Maxwell Matson, columnist
In January 1950, the prolific botanist Elvin C. Stakman provided the following quote to Life Magazine: “Science cannot stop while ethics catches up…and nobody should expect scientists to do all the thinking for the country.”
In an age of exponential technological advancement, the question of why we innovate is becoming increasingly less important than the question of how. Technology is increasingly global, increasingly affordable and increasingly complex, but with so much innovation surrounding us all the time, it’s easy to grow desensitized. To contextualize this assertion, consider the issue of stem cell research.
First, what are stem cells? The short, non-technical answer is that stem cells are a type of multipurpose cell which can be utilized by the body (or by scientists) to form the building blocks of various tissues. Your body currently contains stem cells called somatic cells which repair your bodily tissues when they are damaged and which have the ability to transform themselves into one of several different types of tissues. But it’s another, much more complicated type of stem cell at the root of the debate over stem cell research. Embryonic stem cells are similar to adult somatic cells in that they do not correspond to a specific type of tissue and are therefore able to differentiate themselves into any of the 225 different types of cells found in the bodies of adult humans. However, the utility of embryonic stem cells does not end at their polymorphic qualities. Unlike any other type of human cell, embryonic stem cells are infinitely self-replicating, meaning that they can produce copies of themselves without limit, allowing for incredible versatility in laboratory settings. It is this unique ability which has branded stem cell research the scientific boom of the century. But of course, no innovation is without its detractors.
Stem cell research has come to exist in the strange space where political agendas run in tandem with religious ones, suspended forever in an ideological jello with little hope of ever breaking free. Tell someone they’re wrong and you might get punched in the face; tell someone their god is wrong and you might get beheaded. In this hostile climate, the issue has been treated almost identically to other issues of body rights (such as abortion), and the people who understand little to nothing about the actual science behind the research (people like me!) are often those who think themselves the most qualified to ascend to their pulpit and condemn its continuation. While it would be easy to write off the beliefs of such people as ridiculous, it’s hard to blame them for being skeptical of the frantic pace at which science is evolving beyond established norms of human morality. After all, a healthy level of skepticism is critical in an age of fake news. And while the vast-majority of us happily embrace each new “game changer” of a smartphone each year, we all have our own unique anxieties regarding the future.
Whether through our movies (Blade Runner, The Matrix, The Hunger Games etc.), our television or even our music (ever heard a Radiohead song that didn’t sound like a robot trying to murder someone?) it’s clear that the shiny new tomorrow portrayed in every Apple ad is not without its own dark possibilities. Writers like Kurt Vonnegut and George Orwell may well have predicted our ever-growing reliance on technology, but what they could not have predicted is our defiant refusal to let go of the past in response. The cornerstone of any dystopia is complacency, and with a world of paleo-diet eaters, vinyl listeners and urban farmers, it seems that we may yet have the propensity for proving the power of hipsterdom over technological subservience. While it’s easy to blame the pseudo-scientists, theocrats, anti-vaccers and analog hipsters of the world for holding us back from innovation, it just may be their special brand of insufferable that’s held us back from disaster for so long.
The objective good that stem cell research will do for our species far outweighs the perceived downsides; however that’s just one man’s opinion. Until the majority of Americans either share such beliefs, or simply become too ambivalent to the issue to care anymore, stem cell research will remain little more than a promising possibility.