Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Live, Online Bioethics Debate

I thought you might be interested in participating in this debate taking place this week at The Economist.

Monday, March 16, 2009

CONTEST: Name this Creature

Let me describe a hypothetical creature, a thought experiment to clarify the distinction between a machine and an organism, and perhaps you can come up with a name for it. It is based on the observation that flames share certain characteristics with living things: they have a “hunger” for food or fuel, and in some sense, they are constituted by what they consume. So why can’t we harness these characteristics to make a “living” machine?

Presumably we'd construct from metal, or from some sort of non-flammable material a body for our creature, something that houses the flames and channels them to create reactions more characteristic of an organism.

CONTEST QUESTION: What name would best capture the essence of this creature?

Also, I'd appreciate hearing you explain why this creature would NOT be living. What separates it from organisms?

Please submit your answers in comments to this post. Winners get special honors announced in a future post. I know nobody reads this blog, so maybe I'll set a deadline of one month, maybe two weeks if by some miracle I get a lot of good responses. We'll see how it goes....

Note: the photo of a mechanical soldier from Hellboy II: The Golden Army is just for interest. I'd be surprised if the creature I'm describing was what Guillermo del Toro had in mind, but images from the film did help me come up with this idea.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The Times Gets It Right!

At long last, an honest news analysis from the New York Times:

Members of Congress and advocates for fighting diseases have long spoken of human embryonic stem cell research as if it were a sure avenue to quick cures for intractable afflictions. Scientists have not publicly objected to such high-flown hopes, which have helped fuel new sources of grant money like the $3 billion initiative in California for stem cell research.

In private, however, many researchers have projected much more modest goals for embryonic stem cells. Their chief interest is to derive embryonic stem cell lines from patients with specific diseases, and by tracking the cells in the test tube to develop basic knowledge about how the disease develops.

...Embryonic stem cells have their drawbacks. They cause tumors, and the adult cells derived from them may be rejected by the patient’s immune system. Furthermore, whatever disease process caused the patients’ tissue cells to die is likely to kill introduced cells as well. All these problems may be solvable, but so far none have been solved.

Of course in the final paragraph, the author has to swear allegiance to the PC orthodoxy of the (ultimate) efficacy of embryonic stem cells. But other than that, this is a refreshingly honest analysis from the Times. I encourage them to do more of it.

Nicholas Wade, "Rethink Stem Cells? Science Already Has," New York Times (March 9, 2009).