by Ann Farmer
The feature 'Going to Extremes' (Telegraph, August 16, 2011) describes a number of scientific experiments that 'might' yield enormous benefits to humankind, which include testing chemicals on humans, brain sampling, embryo mapping, womb swapping, and the creation of an ape man. Apparently, the 'problem' with all of these imaginary experiments is that they are seen to be unethical by some people, and the practical problem - that no willing subjects can be found - is the reason why they should be viewed with extreme caution. Of course, you might be able to take a brain sample from a person newly diagnosed with a degenerative brain disease if you convince him he is helping to advance scientific knowledge; or persuade a desperate childless woman that there might be some benefit from tampering with her reproductive system; or experiment on the dying, because they are going to die anyway; or on condemned criminals for the same reason; or on brain-injured patients because we believe they have no meaningful cognition. Or on the poor, because the money would come in handy. However, we do not need to speculate, because of the well-documented unethical experiements carried out in the concentration camps during the Second World War. Some, such as the freezing of human subjects, were conducted in the hope of making discoveries that would be useful in saving lives; but they were predicated on the belief that some lives were more valuable than others. This reality was fully exposed at the Nuremburg War Trials, but despite such horrors, the British Government asked the Eugenics Society, which before the War advocated sterilization and praised the Nazi sterilization programme, to evaluate the utility of concentration camp sterilization experiments, some of which involved the injection of corrosive material into the fallopian tubes of prisoners in order to cause scarring and thus sterility.
In our own time, embryo experimentation, cloning and even human/animal hybrids - 'cybrids' - has been legalized in this country. We have been almost alone among the nations in so doing, but while there are now hundreds of entirely ethical adult stem cell treatments that actually work, not one cure has come from the unethical experiments, despite hubristic claims. Perhaps this is because, like the 'twin separations', the 'womb swapping' and the Ape Man, few scientists, and even fewer non-scientists, are interested in the eugenicist obsession with nature and nurture that characterizes so many unethical experiments. We have seen the results of this obsession in the discarding of in vitro-conceived embryos that show signs of genetic abnormalities, itself heralded as an 'advance' on pre-natal tests for handicap leading to abortion. No doubt it will be heralded as an even greater advance if adult humans could be tested for undesirable genetic traits, but this is controversial because it is too close to the eugenics of old. Once again, however, it could be performed on willing subjects if infertile couples could be persuaded that it might help in their quest for offspring. Equally disturbing is the fact that from the beginning the Darwinist approach has been linked to obsessions with race, so clearly evoked by those pictures of evolutionary progression in which an ape 'evolves' into a black man who 'evolves' into a white man. No doubt the recent riots will lead to renewed preoccupations with 'preventing' social problems by preventing the births of certain sorts of people.
Linked to this scientific 'What if?' desire to experiment on Man is the belief that we have evolved ethically; that we would never do what the Nazis did, or at least not for the same reasons. There is the recurring belief that if only we could take apart Man and spread out the bits (in a controlled experiment) we could discover what he is made of. The fact that, among each generation of scientists there are some who believe that unethical experiments can be done for ethical reasons, or entertain a quasi-religious belief in the scientific imperative, or are too reckless to care, shows that we have not learned the lessons of history; thus we have not 'evolved' ethically. This recurring tendency to the unethical should tell us all we need to know about what Man is made of.