Science: December 2004 Archives

The head psychiatrist at Johns Hopkins Medical Center has argued against their former practice of surgery altering the sex organs both of those who identify themselves as transsexuals (who consider themselves trapped in the body of the opposite sex) and of genuinely biological intersexuals (who are biologically indeterminate in some sense between male and female). I call it a former practice because his research has led them no longer to do this kind of surgery, and I think they were one of the leaders in the field. They'd encouraged and even pushed people into having these surgeries for years, and now he thinks that was the worst thing they could have recommended. They've led the way among a growing group of hospitals no longer doing them. I was going to comment more on this one, but I've got too long a list of things I want to focus my blogging time on, and it's such an interesting article that I'll just let you read it yourself without trying to guide that process too much. I will say one thing more. What was most interesting to me (of the meta-questions anyway) was that absolutely none of this guy's reasoning is religious in any way or even related to the typical arguments you'll find among social conservatives, even though it's published in First Things. As far as his reasoning goes, the guy might be a politically liberal atheist.

Rat Brain Flies Jet

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Well, they finally did it. This is the kind of scifi that people have always found too fiction and not enough science, but it's left that realm entirely. Scientists have now grown a rat brain in a petri dish, starting just from some embryonic cells. Then they taught it how to fly a flight simulator. They plan to build computers with organic components. When John Searle said you couldn't get a machine that thinks without modeling it exactly on the causal structure of the human brain, I don't think this is what he had in mind. For some reason this strikes me as less creepy than growing rats' bodies without brains to harvest organs, but the moral implications of brains without bodies have got to be more serious.

The Lame Shall Walk

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A 37-year-old South Korean woman who had been paralyzed from the waist down for 19 years is now walking. How? They implanted stem cells into her spine, and they were able to take over for the no-longer-working cells that were failing to do their job. They'd previously tried by injecting stem cells into the spinal fluid, but it didn't work. This did.

So does this vindicate the Kerry-Edwards proposal to expand government funding for embryonic stem cell research, which California has already now done with their own state funding? Well, look at the fine print. It turns out this wasn't from embryonic stem cells at all. These are cord blood stem cells. The only people who will have moral objections to using those are Jehovah's Witnesses, who think taking something from someone else's blood into your own goes against the Torah command not to eat blood (I wonder if they eat kosher, because to be consistent they need to). This is actually an important discovery for the pro-life argument against needing embryonic stem cells for this kind of thing. There's still greater potential for embryonic cells if the overcome the biggest obstacle to using them at all, which there's been no progress on, but cord blood stem cells do in fact work for this sort of thing, so I don't know how embryonic stem cell advocates can see this as anything more than a mixed result for them.

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