Re "Review: Blueprint for the Earth" - and Junk Physicists

Irving News Comments
copyright Sept. 5, 2004
Reproduced with Permission

[Note: A true story: What a small world! A couple of months ago I had a very "interesting" debate with the physicist / genetic engineer whose new book is critically reviewed below. He was seated next to me at a formal judicial conference dinner I was attending with my husband, and was to speak to the conference the next day as a scientific "expert." He would help the District Court and Appellate Circuit Court judges identify "junk science" used in the courtrooms. Neither of us knew each other. What was his speech going to be about? Oh, the "junk science" currently being used in the human cloning and human embryonic stem cell research debates! Good grief.

Without loosing a beat, he immediately tried to convince me that human cloning was terrific, could cure all those diseases, etc. -- but for the "crazies"! When I asked him who the "crazies" were, he responded immediately with deep disdain, "like, those crazy prolifers!" "What's crazy about prolifers?", I asked him. "Well, you know, they try to force their religious beliefs on the rest of us, like claiming that cloning produces human BEINGS! They even try to drag that junk science into the courtrooms!"

Needless to say, a really exciting discussion was unleashed at that formal dinner table -- he had no idea, of course, of any of my background, etc. I was curious and just wanted to hear his "scientific" arguments, so I let him "explain" to me why that claim was "religious" and why prolifers were "crazy." "Isn't it really an objective scientific fact that the immediate product of both fertilization and cloning is a new living human BEING?" I asked him? "No, no, of course not," he laughed heartily, "because before 14-days there is only a 'pre-embryo' there!" Yike! "Not really," I responded politely, "it really is a human BEING" -- and I proceeded to explain to him the scientific facts, and how the term "pre-embryo" was fake and has been formally rejected by the international nomenclature committee for years. "Surely you wouldn't want to mislead the judges about that junk science?", I smiled politely.

"Well," he came back at me, "it can't possibly be a human BEING because ... ... it is just 'cell'!" "Oh, no," I explained, "it is a single-cell ORGANISM, not 'just' a cell. There is a big difference." "Ohhhhhhhh," he looked at me pitifully, " ... ... but 'life' began millions of years ago, not just after fertilization or cloning -- and besides, evolution has proven to us that the human being doesn't even appear until about 3-4 months after fertilization or cloning! First the entity has to evolve through all the stages of those ancient species, etc. -- you know." "Oh, the 'biogenetic law,'" I acknowledged! "That too has been formally rejected by science -- many decades ago!"

The tone of our conversation definitely took a sharp turn! "You are really confused," he almost shouted. "I know what I am talking about!", he insisted -- insisted! "This international committee you refer to is just a bunch of idiots; why should we have to go along with anything they say?" "And so," I suggested, "we should all defer instead to Dr. Trefil's beliefs about whether or not there is a human being there, rather than the 20-23 Ph.D. human embryologists from around the world who examine all the objective scientific facts concerning the development of the early human embryo?" Silence.

"Ah," he finally shouted suddenly, "those early 'entities' can't think or feel or ...." "Aha," I responded, "those 'rational attributes' and 'sentience' of personhood -- right -- like Peter Singer?" "Well, yes," he argued in disbelief, "how could they possibly be persons when they aren't even individuals yet?" "Well, then," I suggested, "logically you would also have to agree that the mentally ill, the mentally retarded, Alzheimer's and Parkinson's patients -- like the one's you want to 'cure' -- the comatose, drug addicts, alcoholics, the mentally and physically disabled -- even you when you are sleeping -- are not persons?"

And hence an entire hour ensued about "brain birth" as a parallel to "brain death", etc. This fellow had certainly done his homework (probably at the Kennedy Institute of Ethics Library only) -- one by one he ticked off all the classic bioethics arguments for "delayed personhood" that I had covered in my doctoral dissertation. "Nope," I responded, serially, "literally every one of those arguments is grounded on fake science," and I would even give him the page numbers in the various human embryology textbooks as proof. "What human embryology textbook did you find that in?", I kept asking him. He couldn't tell me.

"So," I finally pressed him, "you don't think that you are the same person as you were when you were a teen-ager?" A very long silence. "No," he finally shook his head. "Oh, then you certainly aren't the same person as when you were born -- right?" Silence. "Correct," he admitted defiantly. "And needless to say, you are not the same person as when you were a pre-embryo, right? or a single-cell, right?" "Absolutely right," he stammered. "I see," said I.

"By the way," I asked him politely, "what field of science is your degree in?" Silence. I repeated my question twice more. "Physics!", he finally shouted nervously, his eyes steadied on his fork. "Physics!," I blurted out, laughing. "Physics!" "What do physicists know about human embryology -- did you ever take even one course in human embryology?" I asked him. Silence. "And you are here to teach these judges tomorrow about the use of 'junk science' in the courtroom?!?" Fortunately the formal dinner happened to be over just about then, and when I looked around he was gone, disappeared. The next morning he gave his speech -- on something totally different. -- DNI]

Business -
Thu Sep 2, 6:35 PM ET
By Peter Huber

Blueprint for the Earth

How much would you be willing to pay to stand on the stern of the last oil tanker to leave the Middle East, waving good-bye as you go?" Physicist James Trefil asks this question almost as an aside, more than halfway through his provocative new book, Human Nature. He gets to oil only at tail end of his chapter on global warming -- one among many chapters that will infuriate party-line greens. Trefil isn't much persuaded by computer models that predict what our climate will be like a century hence. But he's all for saving energy where we reasonably can, if only because he'd pay quite a lot for that last wave. So would most of us. But another question arises: Would the people left standing on the dock wave back?

Cut back to Trefil's first chapter. Humans, like all the rest of nature's creations, once "lived out their lives in a world completely governed by the laws of natural selection." With the rise of agriculture things began to change -- humanity began to separate itself from the "natural" scheme. We've been separating further ever since, and very rapidly indeed in recent decades. In the industrialized world, at least, our choices and our future are now governed not by natural selection but by science and technology. So, too, is the future of the biosphere. And this separation need not end up badly, Trefil argues. Our ingenuity has overcome natural scarcity. Malthus was wrong; humanity can feed and fuel itself. Over time we can also ward off, or if need be extinguish, every natural predator, from the AIDS (news - web sites) virus on up. And we are now on the threshold of even being able to correct mistakes in our genes, nature's blueprint for what is no longer part of nature. We can protect nature itself, too, from our appetites and our effluents, and even gently steer nature as a whole toward our own ends. Nature used to rule us; now we rule nature.

This is the point Trefil is making in the title of his book: Like it or not, it's going to be human nature from here on out, by which Trefil means nature shaped by human will. For the most part Trefil does not recoil at this new reality. The outlook is much better than many people believe, and it could be better still. The book's subtitle: A Blueprint for Managing the Earth -- by People, for People.

But what about those other people back on the dock? The tiny but consequential sliver of the population, whose culture, poverty, genes -- whose human nature, in short, however formed -- impels them to destroy?

Much of humanity clearly doesn't share our own love of wilderness. More than a few people still love whales for their meat and rhinos for their horns. Many hate tigers, which view us as meat, and elephants, which view human crops as their own. Our own reverence for unspoiled nature developed only recently. A sense of empathy for the rest of nature may in fact be exceptional and rare. Why should Darwinian forces of natural selection ever have created brains with any such sense at all?

More fundamentally, to argue that technology is moving humanity beyond natural selection is to assume that we are all one happy humanity. Experience teaches otherwise. Genetic engineering is one end of human technology; genocide is another. Man's natural predator is man. And as predators go, homo sapiens can far surpass any to be found in nature. It could hardly be otherwise: Today's technology lets people unleash nature's own scourges -- smallpox or anthrax, for example -- or deliberately disperse chemicals far more toxic than any produced by a hornet or a rattlesnake.

The most hopeful response is that the predatory people and cultures never master science -- science is the systematic exclusion of dogma, superstition and paranoid fantasy. But what matters in the new Darwinian jungle isn't science, it's technology, which can be stolen and mastered even by people who could never develop it themselves. Stalin and his spies maintained just enough talent, and stole enough technology, to build rockets and nuclear weapons. Nazi Germany got almost as far. Fanatical young men steeped in a culture that could never manufacture even a box cutter can still buy one and hijack a jet. Our only option is to keep certain demented pockets of humanity utterly isolated and technology-free. If we can.

That's what really scares us about certain sources of oil -- what the money we pay for it might eventually buy. Given his doubts about global warming, Trefil probably isn't too worried about the damage to be done to the world by a tanker carrying Alaskan crude. What he really wants to wave good-bye to isn't oil but a region, a culture, a feudal theocracy, a fanatical sect. Men who would separate themselves from nature, its seems, must first separate themselves from other men.

Peter Huber, a Manhattan Institute senior fellow, is the author of Hard Green: Saving the Environment From the Environmentalists and the Digital Power Report. Find past columns at*