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Whose View of Life?Review - Whose View of Life?
Embryos, Cloning, and Stem Cells
by Jane Maienschein
Harvard University Press, 2005
Review by Hannah Hardgrave
May 2nd 2006 (Volume 10, Issue 18)

According to David Hume, "The wise man, therefore, proportions his belief according to the evidence."  After reading Jane Maienschein's Whose View of Life: Embryos, Cloning, and Stem Cells  (Harvard University Press, 2003) I want to add, "And so, we see, does the wise woman"

Maienschein, a historian of developmental biology at Arizona State University, holds that a better understanding of developmental biology could help toward resolving policy disputes about research using embryos, cloning, and stem cells in ways consistent with the science and respectful of the opposing sides.  As she sees it, such understanding is to be gained through attention not only to contemporary science, but also to its history She says,

"By viewing current claims of moral truth in historical perspective, we can defuse the efficacy of the argument, if not the passion of the arguer.  ...we can understand the way that the past debates have shaped and constrained our current conditions...." (p.8) 

She frames the central question as having to do with "...when a life begins, or when we have something that we want to define as a life on its way to becoming an individual, independent organism; this is what I mean by 'a life'." (p.9) 

However, her book covers far more than this.  In providing a highly readable and reliable account of the history of attempts to understand the details of animal reproduction, she offers an essential background for all who wish to base their views concerning the controversial issues of cloning, stem cell research and the scientific use of human embryos on evidence rather than on a fear of the unknown.

Her history begins, as so many do, with Aristotle whose view in The Generation of Animals was that reproduction was a gradual process, involving qualitative as well as quantitative changes, a process called epigenesis.  This view was challenged in the seventeenth century by Hartsoeker, and others, who claimed to have observed an already preformed homunculus curled up in spermatozoa.  The development of a new life involves the growth of an already existing entity. This preformationist view has its contemporary descendents in those who maintain that a fertilized ovum has all the parts necessary for the development of the organism.  Those who believe that a more precise, detailed understanding of early development requires recognition of the many distinct steps involved are the heirs to Aristotle's epigenetic view.  Here we see the relevance of the history of science to the present day public policy disputes.

Succeeding chapters summarize the history of cell theory, experimental embryology, and genetics, with fascinating forays into parthenogenesis, the cloning of frogs, and eugenics.  What becomes apparent from this history is not just how much we have come to know about reproduction, but also how much painstaking attention to precise details has been involved, and how important the solution of "mere" technical problems has been in the increased understanding of early human development. It is the details of inquiry, rather than broad philosophical claims about "human nature" that have guided scientific changes in our understanding of human development.  These are general lessons about the nature of scientific inquiry too often ignored in public discussions of science. 

Turning to contemporary developments, Maienschein pays considerable attention to the recombinant DNA disputes, the introduction of in vitro fertilization, the human genome project, and the cloning of Dolly. Even when she expresses disapproval of the way many individuals have responded to these scientific advances, she remains truly fair and balanced in her assessments.  She may not appreciate Watson's flamboyance but she respects his leadership in the human genome project; perhaps Arthur Caplan is too eager to make pithy pronouncements on complex matters, but she admires his spirited defense of therapeutic cloning.  Even Leon Kass, who does not share Hume's or Maienschein's respect for evidence is treated with dignity.  She refers to Kass's assertions about the "wisdom of repugnance" as a form of intuitionism, grouping him with the influential philosopher G.E. Moore rather than, say, calling his claim an appeal to fear based on ignorance. Some of her harshest remarks are directed towards the sensationalism of reports of scientific results, specifically the cloning of the sheep Dolly. Even here, while she is strongly critical of the early reporting by Gina Kolota, she acknowledges that her later stories were more balanced.

Maienschein is attempting to do two things. First, she is trying to provide a detailed account of the science of human development in its historical context.  Here she is valiantly battling the general ignorance of science in general and biology in particular, especially among those who establish and enforce policy.  Secondly, she is using her scientific background to combat those who believe that in establishing public policy, science should be used only to support policies already promoted on other bases.  When people believe that they already know what is right (or more generally what is wrong), their attitude toward science is "Don't bother me with the facts." Reason and evidence are the only weapons we have to combat irrationality and prejudice although to what extent they are effective in present day America remains a question.  Perhaps, by phrasing the central issue in terms of "when a life begins," Maienschein has left open the door for those who would exploit the multiple ambiguities of the term "life" to promote their agenda.  Nevertheless, she has done her part to defend reason and evidence, and for that, she deserves the attention and admiration of citizens concerned with the future of science in the United States.


© 2006 Hannah Hardgrave  


Hannah Hardgrave, Lecturer, Department of Philosophy, Wake Forest University


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