The Humanitas Project


Living in the Biotech Century

News, Resources, and Commentary

June 5, 2008



“The monkeys’ brains adjusted — they used the prosthetic gripper as if it were their own hand.”


Monkeys Think, Moving Artificial Arm as Own

by Benedict Carey



Andrew Schwartz/University of Pittsburgh

A grid in the monkey’s brain carried signals from 100 neurons for the mechanical arm to grab and carry snacks to the mouth.

“Two monkeys with tiny sensors in their brains have learned to control a mechanical arm with just their thoughts, using it to reach for and grab food and even to adjust for the size and stickiness of morsels when necessary, scientists reported on Wednesday.


“The report, released online by the journal Nature, is the most striking demonstration to date of brain-machine interface technology. Scientists expect that technology will eventually allow people with spinal cord injuries and other paralyzing conditions to gain more control over their lives.


“The findings suggest that brain-controlled prosthetics, while not practical, are at least technically within reach....”


The New York Times – May 29, 2008




Please forward this e-mail to anyone who might be interested in staying abreast of the rapidly changing developments in biotechnology and the related area of bioethics.  For more information on The Humanitas Project, contact Michael Poore, Executive Director, at 931-239-8735 or .  Or visit The Humanitas Project web site at



Assessing the health risks of nanomaterials...


Effects of Nanotubes May Lead to Cancer, Study Says

by Rick Weiss



“Microscopic, high-tech ‘nanotubes’ that are being made for use in a wide variety of consumer products cause the same kind of damage in the body as asbestos does, according to a study in mice that is raising alarms among workplace safety experts and others.


“Within days of being injected into mice, the nanotubes – which are increasingly used in electronic components, sporting goods and dozens of other products – triggered a kind of cellular reaction that over a period of years typically leads to mesothelioma, a fatal form of cancer, researchers said.


“Only longer versions of the vanishingly small fibers have that toxic effect, the study found. And further experiments must be done to prove that the engineered motes can cause problems when inhaled, the way most people might be exposed to them....”


Washington Post – May 21, 2008


Fooling kids...teaching them to depend on pills for minor ills...


Experts Question Placebo Pill for Children




“Jennifer Buettner was taking care of her young niece when the idea struck her. The child had a nagging case of hypochondria, and Ms. Buettner’s mother-in-law, a nurse, instructed her to give the girl a Motrin tablet.


“‘She told me it was the most benign thing I could give,’ Ms. Buettner said. ‘I thought, why give her any drug? Why not give her a placebo?’


“Studies have repeatedly shown that placebos can produce improvements for many problems like depression, pain and high blood pressure, and Ms. Buettner reasoned that she could harness the placebo effect to help her niece. She sent her husband to the drugstore to buy placebo pills. When he came back empty handed, she said, ‘It was one of those “aha!” moments when everything just clicks.’


“Ms. Buettner, 40, who lives in Severna Park, Md., with her husband, 7-month-old son and 22-month-old twins, envisioned a children’s placebo tablet that would empower parents to do something tangible for minor ills and reduce the unnecessary use of antibiotics and other medicines....”


The New York Times – May 27, 2008


A cultural revolution?  From materialism to pantheism?


The Neural Buddhists

by David Brooks



“In 1996, Tom Wolfe wrote a brilliant essay called ‘Sorry, but Your Soul Just Died,’ in which he captured the militant materialism of some modern scientists.


“To these self-confident researchers, the idea that the spirit might exist apart from the body is just ridiculous. Instead, everything arises from atoms. Genes shape temperament. Brain chemicals shape behavior. Assemblies of neurons create consciousness. Free will is an illusion. Human beings are ‘hard-wired’ to do this or that. Religion is an accident.


“In this materialist view, people perceive God’s existence because their brains have evolved to confabulate belief systems. You put a magnetic helmet around their heads and they will begin to think they are having a spiritual epiphany. If they suffer from temporal lobe epilepsy, they will show signs of hyperreligiosity, an overexcitement of the brain tissue that leads sufferers to believe they are conversing with God.


“Wolfe understood the central assertion contained in this kind of thinking: Everything is material and ‘the soul is dead.’ He anticipated the way the genetic and neuroscience revolutions would affect public debate. They would kick off another fundamental argument over whether God exists....”


The New York Times – May 13, 2008


Tom Wolfe’s 1996 prophecy — windows into the brain, disappearance of the self, and scientific skepticism...


Sorry, But Your Soul Just Died

By Tom Wolfe


From neuroscience to Nietzsche. A sobering look at how man may perceive himself in the future, particularly as ideas about genetic predeterminism takes the place of dying Darwinism.



“Being a bit behind the curve, I had only just heard of the digital revolution last February when Louis Rossetto, cofounder of Wired magazine, wearing a shirt with no collar and his hair as long as Felix Mendelssohn’s, looking every inch the young California visionary, gave a speech before the Cato Institute announcing the dawn of the twenty-first century’s digital civilization. As his text, he chose the maverick Jesuit scientist and philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who fifty years ago prophesied that radio, television, and computers would create a ‘noösphere,’ an electronic membrane covering the earth and wiring all humanity together in a single nervous system. Geographic locations, national boundaries, the old notions of markets and political processes—all would become irrelevant. With the Internet spreading over the globe at an astonishing pace, said Rossetto, that marvelous modem-driven moment is almost at hand.


“Could be. But something tells me that within ten years, by 2006, the entire digital universe is going to seem like pretty mundane stuff compared to a new technology that right now is but a mere glow radiating from a tiny number of American and Cuban (yes, Cuban) hospitals and laboratories. It is called brain imaging, and anyone who cares to get up early and catch a truly blinding twenty-first-century dawn will want to keep an eye on it.


“Brain imaging refers to techniques for watching the human brain as it functions, in real time....” 


Orthodoxy Today – Originally published in Forbes ASAP, December 2, 1996


An argument for shrinking our definition of what it means to be human, as anticipated by Tom Wolfe...


The Stupidity of Dignity

by Steven Pinker


Conservative bioethics’ latest, most dangerous ploy.



Credit: Felix Sockwell

Credit: Felix Sockwell

“This spring, the President’s Council on Bioethics released a 555-page report, titled Human Dignity and Bioethics. The Council, created in 2001 by George W. Bush, is a panel of scholars charged with advising the president and exploring policy issues related to the ethics of biomedical innovation, including drugs that would enhance cognition, genetic manipulation of animals or humans, therapies that could extend the lifespan, and embryonic stem cells and so-called ‘therapeutic cloning’ that could furnish replacements for diseased tissue and organs. Advances like these, if translated into freely undertaken treatments, could make millions of people better off and no one worse off. So what’s not to like? The advances do not raise the traditional concerns of bioethics, which focuses on potential harm and coercion of patients or research subjects. What, then, are the ethical concerns that call for a presidential council?


“Many people are vaguely disquieted by developments (real or imagined) that could alter minds and bodies in novel ways. Romantics and Greens tend to idealize the natural and demonize technology. Traditionalists and conservatives by temperament distrust radical change. Egalitarians worry about an arms race in enhancement techniques. And anyone is likely to have a ‘yuck’ response when contemplating unprecedented manipulations of our biology. The President’s Council has become a forum for the airing of this disquiet, and the concept of ‘dignity’ a rubric for expounding on it. This collection of essays is the culmination of a long effort by the Council to place dignity at the center of bioethics. The general feeling is that, even if a new technology would improve life and health and decrease suffering and waste, it might have to be rejected, or even outlawed, if it affronted human dignity....”


The New Republic – May 28, 2008


The debate about human dignity — Steven Pinker undercuts his own ethical position...


Indignity and Bioethics

by Yuval Levin


Steven Pinker discovers the human-dignity cabal.



“Human dignity has long been a contentious subject in American bioethics. A frequently employed if ill-defined concept in European political life, in international law, and in the ethical tradition of the West, dignity has had a particularly hard time finding its precise meaning and place in the Anglo-American sphere. Is it just a synonym for equality or autonomy, or does it describe something else — a concept foreign to our political vocabulary? And either way, does it belong in an American bioethics, or is it best left safely across the pond? Different scholars and observers through the years have taken for granted quite different definitions of the term, while others have simply denied its utility altogether.


“To try to organize the dispute and help to make sense of the term, the President’s Council on Bioethics — established by President Bush in 2001 to, among other things, ‘provide a forum for a national discussion of bioethical issues’ — recently produced a collection of essays laying out the range of views on human dignity for public examination. The council (which I served as executive director during part of the president’s first term) invited two dozen experts, including members of the council itself as well as outside academics and writers, to offer their thoughts on human dignity and bioethics.


“The volume has so far drawn a modest response from bioethicists and others, some applauding the effort to lay out the range of opinions, and some bemoaning the lack of agreement on so seemingly basic a concept. But this week, in the latest issue of The New Republic, the volume has also elicited a bizarre and astonishing display of paranoid vitriol from an academic celebrity. Steven Pinker, the Harvard psychologist and best-selling author of books on language, cognition, and evolutionary biology, seems to have decided that the concept of human dignity is not only ‘stupid’ but is a weapon of aggression in the arsenal of a religious crusade intent on crushing American liberty and ‘imposing a Catholic agenda on a secular democracy.’...”


National Review Online – May 14, 2008


“We must think carefully about what sort of creature...the human being is, and how best to live in ways befitting such a creature.”


Human Dignity: Exploring and Explicating the Council’s Vision

by Gilbert Meilaender



“The truth of equal human dignity may be, as the Declaration [of Independence] seems to suggest, self-evident (in the sense that this truth shines by its own light and cannot be derived from other more fundamental truths), but it is not obvious. Indeed, perhaps we will see it only insofar as we ‘bring a certain something’ with us when we look. And, for Kierkegaard, that ‘certain something’ is very specifically the neighbor-love that Christians are enjoined to show to every human being made in God’s image. I doubt, in fact, that there is any way to derive a belief in the equal worth of every human being from the ordinary distinctions in merit and excellence that we all use in some spheres of life; it is grounded, rather, not in our relation to each other but in our relation to God, from whom—to use a mathematical metaphor—we are equidistant. ‘The thought of God’s presence makes a person modest in relation to another person, because the presence of God makes the two essentially equal.’


“Here, then, is our problem, from which we cannot for long continue to avert our gaze: Our society is committed to equal human dignity, and our history is in large part a long attempt to work out the meaning of that commitment. Christians and Jews have an account of persons—as equidistant from God and of equal worth before God—that grounds and makes sense of this commitment we all share. A society that rejects their account but wishes to retain the commitment faces, then, a serious crisis in the structure of its beliefs. And often, in fact, we do little more than posit an equality about which we are, otherwise, largely mute; for the truth is, as Oliver O’Donovan has assertively put it, that this belief ‘is, and can only be, a theological assertion.’ We are equal to each other, whatever our distinctions in excellence of various sorts, precisely because none of us is the ‘maker’ of another one of us. We have all received our life—equally—as a gift from the Creator....”


“Human Dignity: Exploring and Explicating the Council’s Vision” is Chapter 11 of Human Dignity and Bioethics: Essays Commissioned by the President’s Council on Bioethics, published in March 2008. The entire report is available online, either as a PDF or a free hard copy.


Worth considering...


From Can We Be Good Without God?

by Glenn Tinder


On the political meaning of Christianity



Cover Image

“...Clearly the immediate political aims of Christians are not necessarily different from those of secular radicals and reformers. Their underlying attitudes are different, however. The Christian sense of the depth and stubbornness of evil in human beings, along with the faith that the universe under the impetus of grace is moving toward radical re-creation, gives a distinctive cast to the Christian conception of political action and social progress.


“Secular conceptions of reform are apt to be characterized by optimistic oversimplifications and distortions. American reformers, for example, typically assume that human beings are both reasonable and just and that beneficent social change is therefore easy. The main thing necessary, after identifying a problem, is to devise and propagate a rational solution. Poverty, crime, class conflict, war, and all other great social evils can gradually but surely be eliminated. Good will and intelligence, well organized and fully informed (through the studies of social scientists), will suffice. Such illusions stem from a dilemma noted above. It is difficult for secular reformers to reconcile their sense of the dignity of individuals with a recognition of the selfishness and perversity of individuals. They are thus led persistently to exaggerate human goodness. Trying to match their view of human nature with their belief in human dignity, they fail to see how human beings actually behave or to understand the difficulties and complexities of reform.


“Tocqueville suggested approvingly that Christianity tends to make a people ‘circumspect and undecided.’ with ‘its impulses...checked and its works unfinished.’ This expresses well the spirit of reform inherent in Christian faith. Christianity is radical, but it is also hesitant. This is partly, of course, because Christianity restrains our self-assurance. Efforts at social transformation must always encounter unforeseen complexities, difficulties, limits, and tragedies. Caution is in order. But Christian hesitancy has deeper grounds than prudence and more compelling motives than wariness of practical blunders. Hesitation expresses a consciousness of the mystery of being and the dignity of every person. It provides a moment for consulting destiny. Recent decades have seen heroic political commitments in behalf of social reform, but hesitation has been evident mainly in the service of self-interest. Christian faith, however, suggests that hesitation should have a part in our most conscientious deeds. It is a formality that is fitting when we cross the frontier between meditation and action. And like all significant formalities, it is a mark of respect—for God and for the creatures with whom we share the earth....”


“Can We Be Good Without God?” was originally published in The Atlantic Monthly, December 1989.  It is also available in The New Religious Humanists:  A Reader, edited by Gregory Wolfe.




Living in the Biotech Century is produced, twice monthly, by The Humanitas Project.  Please note that after a period of time, some web pages may no longer be available due to expiration or a change of address.  Other pages may still be available, but only for a fee.


The views expressed in these resources are not necessarily those of The Humanitas Project.  Our goal is to provide access to information from various sides of the debate.  Ethically and morally, The Humanitas Project unapologetically defends both human dignity and the sanctity of human life in all contexts, from the vantage point of historic Christianity.


Feel free to forward this e-mail to anyone who might be interested in these issues.  To subscribe or unsubscribe to Living in the Biotech Century, visit our website at, or e-mail .  The Humanitas Project is a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization, and all gifts are tax deductible.  For more information on The Humanitas Project, contact Michael Poore, Executive Director, at 931-239-8735 or .


Copyright © 2008