Chimerism, or an embarrassment of souls

Looks like there’s an accidental religious theme to my posts this week, but I couldn’t let this one slip by without some commentary. If the destruction of an early-stage embryo is the destruction of a soul, as espoused by Dubya and friends, how many souls does a chimeric human have?

OK, so some background. The inspiration for this post came from a deliciously snarky post on one of the New Scientist blogs – indeed, a far more opinionated and vociferous post than I expected to read there, despite their obvious scientific bias. They’ve always struck me as a play-it-safe publication, but either they’ve given their bloggers full rein, or someone’s going to get called onto the carpet tomorrow.

The post in question mentions Bush’s reasoning behind his veto of stem cell research, as detailed above – basically he claims that an embryo of any age is a human being, complete with the numinous concept-object, a ‘soul’. Hence, in his worldview (assuming he doesn’t just spout what he’s told to, which I personally feel may be a rash and incorrect assumption), an embryo is a full human being from the moment of conception, with a soul that will be condemned to hell by its misuse by crazed scientists. To quote:

“The thing they all believe is that at the instant when an embryo is formed by fertilisation of a human egg by a human sperm, an tiny-weeny “soul” gets installed in the entity to make it a true human being. If the person leads a good life, like George and his UK pal Tony Blair, his or her soul will go to heaven.

If they’re naughty, the soul goes to hell. It’s also why (especially in the eyes of Bush and the Pope) it’s akin to murder to create an embryo then destroy it to obtain potentially useful things like stem cells to treat living people with disease and injury enduring horrendous suffering every minute, every hour and every day of their lives.”

See what I mean about the snark? He’s calling out the names and everything. Respect to the man for stating his views. And note also the anonymity of the majority of the defenders of the opposite position in the comments…

But, I digress. Chimerism is the issue here. Basically, it has come to light that a rare number of people are created from an embryo that is a fusion of two different eggs that have both been fertilised separately. The end result is, as the article states, “a single person composed of two genetically distinct types of tissue”.

The NS blogger asks, quite rightly (and I paraphrase): ‘wouldn’t that mean that according to creationist dogma, these people could be described as having two souls’? To my mind (and I imagine to most if not all of my readers) that idea is preposterous, because it is a logical extension of a illogical non-empirical theory with no grounding in science, let alone fact. Reductio ad absurdum, yes?

But as the comments on the post clearly show, logic doesn’t have a lot of bearing on the issue for the concept’s supporters. Indeed, this is to be expected; faith-based reasoning cannot, by definition, debate with empirical reasoning and logic on the same battlefield. And therein lies the problem.

As discussed yesterday, a rise in creationist beliefs is doing a great deal of damage to the work of science. Logic cannot truly defeat faith, because the recourse to logic is seen as evidence of a lack of faith, therefore invalidating logical arguments in the eyes of the faithful. Catch-22, with added transubstantiation, if you see what I mean.

I’m very much of a mind that a common ground between science and faith must be found, if only to act as a place for debate to take place. In this situation, that common ground could be the acknowledgement by science of the broad concept of ‘soul’, though leaving aside the numinous and unsupportable claims made about soul by dogmatists and fundamentalist believers.

After all, anyone who knows more than a handful of people must surely acknowledge that people are unique. OK, there may be general trends and types of person, but even twins (from the same zygote, and therefore, by Christian logic, two halves of one soul) can be recognised to have distinct and separate personas – different thought patterns, opinions, motivations and so on.

But the sticking point here must be the eternal life of the soul. The materialist/empiricist viewpoint would say that the soul dies with the body that created, grew and harboured it. The religious take would be that the soul ‘goes on’ in some manner; in the Christian theology being discussed, this translates as eternal reward in the kingdom of heaven, or damnation in hell for the sinful. And that is an argument that will take a long time to thrash out, should it ever be soberly debated without recourse to invective and mudslinging – but it strikes me as a good starting point that avoids rubbing the face of either side in the dirt before the debate starts.

The problem that I can see here is that the defenders of science are often using the language and emotional appeals of their opposition, despite their viewpoint being diametrically opposed. In other words (and I admit I am a frequent perpetrator of this myself), science advocates often end up lambasting the religious for their lack of faith in science, and sometimes descend into name-calling and superioritist language (‘how could I expect better from a Christian?’).

The point I’m trying to make is that from the outside looking in, science has all the trappings and rituals of a religion, especially to sopmeone who already thinks in those terms. Obviously (to me at least), there is a world of difference, but that difference will not be demonstrated successfully by retreating into pseudo-sectarian invective.

Religionists are not necessarily the ‘enemies of science’; to label them as such only enhances the chances of them becoming so. Religionists are instead potential scientific thinkers, who might be ‘brought into the flock’ by compassionate and reasonable discussion. Drawing a line and howling “it’s you against us, then” isn’t doing the cause of rationalism any favours. Yes, there are creation-advocates who use duplicitous methods and flawed logic to deceive and seduce the ignorant – but they will have no hesitation to call us out on using the same tactics. The only way to win what is essentially a moral argument is to always ensure that one is arguing from a moral high-ground. And if that means cutting religionists some slack, and respecting their right to believe in what they choose, maybe we might find them listening with a little more respect to our counter-arguments.

The last thing we need is a myth-fulfilling war of religion against rationalism – because as events in Iraq and elsewhere have demonstrated, it is almost impossible for a rationalist viewpoint to win in a pitched battle against an ideology that is willing to commit suicide to prove its moral point. I deplore fundamentalism, and would see it decline into nothingness. But I believe that labelling it as an enemy to be conquered by force (ideological or physical) actually strengthens its position against rationalism. Maybe it’s time to offer some sort of olive branch, while there are still olive trees to take them from.

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