“I’m not an animal!” cried the human animal.

November 6, 2006 | By | 7 Replies More

Go ask one of those opponents of stem cell research why it’s OK to donate a kidney.  They’ll look at you like you’re nuts.  They’ll tell there’s a person who’s about to die and another person with an extra kidney, and it’s all that simple.

In 2006 you won’t hear any protest that kidney donation is something Frankenstein would do. Stem cell research opponents won’t assert that the extra kidney constitutes a “human life” even though it is alive and human.  They won’t tell you that kidney transplants are morally wrong.  They won’t claim that a kidney has an invisible soul.

Instead, they will reassure you that a spare kidney is not a unique human being.  They will tell you that kidney cells are only “potential” human beings (reproductive cloning, illegal in most countries, could accomplish this).  As icing on the cake, they will assert that kidneys don’t feel any pain. 

At that point you’ll need to jump in. For starters, you might remind the stem cell research opponents that blastocysts (from which stem cells are harvested) are clumps of about 150 cells small enough to fit inside Roosevelt’s eye on a U.S. dime


You might then add that blastocysts are only five days old when the stem cells are harvested.  At this point in time, the stem cells are pluripotent: they can develop into all the different cell types in the body (except the placenta), but they have not yet developed into any specialized type of cell.  Consequently, blastocysts do not contain any nerve cells.  “They” cannot feel any pain.

Functional human beings each have some sort of brain.  Without nerve cells, though, human animals are only as “aware” as department store manikins.  Stem cells don’t have any nerve cells at all.  They thus have even fewer nerve cells than Terry Schaivo, who was considered brain dead and therefore declared dead.  She was a breathing corpse.  She was a dead, even though she had some functioning nerves. Maybe this isn’t a good example to use on conservatives, because many of them believe that Terri Schaivo was alive despite her total lack of coherent thought.

It seems that the dispute between pro and anti-stem cell research positions boils down to this.  The people opposing stem cell research claim that a clump of cells without any nerves is a functional human being despite having with no nerve cells, simply based on that clump’s potential to grow into a human being (if implanted in a womb).  The same logic would hold that an acorn is already an oak tree.  People trying to have babies don’t consider frozen fertilized eggs to be “babies.” When those fertilized eggs don’t successfully implant, the “parents” don’t have funerals for those fertilized eggs.

As I pondered this issue tonight, it occurred to me that this is yet another instance of conservatives fighting hard to deny that human beings are animals.  They argue that a clump of stem cells without a single nerve is a human being, as though an invisible and undetectable soul can do the work of a complex neural network.   This claim is absurd.  Show me any animal without any nerves and I’ll show you an animal that has no feelings, no thoughts and no emotions.   Any claim to the contrary is superstition based on wild imagination.

That a nerve-less clump of cells is sentient (that it can think) is a claim that nerves don’t actually do the work of cognition.  This is actually a claim that, somehow, there is sentience in the total absence of nerve cells.

Many conservative Believers abhor the thought that they are animals.  I’ve written about this repeatedly.  They don’t like to think of themselves as being on the same tree of life as the other plants and animals (thus leading to their disparagement of Darwin).  They refuse to see the precursors of morality in other mammals. They don’t like to consider that human bodies work the same way as the bodies of many other animals.  They hate to use the term “human animals.”  Gad!  That term implies that humans share many functions with the other animals.  Functions such as eating, sleeping and breathing. And pooping.

My thought for tonight is that conservative Believers oppose stem cell research because they refuse to recognize the obvious truth that human animals are animals.

Why does it bother them so much?  Is it because animals die and they don’t want to die?  Is it that simple?  I’ll be thinking about this topic some more, as I eat, sleep, breathe and poop.  You see, I’m a human animal.  Not that there is anything wrong with it.


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Category: Evolution, Health, Medicine, Politics, Psychology Cognition, Religion, Science

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (7)

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  1. grumpypilgrim says:

    Erich's post raises many provocative issues, including:

    "The people opposing stem cell research claim that a clump of cells without any nerves is a functional human being despite having with no nerve cells, simply based on that clump’s potential to grow into a human being (if implanted in a womb). The same logic would hold that an acorn is already an oak tree."

    I wish Erich hadn't used that oak tree analogy…now the opponents of stem cell research will be out waging war on squirrels for eating acorns and, thus, killing oak trees.

    "Stem cell research opponents won’t assert that the extra kidney constitutes a “human life” even though it is alive and human. They won’t tell you that kidney transplants are morally wrong. They won’t claim that a kidney has an invisible soul."

    The Christian church has always taken anti-scientific positions with respect to the human body, going as far back as Leonardo da Vinci's time, when he had to secretly buy corpses for his drawing studies because the church banned dissections. I believe the Christian church also initially opposed organ transplants, even though it now embraces the idea.

    What makes the current opposition to stem cell research truly bizarre is that the law governing the donation of human tissue dates back to the Uniform Anatomical Gift Act of 1968, which makes very clear that human tissue — including tissue from a fetus — may be donated for scientific research. See, http://www.legis.nd.gov/cencode/t23c062.pdf.

    "[Conservatives] argue that a clump of stem cells without a single nerve is a human being, as though an invisible and undetectable soul can do the work of a complex neural network. This claim is absurd."

    I would confront the Conservative argument in a different way, because arguing about whether or not a clump of stem cells is a human being doesn't resolve the issue. (Indeed, in many ways it concedes the argument to Conservatives.) Instead, I would argue it as follows. Stem cell research raises two moral questions: who gets to decide whether or not stem cell tissue can be donated for research, and should public money be used to support such research? The first question is resolved by the Uniform Anatomical Gift Act, which makes clear that the closest living relatives of a fetus (and, presumably, a blastocyst) get to decide questions of tissue donation. The second question is more vexing.

    The Conservative argument against public funding of stem cell research is that they don't want public funding (e.g., their tax dollars) being used "to destroy human life." However, these are often the very same people who support Bush's invasion of Iraq, which is an obvious case of public funding being used to destroy human life. Thus, the Conservative objection to destroying human life with public money is not absolute; it is situational: it is OK in some situations (invading Iraq), but not OK in others (stem cell research). Thus, a more fruitful discussion would explore why Conservatives believe that public funding for an unnecessary war in Iraq is OK, but public funding for stem cell research is not. Once we understand why Conservatives think this way, perhaps we can move stem cell research from the "not OK" category to the "OK" category. That way, we need not argue about whether or not a clump of stem cells is human life, and we can, instead, focus on resolving the unstated reasons why Conservatives oppose public funding for this life-saving research.

  2. Erich Vieth says:

    Grumpy: a caveat. As I waited in line to vote today, I spoke to a woman who is adamantly against Bush's bloody invasion of Iraq. On the other hand, she is absolutely convinced that stem cell research involves "creating babies to then killing them." I know other people who combine these views. BTW, the woman in line was entirely ignorant of the fact that blastocysts have no nerve cells and she had no interest this. She, like many others who oppose stem cell research conclude that a "baby" results as soon as sperm and egg combine, even in a Petri dish. I think that this is begging the question.

    I admit that a freshly fertilized human egg is living human tissue. The question is at what point should we recognize that such living human tissue deserves to be protected as a citizen under the law.

    As I've stated in my post, some sort of cognition is a prerequisite to being a citizen.  That's why we pronounce people dead based on flat EEG waves (even though they DO still have some functioning nerves).  Yet blastocysts have no nerve cells at all, thus no cognition at all.  Except for those people who insist that cognition occurs in the total absence of nerve cells–through some sort of "soul."  There is no evidence for this line of thought.  It is childlike wishful thinking.  

    Should we show "respect" toward all living human tissue, even nerveless blastocysts? In other words, would I squish a human blastocyst with my thumb on a dare? I would not. I find this thought macabre. But I would find it equally macabre to smash a human heart (previously removed from a brain dead person) with a hammer. Would I use a blastocyst to try to develope a cure to cure quadriplegics? Absolutely. Whenever I can make use of human tissue lacking nerves (and thus lacking cognition) to help a sentient human being I will do so.

  3. grumpypilgrim says:

    Erich's caveat gives me pause, because I have not yet encountered people like the woman he met at the polls. It is indeed hard to have a serious discussion with someone who begins will a nonsensical premise.

    But this is why the approach I suggest might work on people like that. In the case of that woman who insisted that a blastocyst is a baby, begin by agreeing with her that a fertilized egg is a baby. But here's the rub: that "baby" wasn't created just to be killed; it was created as part of an in vitro fertilization process, and it will never be used for that process, so it is soon going to die. So, think of it as if it were a brain-dead baby living on a respirator: the parents have decided to let it die and the question is: should the parents be allowed to donate its living tissue for medical research, to potentially save other sick babies, or should the parents have no option but to just let it die without anything good coming from that death? Ask the woman: if you were that fertilized egg and you knew you were going to die, would you prefer to just die, having lived a very short and meaningless existence, or would you rather have your tissue used to help others, possibly becoming the one donor whose tissue provides a cure for cancer, Alzheimer's, diabetes, paralysis, etc.?

    What I'm trying to discover is whether there is an argument that will break through the nonsensical mental barricade that people have erected that says that the parents of a dying 4-year-old child can donate its living tissue for medical research, but the parents of a dying 4-hour-old blastocyst cannot.

  4. K says:

    You mistake the positions of your opponents so badly its no wonder you have such low opinions of them.

    I don't know anyone who would say a kidney is a "potential human-being". That is the most ridiculous supposition I've ever heard.

    The difference between a kidney and the 5 day old human is that if you don't suck the human out of their place they WILL become a fully functional human being. If you leave a kidney in its place it will still be a kidney. Forever.

    The second idiotic part of the analogy is that a person who donates a kidney does so willingly and freely at the cost of their own health. Since the 5 day old human has no cognitive faculties, asking if it wants to donate it's life to science is rather difficult.

    You really do yourself a disservice if you start off being completely ignorant of the positions of those who oppose you, and then proceed to make false analogies of these imagined positions you've made up.

  5. Erich Vieth says:

    K: You are playing a shell game. When you judge a kidney, you are judging it by what it IS. When you judge a blastocyst, you are judging it by what it might become. When emerging medical technologies, any human cell with a nucleus (this includes kidney cells) has the potential to become another human life. It won't happen in the womb spontaneously, but it could someday happen in the lab.

    If you think you're scoring points by jumping onto these comments and calling the other writers "idiots," that's yet another point against you.

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