Friday, December 17, 2004

Another Stem Cell Success

Another apparent success in the use of stem cells to produce medical marvels:

Surgeons have used stem cells from fat to help repair skull damage in a 7-year-old girl in Germany, in what's apparently the first time such fat-derived cells have been exploited to grow bone in a human. The girl had been injured two years before in a fall, which destroyed several areas of her skull totaling nearly 19 square inches, the German researchers reported.

Other surgeons had failed to correct the defects, and the girl wore a protective helmet. Her brain could sometimes be seen pulsating through the missing areas of her skull.

But several weeks after the stem-cell surgery, she was able to leave her helmet behind, the researchers report in the December issue of the Journal of Cranio-Maxillofacial Surgery. The skull is now smooth to the touch, the missing parts replaced by thin but solid bone, said Dr. Hans-Peter Howaldt of the Justus-Liebig-University Medical School in Giessen, Germany. The child was not identified.

Howaldt, who performed the surgery last year, said the damage was too extensive to be repaired with bone grafts from her body. He said the hope was that if bits of the child's bone were mixed with stem cells, the cells would turn into bone-building cells that would create additional bone.

That appears to have happened, Howaldt said in a telephone interview Thursday. "I cannot prove that our success comes from the stem cells alone," he said, "but the combination of the two things simply worked."

In August, other German doctors reported growing a jaw bone in a man's back muscle and transplanting it to his mouth to fill a gap left by cancer surgery. The researchers used bone marrow, which also contains stem cells, to help grow the bone. But it's not clear whether the stem cells were responsible for the bone growth.

So Roy C. Ogle of the University of Virginia, an expert in skull reconstructive surgery who has been studying bone regeneration from fat-derived cells, said he considered the new report to be the first indicating that any kind of stem cell had been used to grow bone in a human. "It is a very big deal," said Ogle, who called the study a landmark.

He agreed that the study didn't prove that stem cells provided the new bone. But it also indicates that the implanted cells did no harm, which has been a concern with using stem cells in people, he said. Ogle said many surgeons would have augmented the child's bone with a mineral paste or collagen instead of stem cells. Howaldt said he believes it's better to use the body's own tissue.

Howaldt and his colleagues treated the skull in the same operation that recovered bone from the girl's pelvis and about 1.5 ounces of fat tissue from her buttocks. The bone was milled into chips about one-tenth of an inch long and placed in the missing areas of the skull. Then surgeons added the stem cells to the bone chips. The cells had been extracted from the girl's fat in a laboratory while surgeons prepared the girl's skull.

Howaldt said the bone chips appeared to instruct the stem cells to make more bone. While the new bone should grow as the child grows, she's old enough that her skull won't grow much more anyway, he said.

Hmm. The stem cells were taken from fat removed from the girl's body? They weren't embryonic stem cells? There must be some mistake.

Falling On Deaf Ears

Peggy Noonan tells the Democrats how they can turn their political fortunes around overnight. It could bring millions of voters back to the party of their ancestors and wouldn't cost the Democrats a dime. It's a "can't lose" suggestion:

Always in politics it comes down not to words but to actions. It's not poetry but policy that claims support and wins. Allow me to prove this, for I think I can. I know something the Democratic Party can do right now that will improve its standing and increase its popularity. It can be done this week. Its impact will be quick and measurable.

It is this: Stop the war on religious expression in America. Have Terry McAuliffe come forward and announce that the Democratic Party knows that a small group of radicals continue to try to "scrub" such holidays as Christmas from the public square. They do this while citing the Constitution, but the Constitution does not say it is wrong or impolite to say "Merry Christmas" or illegal to have a cr�che in the public square.

The Constitution says we have freedom of religion, not from religion. Have Terry McAuliffe announce that from here on in the Democratic Party is on the side of those who want religion in the public square, and the Ten Commandments on the courthouse wall for that matter. Then he should put up a big sign that says "Merry Christmas" on the sidewalk in front of the Democratic National Committee Headquarters on South Capitol Street. The Democratic Party should put itself on the side of Christmas, and Hanukkah, and the fact of transcendent faith.

This would be taking a stand on an issue that roils a lot of people, and believe me those people don't think conservatives are scrubbing America of Christmas, they think it's liberals; and they don't think it's Republicans, they think it's Democrats. Confound them, Terry! Come forward with a stand. It is the stand that is the salvation, not mysterious words or codes or magic messages.

Do this, Democrats. Announce you will apply pressure to antireligious zealots throughout the country. You have nothing to lose but a silly and culturally unhelpful reputation as the party that is hostile to religious expression. What you could gain is respect and gratitude. Pick up that Christmas tree, Terry, take it outside and put a star on top, stand next to it, yell Merry Christmas and ring a bell. That's a manipulation of symbols that would actually make sense.

Like we said, it's a can't lose recommendation. Problem is, as Ms Noonan surely knows, it'll never happen.

Intelligent Design and the Public School

Nearby Dover Area School District in Pennsylvania has made the national news and is being discussed on all the talk shows because of a decision by it's school board to require biology teachers to mention the concept of Intelligent Design (ID) in their classrooms when they discuss evolution. They are currently being sued in Federal Court by the ACLU, representing eleven parents in the district, for allegedly trying to smuggle religion into the science classroom. This is the first time ID has been the subject of a Federal Court case so there is a lot of attention being paid to the proceedings.

There are two separate questions in this case, as we see it. The first has to do with the nature of ID, and the second has to do with the motives of its proponents. We hope that the Court considers these separately. The first question hinges on whether ID is essentially a religious construct or whether it is philosophy of science. This is the crucial question before the Court because the answer the jurists come up with will determine the legitimacy of ID as a topic for inclusion in science curricula all across the country.

This post addresses the question of whether ID, irrespective of the intentions of some of its supporters, should be taught in public schools. Is ID a religious hypothesis, and, if not, are the implications of ID any more religious than the implications of Darwinian materialism?

We have weighed in on this issue in the local papers and on this blog several times in recent months (See here, here, and here) and have chosen to pick up the cudgels once again by reworking a post from last week and submitting it for publication in the paper. Whether it will be printed or not we don't know yet, but we've decided to run it again on Viewpoint so that our readers can comment upon it if they wish. The letter follows:

Recent statements by people on both sides of the controversy over the teaching of intelligent design in public schools suggest a lot of misunderstanding about what exactly ID is.

Intelligent Design starts from the simple fact that human beings are able to recognize design. For the most part that recognition is intuitive. One important aspect of ID is the elucidation of the criteria we employ to distinguish purposely designed objects from those which may be the products of random, purposeless processes. ID theorists seek to codify how it is that we manage to distinguish intelligent agency from the work of mindless forces.

Once the criteria of design recognition are established, at least in broad outline, they may be turned toward living organisms and the structures found in those organisms. Everyone involved in the controversy agrees that biological structures are designed. The question at issue is whether the designer is mindless chance and physical law or whether it is some form of intelligent mind.

ID theorists conclude that complex, specified arrangements or patterns are the hallmark of intelligent provenience and that organisms possess these qualities in abundance down to the tiniest microscopic bio-machines which cram living cells. They claim that it is therefore at least as plausible that these structures are somehow the result of intelligence as that they are not.

ID advocates argue that public schools shouldn't implicitly foreclose the possibility of an intelligent agent being responsible for nature's architecture by refusing to acknowledge that possibility to their students while at the same time teaching them a view that explicitly denies that possibility. This certainly seems reasonable, but, nevertheless, there is opposition.

The resistance stems in some measure from the possibility that if ID is accepted it might lead to certain philosophical conclusions about the ultimate nature of reality which are unpalatable to philosophical materialists. There is thus a major effort to prohibit such instruction by those who fear that in any fair consideration of the evidence the hypothesis that natural processes are perfectly adequate to account for the myriad of molecular machines we observe in our microscopes will look pale in comparison to the alternative.

Consequently, in order to prevent such comparisons, strenuous efforts are made, whenever the spectre of Intelligent Design looms large, to characterize it as religion while simultaneously packaging the materialist hypothesis as science. The fact is, of course, that materialism is not science and ID is not religion. They are both philosophical or metaphysical hypotheses which rely upon empirical data for their conclusions.

Consider a few ways in which ID has been mischaracterized in the Dover school board controversy:

1) It's been argued that ID should not be taught in public schools because the Supreme Court has prohibited it. This, though, is not true. The relevant ruling, Edwards v. Aguillard, was not about ID, it was about creationism, and the Supreme Court explicitly said that teachers are free to teach creationism if they wish. The Court merely prohibited state legislatures from mandating it. Creationism has a strong religious component, depending as it does upon the Bible. ID has no such component, so if teachers are free to teach creationism they would certainly be free to teach ID. One of the issues that a court case will have to address is whether a school board can mandate ID, and that decision will probably pivot upon whether ID is seen as essentially religious.

2) ID is philosophical, and philosophical concepts have no place in the science classroom. This objection belies a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of philosophy in science. The two are very nearly inseparable. If science teachers cannot introduce philosophical concepts into their classrooms then they cannot talk about what science is, the scientific method, the basic principle of cause and effect, the principle of sufficient cause, the principle of uniformity, the law of parsimony, the criteria of a good scientific theory, the laws of logic, the trustworthiness of reason and rational inquiry, and so on. All of these, and much more that might come up in an intellectually vivacious science class, are philosophical topics. It's very strange that all manner of philosophical questions are admitted into our classrooms without raising alarm, yet the notion that there might be an intelligence responsible for the basic structure of life sends half the population into a panic.

3) ID lends support to the belief that there is a God. This is true, but it's irrelevant. We don't prohibit teaching Darwinian evolution on the grounds that it lends support to the belief that there is no God. Simply because a field of study has implications for religious belief it does not follow that the study is itself religious.

Moreover, though ID is compatible with belief in the God of traditional monotheism, it doesn't require it. It claims only that life possesses the stamp of purposive, intentional organization. The organizer may be the God of Judeo-Christian tradition or it may be the God of Jeffersonian deism, or it may be extra-galactic beings which somehow seeded life on this planet, as some non-theistic scientists have suggested. Anyone who takes the design inference beyond the conclusion that life exhibits the impress of intelligent manufacture is making a philosophical leap that ID neither sanctions nor opposes.

This is why the allegation that ID is just a form of creationism is misinformed. Creationism says explicitly that the God of the Bible created everything in the space-time universe. Some forms of creationism go even further and claim that God created the major forms of life pretty much as we see them today, and that He did this relatively recently and very quickly.

ID makes no such claims. Some of its local proponents and adversaries notwithstanding, ID does not affirm that the world is created by God, it asserts nothing about how the world or life were created nor how quickly or long ago. Some ID theorists are, in fact, evolutionists (though not Darwinian evolutionists). They believe that life has descended from primitive ancestors pretty much the way Darwinians claim, but they depart from Darwinism by rejecting the notion that natural processes alone are sufficient to explain it.

The basic claim of ID is that however life came to be as it is, intelligent input must have been a factor at some point or points in the process. Life did not originate nor diversify solely by the action of physical or material causes. If people wish to see support in this for a belief in God, that is their decision, just as it is their decision if they find support in Darwinism for their belief that there is no God.

4) ID is religious and religion has no place in a science classroom. The latter part of this is true, but the first part is not. What is a religion? How do we recognize one? Not one person in a hundred who voices this objection can give a compelling definition of what "religion" is. The Encyclopedia of Philosophy acknowledges that religion eludes definition. Some religions have a god, some don't. Some religions involve worship of their deity, some don't. Some religions have a moral code, some don't. Some religions have a clerical hierarchy, some don't. Given the inability to specify exactly what characteristics a religion possesses it seems a little absurd to say that ID possesses them.

ID neither entails the existence of a god nor does it prescribe worship of one. Doubtless many ID adherents are religious as individuals and would like to see ID used as a means to point others to the Judeo-Christian God, but then many Darwinians are atheistic and see Darwinism as a useful tool for turning people toward materialism or naturalism. No one who has read Richard Dawkins or Daniel Dennett, just to mention two prominent Darwinian writers, could miss the atheistic proselytism in their books. Should we keep texts and articles written by such authors from our students simply because they have a strong bias toward atheistic materialism?

5) ID is a Trojan horse for sneaking religion into schools. Even if it were true that ID is somehow religious, it should nevertheless be asked why Darwinism enjoys immunity against the same charge. Why should it not be seen as a Trojan horse for sneaking atheism into schools? Why are the alleged aims of one illicit while those of the other are deemed acceptable? Darwinism states that the universe, life, the diversity of life, and human consciousness were all fashioned by unguided, unintelligent, purposeless and purely natural forces. It asserts that no God is necessary to account for anything that exists, and it insists that the universe is closed to any non-natural intervention.

These are all essential philosophical assumptions of the Darwinian paradigm, and they have profound religious implications. They are in overt conflict with the basic tenets of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. They also implicitly entail atheism since they render God superfluous, and there is no rational justification for believing in a superfluous, unnecessary, metaphysical entity which serves no unique function. It is possible to teach evolution without discussing these assumptions and implications, but it's not possible to teach Darwinian evolution without discussing them.

Intelligent Design logically entails no deity, it enjoins no worship, it promotes no sacraments, it possesses no scriptures, it teaches no dogma, it maintains no clergy, and it is affiliated with no church. Contrary to the hopes of some and the fears of others, intelligent design is not a stalking horse for Christianity, and shouldn't be used as one. It is simply not a religious hypothesis. Its critics point to the fact that many of its proponents are theists or deists and claim that this demonstrates the religious underpinnings of ID, but the fact that there are many theists among the ID ranks no more disqualifies it as a legitimate topic of discussion in a science classroom than the fact that so many Darwinians are atheists disqualifies materialistic versions of evolution from being presented to our students.

Biology teachers should seek to instill in their students a sense of awe at the wonders of the natural world, from the thousands of tiny molecular machines that carry out the myriad tasks of life within every cell to the marvels of the human immune system or the human brain. They might then point out that there are two ways of thinking about how those wonders came to be. They are either the result of eons of random chance and purposeless physical forces or they are the product of a superintending intelligence acting in concert with the laws of nature. There is nothing objectionable about teaching our students the beauty and complexity of the biological world, presenting them with the competing metaphysical explanations of random chance or intelligent purpose, and letting them decide for themselves which they accept. To teach one alternative, however, while suppressing the other is the very definition of indoctrination.