The Humanitas Project


Living in the Biotech Century

News, Resources, and Commentary

September 21, 2007



For those in or near Nashville, Tennessee on October 5-6...



Listening to Biotechnology:


What It Tells Us about Our Souls



Peter Augustine Lawler, PhD



October 5-6, 2007

Belmont Church, Nashville, Tennessee



Session I – 7:30 pm – Friday, October 5


Selling Embryos, Buying Kidneys:  The Problem of Human Dignity in America


Session II – 9:00 am – Saturday, October 6


Longer Life, Perfect Health, Pleasant Moods:  How It Became a Sin to Be Normal


Break – 10:15 am to 10:45


Session III – 10:45 am – Saturday, October 6


Individualism:  The Democratic “Heart Disease” and Why Christianity is the Cure



Peter Augustine Lawler is a member of the President’s Council on Bioethics and Dana Professor and Chair of the Department of Government and International Studies at Berry College.  His books include Postmodernism Rightly Understood and Stuck with Virtue: The American Individual and Our Biotechnological Future.  His latest book is Homeless and at Home in America: Evidence for the Dignity of the Human Soul in Our Time and Place.


These lectures are sponsored by The Humanitas Forum on Christianity and Culture, a new initiative of The Humanitas Project.  For additional information (including a map and directions), please see the Forum webpage or e-mail Michael Poore, Director of The Humanitas Project:  .




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



Serious questions of privacy and safety...


Chip Implants Linked to Animal Tumors

by Todd Lewan



A VeriChip microchip in a May 10, 2002, file photo. (AP Photo/Steve Mitchell)

“When the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved implanting microchips in humans, the manufacturer said it would save lives, letting doctors scan the tiny transponders to access patients’ medical records almost instantly. The FDA found ‘reasonable assurance’ the device was safe, and a sub-agency even called it one of 2005’s top ‘innovative technologies.’


“But neither the company nor the regulators publicly mentioned this: A series of veterinary and toxicology studies, dating to the mid-1990s, stated that chip implants had ‘induced’ malignant tumors in some lab mice and rats.


“‘The transponders were the cause of the tumors,’ said Keith Johnson, a retired toxicologic pathologist, explaining in a phone interview the findings of a 1996 study he led at the Dow Chemical Co. in Midland, Mich.


“Leading cancer specialists reviewed the research for The Associated Press and, while cautioning that animal test results do not necessarily apply to humans, said the findings troubled them....”


Associated Press – September 9, 2007


Learning just how much we don’t know about DNA...


Mom’s Genes or Dad’s? Map Can Tell.

by Rick Weiss


One Man’s DNA Shows We’re Less Alike Than We Thought



“Scientists have for the first time determined the order of virtually every letter of DNA code in an individual, offering an unprecedented readout of the separate genetic contributions made by that person’s mother and father.


“By providing a detailed look at maternal and paternal DNA strands, rather than the blended composite that was yielded by the 2001 Human Genome Project, the work offers the clearest snapshot yet of just how different those two contributions can be. Assuming the newly decoded sequence is typical, as scientists presume it is, there are five times as many differences between individuals’ DNA as was previously thought.


“Of more practical import, the ability to create such a detailed genetic profile with relative ease suggests that it may not be long before people of ordinary means will be able to have their complete DNA codes spelled out, scientists said. That could tell a lot about a person’s health risks, because such a profile would include not only the few genes that significantly increase the likelihood of getting certain diseases but also the many ‘lesser’ genes that pose modest risks individually but that together have the bulk of impact on health....”


Washington Post – September 4, 2007 (free registration required)


Editor’s Note:  “The Diploid Genome Sequence of an Individual Human,” the scientific paper mentioned in this article, was published in PloS Biology, a peer-reviewed open-access journal, and is available online.


“We simply don’t know how accurately we can diagnose bipolar disorder...”


More Children Being Treated for Bipolar Disorder



“The number of American children and adolescents treated for bipolar disorder increased 40-fold from 1994 to 2003, researchers are to report on Tuesday, in the most comprehensive study to look at the controversial diagnosis. And experts say the numbers have almost certainly risen further in the years since.


“Most experts believe the jump reflects the fact that doctors are more aggressively applying the diagnosis to children, not that the number of new cases has gone up. But the magnitude of the increase is surprising to many experts, who say it is likely to intensify a debate over the validity of the diagnosis that has shaken the field of child psychiatry in recent years.


“Bipolar disorder is characterized by extreme mood swings and, until relatively recently, it was thought to emerge only in adulthood. Some psychiatrists say that the disorder is too often missed in children, and that increased awareness—reflected in the increasing use of the diagnosis—is now allowing youngsters who suffer from it to get the treatment they need. But others argue that bipolar disorder is over diagnosed. The term, they say, has become a diagnosis du jour, a catch-all now applied to almost any explosive, aggressive child. Once children are labeled, these experts add, they are treated with powerful psychiatric drugs that have few proven benefits in children and potentially serious side-effects, like rapid weight gain....”


The New York Times – September 3, 2007 (free registration required)


A provocative look at the social and medical ramifications of women freezing their eggs...


Babies on Ice?  Don’t Do It, Girls

by Allison Pearson



freezing eggs

“Roll up, girls, get your skates on, it’s time for Motherhood on Ice!


“No need to worry about Mr Right showing up in time. No need to fret about a baby wrecking your career. Women can now have their eggs extracted in their 20s and stored in a freezer until they’re ready to have them fertilised a quarter of a century later.


“Just pop them in the microwave some time during the menopause, and bingo: Mum’s your grandma!


“Forget the use-by date that old spoilsport Mother Nature stamps on female eggs....”


The Mail – September 5, 2007


“If your parents never had children, chances are, you won’t either.”


Falling Human Fertility and the Future of the Family

by Phillip Longman


Remarks to The World Congress of Families IV Warsaw, Poland, May 2007



“...Today, world population is increasing by some 76 million annually. That’s equivalent to adding a whole new country the size of Egypt every year.


“In my parents’ lifetime, world population has tripled.


“Just during the 50 years since I was born, world population has more than doubled.


“We have grown up, and continue to live in an era of explosive world population growth. And for most of us, this phenomenon deeply informs our world views and expectations for the future.


“But now, here’s a curious fact—the first of many I will be sharing with you today. World population is still growing, but the world supply of children is shrinking.


“Seems strange, doesn’t it? But it’s true. The trend started here in Europe in the middle of the last century. Today in Europe, there are 36 percent fewer children under age 5 than there were in 1960.   In Poland, the number of young children declined by a full 50 percent during this period.


“Now that same trend is going global. For the world as a whole, the absolute number of children aged 0-4 is actually 6 million lower today than it was in 1990.


“How can this be? Where have all the children gone?”



Phillip Longman is author of The Empty Cradle: How Falling Birthrates Threaten World Prosperity And What to Do About It (Basic Books, 2004).


The Howard Center for Family, Religion and Society – September 8, 2007


Are we ready for a “brain security network with passwords and firewalls”?


Direct Brain-to-Game Interface Worries Scientists



NeuroSky’s headset technology is being used in tandem with a software development kit to create BCI-based games. The first titles are expected to hit store shelves in 2008.   Image: NeuroSky

“Your brain might be your next videogame controller.


“That might sound pretty awesome, but the prospect of brain-controlled virtual joysticks has some scientists worried that games might end up controlling our brains.


“Several makers of brain-computer interfaces, or BCIs—devices that facilitate operating a computer by thought alone—claim the technology is poised to jump from the medical sector into the consumer gaming world in 2008.


“Companies including Emotiv Systems and NeuroSky  say they’ve released BCI-based software-development kits. Gaming companies may release BCI games next year, but many scientists worry that users brains’ might be subject to negative effects.


“For example, the devices sometimes force users to slow down their brain waves. Afterward, users have reported trouble focusing their attention....”


Wired – September 5, 2007


Building a bionic arm that “acts, looks and feels like a native arm”by 2009...


The World’s Most Advanced Bionic Arm



The device pictured above is the second prototype in the U.S. military’s ambitious prosthetics project to build a bionic arm.

Screenshot: Courtesy of Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory

“Jonathan Kuniholm’s right arm terminates in a carbon-fiber sleeve trailing cables connected to a PC. He has no right hand, unless you count the virtual one on a display in front of him. The CG hand, programmed to look like silvery stainless steel, moves through a sequence of motions: spherical grasp, cylindrical grasp, thumb to forefinger—all in response to signals from Kuniholm’s muscles picked up by electrodes in the sleeve.


“Kuniholm and his fellow engineers at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory, or APL, are at work on the most ambitious prosthetics project in history. They seek the field’s holy grail—to build an artificial human arm that acts, looks and feels to its user like his native arm, and to do it with astonishing speed by the end of 2009.


“To get there from here, they’ll have to achieve major breakthroughs in neurological control systems and robotics....”


Wired – August 7, 2007


Editor’s Note:  A brief companion article, “How the Bionic Arm Works,” provides additional information on this revolutionary prosthesis.


Examining the ethics of testing risky therapies on patients whose ailments are not life-threatening...


Gene Therapy:  Is Death an Acceptable Risk?



“A 36-year-old woman with rheumatoid arthritis died in July, while participating in a gene-therapy clinical trial. Some experts say she shouldn’t have received such an unpredictable, potentially dangerous treatment in the first place.


“Jolee Mohr was married, the mother of a 5-year-old daughter, and worked at the Secretary of State’s office in her hometown of Springfield, Illinois. By all accounts she was able to lead a full and active life, with existing drugs keeping her disease under control.


“The Food and Drug Administration and the National Institutes of Health are still studying whether the trial therapy played a role in Mohr’s death. But a sudden infection raged through her body and caused her organs to fail just after the experimental treatment was injected into her right knee, which has raised suspicion that her death was linked to the therapy.


“The tragedy highlights the ethics of testing risky therapies on patients whose ailments are not life-threatening and are controlled by other means....”


Wired – August 30, 2007


“If you promote organ donation too much, people lose sight that it’s a dying patient there. It’s not just a source of organs. It’s a person.”


New Zeal in Organ Procurement Raises Fears

by Rob Stein


Donation Groups Say They Walk a Fine Line, but Critics See Potential for Abuses



A transplant surgeon has been charged with trying to hasten the death of Ruben Navarro. His mother, Rosa, has sued a hospital, doctors and others. (Family Photo)

“After a long fight with a degenerative disease, Ruben Navarro appeared close to death. So the hospital caring for him alerted the local transplant network, which rushed a team to the medical center to try to salvage the 25-year-old’s organs.


“But as Navarro hung on, tension mounted in the operating room of Sierra Vista Regional Medical Center in San Luis Obispo, California. With time slipping away, one of the transplant surgeons ordered repeated doses of the narcotic morphine and the sedative Ativan, jokingly calling the drugs ‘candy,’ according to police reports. Navarro eventually died, but too late for his organs to be useful.


“Horrified nurses complained, prompting multiple investigations. In July, prosecutors charged Hootan Roozrokh with trying to hasten Navarro’s death, marking the first time a surgeon has faced criminal charges in a transplant case.


“No one thinks the Navarro case is typical, but it comes as transplant advocates are becoming increasingly aggressive in their efforts to procure hearts, livers, kidneys and other organs in the hope of saving more of the thousands of desperate Americans who die languishing on waiting lists....”


Washington Post – September 13, 2007 (free registration required)


Worth considering...


From A Secular Age

by Charles Taylor



Cover: A Secular Age

“... I would like to claim that the coming of modern secularity in my sense has been coterminous with the rise of a society in which for the first time in history a purely self-sufficient humanism came to be a widely available option. I mean by this a humanism accepting no final goals beyond human flourishing, nor any allegiance to anything else beyond this flourishing. Of no previous society was this true....


“...There were also outlooks...where flourishing was conceived in a unitary way, including reverence for the higher. But in these cases, this reverence, although essential for flourishing, couldn’t be undertaken in a purely instrumental spirit. That is, it couldn’t be reverence if it were so understood.


“In other words, the general understanding of the human predicament before modernity placed us in an order where we were not at the top. Higher beings, like Gods or spirits, or a higher kind of being, like the Ideas or the cosmopolis of Gods and humans, demanded and deserved our worship, reverence, devotion or love. In other cases, this devotion was itself seen as integral to human flourishing; it was a proper part of the human good.... In other cases, the devotion was called for even though it be at our expense, or conduce to our good only through winning the favour of a God. But even here the reverence called for was real. These beings commanded our awe. There was no question of treating them as we treat the forces of nature we harness for energy.


“In this kind of case, we might speak of a humanism, but not of a self-sufficing or exclusive humanism, which is the contrast case which is at the heart of modern secularity.


“This thesis, placing exclusive humanism only within modernity, may seem too bald and exceptionless to be true. And indeed, there are exceptions. By my account, ancient Epicureanism was a self-sufficing humanism. It admitted Gods, but denied them relevance to human life. My plea here is that one swallow doesn’t make a summer. I’m talking about an age when self-sufficing humanism becomes a widely available option, which it never was in the ancient world, where only a small minority of the élite which was itself a minority espoused it.


“I also don’t want to claim that modern secularity is somehow coterminous with exclusive humanism. For one thing, the way I’m defining it, secularity is a condition in which our experience of and search for fullness occurs; and this is something we all share, believers and unbelievers alike. But also, it is not my intention to claim that exclusive humanisms offer the only alternatives to religion. Our age has seen a strong set of currents which one might call non-religious anti-humanisms, which fly under various names today, like ‘deconstruction’ and ‘poststructuralism’, and which find their roots in immensely influential writings of the nineteenth century, especially those of Nietzsche....


“My claim will rather be something of this nature: secularity...came to be along with the possibility of exclusive humanism, which thus for the first time widened the range of possible options, ending the era of ‘naïve’ religious faith. Exclusive humanism in a sense crept up on us through an intermediate form, Providential Deism; and both the Deism and the humanism were made possible by earlier developments within orthodox Christianity. Once this humanism is on the scene, the new plural, non-naïve predicament allows for multiplying the options beyond the original gamut. But the crucial transforming move in the process is the coming of exclusive humanism.


“From this point of view, one could offer this one-line description of the difference between earlier times and the secular age: a secular age is one in which the eclipse of all goals beyond human flourishing becomes conceivable....”



This excerpt is from the Introduction to A Secular Age by Charles Taylor (The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007).  Charles Taylor is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at McGill University in Montreal and the author of numerous books, including Sources of Self:  The Making of the Modern Identity.  In 2007, he was the winner of the prestigious Templeton Prize.




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Copyright © 2007