Tuesday, December 13, 2005

No Wisdom in Repugnance

Researchers at the Salk Institute in San Diego have created mice with small amounts of human cells injected into their brains. The breakthrough, a possible step along the path to develop realistic models of neurological diseases such as Parkinson's disease in lab animals, is newsworthy because of the "yuck factor."
This "yuck factor," or "the wisdom of repugnance," as both the President's Council on Bioethics and it's former chairman Leon Kass have termed it, is one of the most specious arguments still retaining traction in bioethics today. Kass writes that "in crucial cases...repugnance is the emotional expression of deep wisdom, beyond reason's power fully to articulate it."

I disagree. Historically repugnance, or other forms of disapprobation, have greeted most new and substantial changes - whether they are scientific or technological innovations or changing social norms. From in vitro fertilization to gay marriage, the "wisdom of repugnance" is little more than a thinly veiled cloak for personal dislikes signaling a fear of the unknown.

We should be suspicious of viewpoints that demand that we faithfully adhere to them without question, for they are beyond the purview of rational expression. As Stephen Jay Gould pointed out in "Full House",
"our prejudices often overwhelm our limited information. [They] are so venerable, so reflexive, so much a part of our second nature, that we never stop to recognize their status as social decisions with radical alternatives - and we view them instead as given and obvious truths."
There is nothing inherently repugnant about injecting human brain cells into laboratory mice. Objections (and some genetic research is subject to legitimate objections, although I do not believe that is the case in this instance) ought to be recognized for what they are - social and personal decisions and not a form of deep-seated, ineffable wisdom - and accordingly evaluated on their merits. The mere fact that some of us blench in the face of change, without more, is no ground for drawing a line in the sand.


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