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Rethinking Modification of the Natural World

Photograph of people touring glass biospheres

This article has a set of discussion questions tailored for classroom use. Click here to download them. To see a full list of articles with discussion questions and other resources, visit our “Educational Resources” page.

Aristotle famously pointed out that humans stand out from other living beings because humans are rational.  To live a flourishing human life is to live in accordance with the dictates of reason. Much of the philosophical thought about the essence of man going forward was heavily influenced by what Aristotle had to say on this point.  It is hard to deny the importance of rationality for the survival of the human species. Because we can reason, we can use language, make plans, satisfy obligations, know things about the world, and, importantly, we can change the world as we see fit to meet our needs.  It would be an understatement to say that we took full advantage of that last part. It is important that we ask ourselves: Are there any constraints on how far we should take our ability to modify the world around us? Continue reading “Rethinking Modification of the Natural World”

“Minibrains” and the Future of Drug Testing

Image of a scientist swabbing a petri dish.

This article has a set of discussion questions tailored for classroom use. Click here to download them. To see a full list of articles with discussion questions and other resources, visit our “Educational Resources” page.

 NPR recently reported on the efforts of scientists who are growing small and “extremely rudimentary versions of an actual human brain” by transforming human skin cells into neural stem cells and letting them grow into structures like those found in the human brain. These tissues are called cerebral organoids but are more popularly known as “minibrains.” While this may all sound like science fiction, their use has already led to new discoveries in the medical sciences.

The impetus for developing cerebral organoids comes from the difficult situation imposed on research into brain diseases. It is difficult to model complex conditions like autism and schizophrenia using the brains of mice and other animals. Yet, there are also obvious ethical obstacles to experimenting on live human subjects. Cerebral organoids provide a way out of this trap because they present models more akin to the human brain. Already, they have led to notable advances. Cerebral organoids were used in research into how the Zika virus disrupts normal brain development. The potential to use cerebral organoids to test future therapies for such conditions as schizophrenia, autism, and Alzheimer’s Disease seems quite promising.

The experimental use of cerebral organoids is still quite new; the first ones were successfully developed in 2013. As such, it is the right time to begin serious reflection on the potential ethical hurdles for research conducted on cerebral organoids. To that end, a group of ethicists, law professors, biologists, and neuroscientists recently published a commentary in Nature on the ethics of minibrains.

The commentary raises many interesting issues. Let us consider just three:

The prospect of conscious cerebral organoids

Thus far, the cerebral organoids experimented upon have been roughly the size of peas. According to the Nature commentary, they lack certain cell types, receive sensory input only in primitive form, and have limited connection between brain regions. Yet, there do not appear to be insurmountable hurdles to advances that will allow us to scale these organoids up into larger and more complex neural structures. As the brain is the seat of consciousness, scaled-up organoids may rise to the level of such sensitivity to external stimuli that it may be proper to ascribe consciousness to them. Conscious organisms sensitive to external stimuli can likely experience negative and positive sensations. Such beings have welfare interests. Whether we had ethical obligations to these organoids prior to the onset of feelings, it would be difficult to deny such obligations to them once they achieve this state. Bioethicists and medical researchers ought to develop principles to govern these obligations. They may be able to model them after our current approaches to research obligations regarding animal test subjects. However, it is likely the biological affinity between cerebral organoids and human beings will require significant departure from the animal test subject model.

Additionally, research into consciousness has not nailed down the neural correlates of consciousness. As such, we may not necessarily know if a particularly advanced cerebral organoid is likely to be conscious. Either we ought to purposefully slow the progress into developing complex cerebral organoids until we understand consciousness better, or we pre-emptively treat organoids as beings deserving moral consideration so that we don’t accidentally mistreat an organoid we incorrectly identify as non-conscious.

Human-animal blurring

Cerebral organoids have also been developed in the brains of other animals. This gives the brain cells a more “physiologically natural” environment. According to the Nature commentary, cerebral organoids have been transplanted into mice and have become vascularized in the process. Such vascularization is an important step in the further development in size and complexity of cerebral organoids.

There appears to be a general aversion to the prospect of transplanting human minibrains into mice. Many perceive the creation of such human-animal hybrids (chimeras) as crossing the inviolable boundary between species.  The transplantation of any cells of one animal, especially those of a human (and even more especially those of the brain cells of a human) may violate this sacred boundary.

An earlier entry on The Prindle Post approached the vexing issues of the creation of human-animal chimeras. It appeared that much of the opposition to chimeras was based in part on an objection to “playing God.” Though some have ridiculed the “playing God” argument as based on “a meaningless, dangerous cliché,” people’s strong intuitions against the blurring of species boundaries ought to influence policies put in place to govern such research. If anything, this will help tamp down a strong public backlash.

Changing definitions of death

Cerebral organoids may also threaten the scientific and legal consensus around defining death as the permanent cessation of organismic functioning and understanding the criterion in humans for this as the cessation of functioning in the whole brain. This consensus itself developed in response to emerging technologies in the 1950’s and 1960’s enabling doctors to maintain the functioning of a person’s cardio-pulmonary system after their brain had ceased functioning. Because of this technological change, the criterion of death could no longer be the stopping of the heart. What if research into cerebral organoids and stem cell biology enables us to restore some functions of the brain to a person already declared brain dead? This undercuts the notion that brain death is permanent and may force us to revisit the consensus on death once again.

Minibrains raise many other ethical issues not considered in this brief post. How should medical researchers obtain consent from the human beings who donate cells that are eventually turned into cerebral organoids? Will cerebral organoids who develop feelings need to be appointed legally empowered guardians to look after their interests? Who is the rightful owner of these minibrains? Let us get in front of these ethical questions before science sets its own path.

Environmental Ethics for the Red Planet

Image of Mars from space

Elon Musk recently claimed that the colonization of Mars needs to be prioritized, lest a catastrophe such as World War III wipe out humanity on this planet before we make it to another. And yet, colonization runs headlong into another scientific goal for our exploration of Mars: the search for indigenous Martian life. The problem, in simple terms, is that human colonists will undoubtedly bring bacteria and other microscopic life forms from the planet Earth. If these life forms of terrestrial origin take root in the Martian landscape, scientific research may lose the ability tell indigenous from non-indigenous life forms. Scientists worry that these terrestrial lifeforms may even kill off the Martian ones (if they exist). And wouldn’t that be tragic? Continue reading “Environmental Ethics for the Red Planet”

Questions on the Ethics of Triage, Posed by a Sub-Saharan Ant

an image of an anthill

This article has a set of discussion questions tailored for classroom use. Click here to download them. To see a full list of articles with discussion questions and other resources, visit our “Educational Resources” page.

In a new study published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, behavioral ecologist Erik Frank at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland and his colleagues discuss their findings that a species of sub-Saharan ants bring their wounded hive-mates back to the colony after a termite hunt. This practice of not leaving wounded ants behind is noteworthy on its own, but Frank and fellow behavioral ecologists note that the Matabele ants (Megaponera analis) engage in triage judgments to determine which injured ants are worth or possible to save–not all living wounded are brought back to the nest for treatment.

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CRISPR, Moral Obligations and Editing the Human Genome

A close-up image of a scientist examining DNA test results

As our understanding of the human genome improves, pathways leading in the direction of new and powerful technologies are cleared.  In recent years, scientists have developed a new technique called CRISPR, which allows them to edit the genome—adding, subtracting, or deleting pieces of genetic code.  This process has the potential to bring about significant changes in human health.  CRISPR could prevent children from being born with a wide range of painful or life-threatening conditions.  So far, scientists have used this process in attempts to prevent blood disorders, allergies, heart disease, and to mutate the genome in such a way that the resulting person is less likely to get HIV.   Continue reading “CRISPR, Moral Obligations and Editing the Human Genome”

Abortion and the Artificial Womb

This past week, scientists have shared that they have created the most successful artificial womb yet. Lambs have been born healthily after spending up to half of their gestation in a simulated uterus.  

For now, this technology is proving to be intriguingly successful in lambs. To keep hormones, temperature, oxygen, and other life-sustaining factors stable for humans will be quite a hurdle, but scientists and spectators are already hypothesizing about what this could mean farther down the line (specialists estimate testing this technology on humans would be about three years in the future). Artificial wombs could be of help not just with premature births on the cusp of viability, but perhaps even earlier. Perhaps, artificial wombs can be of use soon after conception, or are the next stage of development for so-called test tube babies. In that case, we could develop children without the need of a woman’s uterus altogether!

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Life, Death, and Cryonics

Cryogenics, also known as cryonics, is a form of preservation involving the storing and preservation of a body at very low temperatures in hopes of one day reviving and repairing the body. Although to date no humans have been revived after freezing, some scientists think they are coming closer to making revivement though cryogenics a real possibility. Recent reports of a terminally ill British teen being frozen upon her death have brought cryogenics and the ethical debates surrounding the topic back into the news.

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