Tag Archives: human

Organs and Chimeras

January 2017 Pulse

The shortage of transplantable organs is a public health crisis globally. In the United States, for example, 120,000 people are on the waiting list. It is estimated that 35 percent of all deaths in the U.S. can be prevented by organ transplantation.

In Singapore, the average waiting time for a kidney transplant is still 9 to 10 years, despite changes in the law to enlarge the donor pool.

In an effort to solve this global shortage of transplantable organs U.S. research centres are conducting studies on chimeras, trying to grow human tissues in animal hosts, with the aim of creating kidneys, livers and hearts for transplant.

Scientists are proceeding with such studies despite the fact that the National Institute of Health has clearly stated that it will not support chimera research until greater clarity is achieved concerning its ethical, legal and social implications.

Chimeras are currently used in many different studies. For example, the potential of human pluripotent cells in vivo is analysed by microinjecting these cells in a mouse embryo. The aetiologies of metabolic diseases in the ageing population are studied by creating ‘humanised’ mice to which cells from the liver and pancreas of human donors have been introduced.

In Singapore, human and bovine genes are combined to create cytoplasmic hybrid embryos that are purportedly 99% human. These hybrid embryos are used in embryonic stem cell research.

The National Council of Churches in Singapore has made a robust response to this initiative (See http://nccs.org.sg/2010/12/04/human-animal-combinations-for-biomedical-research/).

There are serious ethical issues associated with research involving human-animal chimeras. They include the violation of human dignity, the question of the moral status of the chimeric creature, the risk of creating humanised animals, the violation of the order of nature, and the many uncertainties accompanying such research.

These concerns notwithstanding, the advances in cutting-edge technologies such as stem-cell biology and gene-edition have made the incredible advances in chimera research possible.

For example, scientists can change the DNA of a mammal through genetic engineering, making it incapable to forming a specific tissue. Human stem cells are then added to the animal in the hope that a particular tissue, for example a human kidney, can form in the host animal.

However, for a number of technical reasons scientists are still unable to create a viable human organ in an animal host at this point.

One of the most challenging obstacles to their success is what has been described as the xenogenic barrier. The host animal – for example, a pig – and the human organ that it is supposed to incubate are two different species, making the viability of the chimeric creature itself problematic.

Scientists working on human-animal chimeras have long theorised that the closer the species are to each other, the higher the chance the chimera has of surviving. So, if the human-bovine chimera is not viable, perhaps a primate can be used to host the human organ.

We must ask how far we are willing to go to create transplantable human organs to save lives. If primates prove to be equally unsuitable hosts, what’s next?

Taking the discussion to the extreme, will we consider using people in permanent vegetative state but who are otherwise in relatively stable condition as possible hosts? What about people who are suffering from senile dementia? Can they also be used to incubate organs for transplantation?

Many bioethicists see the importance of imagining a fictional dystopia to address the possible future scenarios presented by the trajectories of current medical and technological capabilities that would enable them to anticipate ethical and social issues that might arise.

This brings us to a fundamental question in bioethics, one that is sometimes unfortunately muted if not silenced by the thick rhetoric in support of the technological imperative and biomedical triumphalism.

The question is: Without in any way trivialising the suffering of people with organ failure, is it society’s duty to save their lives at all cost? Or are there larger moral considerations that should govern our actions?

Bioethicists – both Christian and secular alike – have argued that although saving the lives of people with organ failure is important, it should not be achieved at all cost. They believe that there are other more important moral and social considerations. That is why killing a healthy individual to procure his or her organs and the trading of human organs are both unethical and illegal and should never be countenanced.

With the unprecedented advancements in stem-cell research and gene-editing technology, we must carefully reflect on where the line should be drawn as we work towards enlarging the organ pool.

In the midst of the bio-tech hype we must remind ourselves that in our noblest attempts to ameliorate suffering and cure diseases, we must never allow ourselves to pursue strategies that would in the long run distort our moral sensibilities and dehumanise our society.

Roland Chia (suit)_Large
Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor for the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.


What is Transhumanism? And how should Christians respond to its philosophy?

The twenty-first century has been described by some as the ‘Age of Bio-technology’. Advances in science and technology, especially in cybernetics and nanotechnology, are so rapid and significant that futuristic techno-utopians or ‘technopians’ are predicting that it would soon be possible for scientists to engineer ‘better’ human beings who are not vulnerable to certain weaknesses and diseases. In fact some have predicted that the future that awaits humankind is ‘trans-human’ in that these new technologies will enable the human race to possess powers beyond our imagination.

The World Transhumanist Association based in the United States defines transhumanism as a ‘sort of humanism plus’. Transhumanists believe that human beings can ‘better themselves socially, physically, and mentally by making use of reason, science and technology’. At the heart of the transhumanist movement, therefore, is the desire to create a utopia by improving ‘humankind and humanity in all their facets’.

In June 2000, the first artificial retinas were implanted in the eyes of three patients in Chicago suffering from retinis pigmentosa, which enabled them to see. The implants, which are 2mm in diameter each, 1/1000 of an inch thick, converts -3500 microphotodiodes that changes light energies into electrical impulses, which in turn stimulate the functioning nerves of the retina. This is the exciting world of ‘cybernetics’, the science which attempts to combine living organisms with machines.

The journal Science published a report in its June 2000 issue that scientists Edwin Jager, Olle Inganas and Ingemar Lundstorm have successfully developed a synthesized micro-robot that can move micrometer-size objects and manipulate single cells and cell-sized particles in an area of 250 x 100 micrometers.

The term ‘nanotechnology’ was brought to public consciousness by Eric Dexler in his book, Engines of Creation, first published in 1986. The term refers to precision machining with the tolerance level of a micrometer or less. Imagine a robot so small that it can be sent into the human body to detect and destroy malignant cells and cancers. Imagine using these micro-robots as immune machines to detect and combat infection. Imagine robots that could repair or replace damaged tissues and non-cellular connective tissue materials such as the extracellular matrix, or remove atherosclerotic plaque in coronary and cerebral arteries.

Although none of these technologies exist presently, scientists believe that these nanorobots will be a reality in the near future, and that their appearance will revolutionize medicine. Inspired by the promises of cybernetics and nanotechnology, transhumanists look forward to a future in which the limitations and the burdens of the present can be overcome by science and technology. Transhumanists therefore could speak of an alternative immortality.

The transhumanist vision can be critiqued from various angles from the Christian perspective. The optimism that transhumanism exudes regarding the future betrays the fact that its ideology is very much influenced by the Enlightenment. Its confidence in science and technology to secure a promising future for (post-) humanity merely shows that it has given scientism a new face. Scientism is the view espoused by some that the natural sciences (and its close cousin, technology) not only has the ability to unlock the mysteries of the universe, but also the ability to solve all the problems we currently face.

Science is here presented as revealer and saviour, the roles which the Christian Faith properly accords to God alone. Its confidence in science and technology, and its very optimistic view of human nature has led transhumanism to boldly present its own secular ‘eschatology’. It envisions a posthuman future in which, according to Katherine Hayles, ‘there are no essential differences or absolute demarcations between bodily existence and computer simulations, cybernetic mechanism and biological organism, robot technology and human goals’.

Because transhumanism is a secular ideology, it has no conception of the divine, and so no understanding of the radical nature of human sinfulness. Seen from another perspective, however, transhumanism presents itself as something of a religion. Although it is a secular ideology, it is in some ways profoundly religious. It has deified science and technology, and gives them the powers to change human nature itself, and to bring about ‘eschatological’ perfection through the emergence of a posthuman race, the cyborgs.

At its very heart, transhumanism despises the nature that human beings now possess, with all its frailties and limitations. The goal of the transhumanist is to press towards the posthuman future in which homo sapiens become techno sapiens (‘transhuman’ is short for transitional human).  Hence the transhumanist writer Bart Kosko could assert: ‘Biology is not destiny. It was never more than tendency. It was just nature’s first quick and dirty way to compute with meat. Chips are destiny’. In similar vein, Kevin Warwick, another transhumanist writer could declare: ‘I was born human. But this was an accident of fate – a condition merely of time and place. I believe it’s something I have the power to change’.

At every turn, transhumanism presents itself as not just inimical to the teachings of the Bible and the Christian tradition, but as antithetical to them. The Christian Faith teaches that we are fearfully and wonderfully made by our Creator to bear his image. Our nature is not an accident, but a gift from our Creator. The Christian Faith speaks about sin and the fall which affects all that we do – even our science – and from which we must be saved. That salvation comes only from God, who in his love and grace has sent his only begotten Son to die on the cross for sinful humanity. Nothing from human culture, not even the most profound science and the most precise technology, can bring about salvation.

The Christian Faith teaches that God alone will bring about a new creation at the eschaton, a new heavens and a new earth. It speaks about the resurrection, not the ‘borgification’ (from the word ‘cyborg’) of humanity! In the final analysis, transhumanism presents itself as another attempt at constructing a Babel. It is as much a defiant expression of self-reliance as a manifestation of a sinful and perverse titanism of the human spirit.

Dr Roland Chia

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.
This article was published in The Bible Speaks Today, January 2015.

What’s Wrong with Human Rights

One of the great achievements of the previous century is the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) by the United Nations General Assembly on 10 December 1948. The Declaration was composed soon after the end of the Second World War when experiences of the horrific carnage are still fresh in the collective memories of its crafters.

Translated into at least 375 languages and dialects, the UDHR is established on the philosophical premise that ‘All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights’ (Article 1). It emphasises that ‘Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status’ (Article 2). As I have argued elsewhere, Christians should have no difficulties accepting the fundamental principles enshrined in the UDHR because they enjoy broad scriptural warrant and endorsement.

It is becoming increasingly obvious, however, that the language of rights alone is not sufficient to encourage civility in modern society. The right to freedom of expression is a case in point. Article 19 of the UDHR reads: ‘Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers’.

That the insistence on such rights alone is unable to foster social cohesion and ensure civility in our multicultural societies is brought to our attention by the furore over the publication in 2006 of the notorious cartoons of the prophet Mohammed by the Danish newspaper, Jyllands-Posten. Amidst protests and criticisms by Muslims and non-Muslims alike, Flemming Rose, the cultural editor of the paper staunchly defends his decision with this terse statement: ‘We do not apologise for printing the cartoons. It was our right to do so’.

A very different and more recent incident brings to the fore the same problem concerning the inadequacies of the exclusive use of the language of rights in society. It concerns the proposal to build an Islamic Centre and mosque near Ground Zero in New York City. Critics of the project argue that building an Islamic Centre just two blocks away from the World Trade Centre, the site of the 9/11 attacks is a blatant insult to the victims of the terror attacks that were perpetrated in the name of Islam.

In a speech at a White House dinner celebrating the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, U.S. President Barack Obama defended the project by appealing to the rights of Muslims to practise their religion: ‘But let me be clear, as a citizen, and as president, I believe that Muslims have the same right to practise their religion as anyone else in this country … That includes the right to build a place of worship and a community centre on private property in lower Manhattan, in accordance with local laws and ordinances.’ Obama’s statement is supported by Article 18 of the UDHR that deals with the question of religious freedom.

Both these examples illustrate the fact that rights alone are insufficient for civilising societies. This is especially true in modern liberal societies where the language of rights is often embedded in a cultural ethos shaped by secularism and individualism. If human rights are to be properly understood, other values must also be brought into the picture. Put differently, human rights discourse must be located within a broader and more robust ethical matrix. It is my view that an account of human rights must be anchored by an ethics of obligation. Any human right, it must be pointed out, has as its counterpart some obligation. In fact, it is interesting to note that in the history of moral philosophy, theories of obligations antedate theories of rights.

It is therefore useful to think of the priority of obligations over rights. As Simone Weil has put it so perceptively in her book, The Need for Roots: ‘The notion of obligations comes before that of rights, which is subordinated and relative to the former.’  It is perhaps beneficial for society to provide a counter-balance to its excessive appeal to the language and rhetoric of human rights by giving more attention to moral obligations.

Moral obligation is in fact stressed in Article 10 of the UDHR which states that the exercise of freedoms carries with it duties and responsibilities. The sense of moral obligation introduces sanity to the modern emphasis on rights. In the case of the derogatory cartoons of the prophet Mohammed, the emphasis on moral obligation would mean that the rights of free speech and expression must be limited and constrained by other important considerations, not least the obligation to respect other rights and the rights of others. The sense of moral obligation would keep the emphasis on the freedom of speech sane and civil by insisting that freedom does not confer an unconditional licence to intimidate, insult or incite hatred.

The ethics of obligation also brings with it an important corrective to the stark individualism that frames modern human rights discourse. The concept of obligation implies relationality and community – the relationship between the ‘obligation bearers’ and their ‘beneficiaries’, so to speak. And it is precisely on this critical issue that Obama’s White House speech disappoints.

Although Obama did allude to the sensitive nature of the proposed Islamic Centre near Ground Zero, the emphasis of his speech was mainly on the rights of Muslims. Even when he made a swift but clumsy about-turn later (which his office roundly denies) due to mounting criticisms of his endorsement of the project, his emphasis is still misplaced: ‘I was not commenting and I will not comment on the wisdom of making the decision to put a mosque there. I was commenting very specifically on the right people have dates back to our founding. That’s what our country is about.’  The weight is still placed on rights when it should be placed on moral obligations.

The Christian ethic of love requires that concern for one’s moral obligations towards others (i.e., their interests and the rights) be given priority over one’s own interests and rights. It is on the basis of the Christian ethic of love that we should understand Paul’s exhortation to the Philippians: ‘Each of you should not look only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others’ (Phil 2:4). For it is only in serving one another in this way that the interests, rights and welfare of everyone are taken seriously and respected.

Dr Roland Chia

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity. This article was first published in the Trumpet (TTC).

AI and Society

August 2015 Pulse

In the summer of 1956, a group of scientists gathered at the campus of Dartmouth University for a two-month workshop that would launch the modern artificial intelligence (AI) programme. At the end of the workshop, MIT scientists Marvin Minsky, Claude Shannon and Ray Solomonoff together with six other researchers predicted that ‘Every aspect of learning or any other feature of intelligence can in principle be so precisely described that a machine can be made to simulate it.’

Since then, research in AI has advanced at a phenomenal pace as computers continue to double their capacity in information-processing power every two years. In 1997, ‘Deep Blue’ amazed the world when it defeated world chess champion Garry Kasparov. It is estimated that computers will have capacities equivalent to the human brain in the near future, around the year 2025.

Some scientists even speculate that it would be possible to create computers with advanced AI, which they call superintelligence. Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom defines superintelligence as any intellect that ‘vastly outperforms the best human brains in practically every field, including scientific creativity, general wisdom, and social skills.’

Scientists even think that it would one day be possible for superintelligent computers to engage in moral reasoning. Insofar as ethics is a cognitive pursuit, they argue, a machine with superintelligence should be able to solve ethical problems based on available evidence and logic better than their human counterparts.

To be sure, the possibility of creating such machines has led some scientists to express hope that they will help to eradicate some of the most crippling problems in our world.

As Bostrom confidently predicts, ‘It is hard to think of any problem that a superintelligence could not either solve or a least help us to solve. Disease, poverty, environmental destruction, unnecessary suffering of all kinds: these are things that a superintelligence equipped with advanced nanotechnology would be capable of eliminating.’

Others, however, are not so sanguine. In fact, some have argued the exact opposite: that the creation of superintelligent computers would spell destruction for humankind.

‘Within thirty years,’ writes Vernor Vinge in his 1995 book, The Coming Technological Singularity: How to Survive in the Post-Human Era, ‘we will have the technological means to create superhuman intelligence. Shortly after, the human era will be ended. Can the Singularity be avoided? If not to be avoided, can events be guided so that we may survive? What does survival even mean in a Post-Human Era?’

Both the optimism and fear surrounding AI are, however, misguided.

Superintelligent machines cannot solve the world’s problems like hunger, disease and poverty because these problems are the result of that destructive form of human inwardness called sin. Although superintelligent machines, like most of the science and technology already available can alleviate human suffering, they are unable to eradicate it.

Science and technology, however advanced, cannot bring about a ‘new heavens and a new earth’ – a man-made utopia, where the evils of the world are vanquished and where the deep fractures they inflict are fully healed.

To think that superintelligent machines can do better ethics than humans is to adopt the most naïve and reductionist concept of ethics. Ethics can never be reduced to a puzzle solving exercise.

Ethics has to do with human relationality, with our appropriate and positive response to each other and to the world in which we live. Only the creatures created to be bearers of the divine image are capable of this set of attitudes, judgements and behaviour we call morality or ethics. Ethical discourse and conduct are epiphanies of human transcendence which no machine, however intelligent, can replicate.

The exaggerated fears about superintelligent machines taking over the planet and orchestrating the extinction of the human species are also misplaced. In fact, they can distract us from the real issues surrounding advanced technologies.

These issues are not new. They have been with us since the dawn of modern science and technology. And they have to do not so much with how superintelligent machines can take over the world and destroy their creators. Rather, they have to do with how such technologies can be misused by some to the detriment of others.

As Joanna Bryson and Philip Kime perceptively point out: ‘The real dangers of AI are no different from those of other artifacts in our culture: from factories to advertising, weapons to political systems. The danger of these systems is the potential for misuse, either through carelessness or malevolence, by the people who control them.’

But there is one other aspect of this debate that perhaps is not given the serious attention it warrants. In reflecting on the development of any technology, it is important not only to ask what it can do for us. We must also ask what it can do to us.

As intelligent machines intrude into our lives and take on significant tasks, the way in which they may change how we perceive our own humanity and our relationships simply cannot be ignored.

AI may impact our society in radical and sometimes unwelcomed ways. And we must try to imagine how society should navigate around the changes they bring about by embracing some and by averting others.

Dr Roland Chia

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.