – one that is fully explained by a commitment to a specific interpretation of Islamic scripture. Medical students and engineers, who are second- and third-generation British citizens, have joined ISIS. There is nothing about Western foreign policy, global capitalism, or white privilege that explains this.

I agree that the history of colonialism isn’t pretty, but….there are (or were) Christians living in all these beleaguered countries. How many Christian suicide bombers have there been? Where are the Pakistani, Iraqi, Syrian, Egyptian, and Palestinian Christians who are blowing themselves up in crowds of noncombatants?

On the problems of the multicultural left:

These people are part of what has been termed the “regressive Left” – pseudo-liberals who are so blinded by identity politics that they reliably take the side of a backward mob over one of its victims. Rather than protect individual women, apostates, intellectuals, cartoonists, novelists, and true liberals from the intolerance of religious imbeciles, they protect these theocrats from criticism.

On religion and the GOP:

Ben Carson is a perfect example of how even the process of becoming a neurosurgeon is insufficient to correct for this indoctrination. It’s astonishing: The man is both a celebrated neurosurgeon and a moron. Apparently, becoming a neurosurgeon can be like becoming an electrician or a plumber—you can learn it like a trade, and your mind can remain more or less untouched by the scientific worldview.

I felt that I glimpsed the possibility of Christian theocracy in the U.S. when Sarah Palin addressed the Republican National Convention. She was at the height of her powers, and she hadn’t yet unraveled in those interviews with Charlie Gibson and Katie Couric. This was terrifying—because I knew her to be both a religious lunatic and total ignoramus. The fact that she had any chance of acquiring so much power and responsibility seemed to make a mockery of the entire career of our species.

On the potential of P.C. mission creep to leave only fringy undesirables asking the probing questions:

I worry that such Christian demagoguery could become even more attractive politically because the secular Left has made it so painful to speak about the threat of political Islam. By conflating any focus on Islamism and jihadism with bigotry, there may come a time when only real bigots and Christian theocrats will be willing to address the problem. And they could gain political power because then even sane, secular people might feel that they have no other choice [see the appeal of Marine Le Pen to a surprising number of gay voters].

Read it all.

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