[ExI] The imams and advanced bioscience in Iran

Lee Corbin lcorbin at rawbw.com
Tue Aug 12 03:38:37 UTC 2008

Damien posted the interesting essay at

> <http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2008/jul/31/genetics.ethicsofscience>While 
> Our Scientists Struggle with Ethics, the Islamic World Forges Ahead
> JIM AL-KHALILI, PHD - The Guardian (U.K.)

which I wish to comment upon, because of the truly fundamental
yet rather subtle issues raised.

"Dr. Jim Al-Khalili is a professor of physics at the University of 
Surrey, in the U.K" uses "our" in the sense of "Western".

> While our scientists struggle with ethics, the Islamic world forges ahead
> Stem cell researchers are branded by the Catholic church as playing 
> God, but Iran's geneticists are unhindered by doctrine

> ... I would like to share with you what was, for me, a quite 
> surprising example of the ultimate nanny state making some
> remarkably sensible decisions.

A nanny-state?  Iraq?  Nonsense:  if one Ibn al Faswah breaks
his leg, becomes poor and destitute, and cannot feed his children,
no nanny-state rushes to his aid. The author means a tyrannical
state, in our terms, where dissent is crushed.

> What struck me most was the way the authorities overseeing the 
> research seem to have dealt with the ethical minefields of parts of 
> the work, in stark contrast with the howls of protest from some 
> quarters in the UK in the run-up to the human embryo research bill 
> that went through parliament recently.

A key reason, as he points out below, is that there isn't the
"point of conception" problem in Islam. I think also, though,
that a large part of the reason is that the imams have far more
serious things (to them) about which to preach and scold the
people and the world.

> In this country the Catholic church has branded research on human 

In the U.K?  Why isn't he talking about the Anglican church?

> The fundamental question is whether the original single zygote (the 
> fertilised egg) is defined as a human being [as taking a life is bad
> in Islam too]. If so, then it can be argued that it is morally wrong
> to destroy the embryo, as is done of course once the stem cells
> are harvested. Many in the Catholic church do indeed believe that
> the moment of fertilisation is also the beginning of human life - a
> notion not shared in Islam.

We are blind to the "opportunity costs" of practically everything:
out of sight is out of mind. Because we cannot imagine the lovely
woman that a certain little fetus would have grown up to be, we
see no loss whatsoever in destroying that fetus, and by the same
logic, we see utterly no harm in people who can afford it failing
to rescue further others from non-existence.

> The embryo-is-a-human argument is based on the idea that the 
> fertilised egg contains everything that is needed to replicate and 
> that this is sufficient. But is this "potential" of becoming a human 
> being really enough? I mean why stop there? Surely the unfertilised 
> egg also has the potential of becoming a human, as indeed does each 
> and every sperm cell (a notion immortalised in Monty Python's The 
> Meaning of Life).

The moral argument, unfortunately, becomes confused with the
correct arguments against taking human life that have nothing to
do with morality, namely, the necessity from an economic and
progressive point of view of ensuring that individuals are safe
in their persons from murder. And related to the latter is the
uncomfortable (and in my view praiseworthy) guilt that the mentally
healthy among us have against *defecting* against others, e.g.,
someone who could have defected against you, but you struck first.

Thus there are three aspects to this as I see it now:

  (1) moral sanction against taking an entity's life
  (2) social and economic justifications for not doing so
  (3) our natural genetically and culturally induced feelings
       against defecting against someone by killing them

Selfishly wanting to have no children (when odds are they'd
be very happy and productive members of society), since it
has nothing to do with (1) above, does not strike me as truly
immoral. Nor would it be immoral for me to destroy wealth
(e.g. buying up fine buildings and burning them down), even
though that would causally eventually keep some people
from getting sick or dying.

Yet are we really entirely free of moral concern? If your
parents had chosen to remain childless, the world would
be a worse place because of the special way you enrich
the lives of those who know you. Unlike those with less
active imaginations, I sorely miss one Eric J. Carpenter,
who would have become one of my very best friends but
for the selfish or socially badly motivated decisions of his
parents. That we are good friends in certain parallel
universes is some consolation, but not a whole lot.

Peace, those of you who'd lecture me on overpopulation!
Along with a number here, and along with Julian Simon,
I don't worry at all about that. Not among highly productive
intensely free-market capitalist countries. Let's not go there
in *this* thread, please.

Passing on to (3), defection, I do feel badly that I have in a
sense defected against my children by not having any. They
suffer reduced experience, reduced runtime, and solely because
of my selfish decision. I believe I would act much differently
given another chance.

> If each embryo develops into an individual person, how can the 
> undivided embryo be said to have a separate existence?

The writer resorts to a rather weak argument here. There are
far better ways to dispatch the silly notion that a human life
goes from "off" to "on" at a certain milli-second.

> A sensible definition of the beginning of human life is that it takes 
> place sometime during the foetus's development. For many, both 
> religious and non-religious, this is defined as when consciousness 
> switches on.

Rubbish. He doesn't seem to mind at all that the Iranians (see
below) pick 120 days. The Japanese use to pick three months,
if I recall correctly. Up until then, the Japs were legally able
to kill their newborns. I'll bet the author would be very 
uncomfortable with the logical extension of his belief here.

(As an extreme libertarian on this issue, the *laws*, which are
separate from moral issues now and then, should have no say
about internal family matters until some admittedly arbitrary
point is reached wherein the child becomes known and
becomes a part of society, just the way we say that those
under age 18 or whatever may not operate motor vehicles.
For *legal* purposes, you do have to draw lines somewhere.)

> According to Islamic teaching, I discovered, the foetus becomes a 
> full human being only when it is "ensouled" at 120 days from the 
> moment of conception, and so the research at Royan on human
> embryonic stem cells is not seen as playing God, as it takes place
> at a much earlier stage. Thus, while there is much that the west finds 
> unpalatable about life under Islamic rule, when it comes to genetics 
> they are not held back by their religious doctrine.

He's dead right about that, certainly.


> Like a number of other developing Islamic countries, such as 
> Malaysia, Iran's scientific research is moving forward in leaps and 
> bounds. I had hoped to visit one of its nuclear research facilities, 
> but given the current political climate and Israel's threats of 
> military action, it was no big surprise that my film crew and I were 
> denied access at the last minute. Nevertheless, whatever criticisms 
> we may have of the regime in Iran, I was left in no doubt that its 
> researchers can hold their heads high. And we in the UK might learn a 
> lesson or two from them before we complain too quickly about our own 
> nanny state [sic].

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