Liberation Biology: Q&A with writer Ronald Bailey

Reason magazine science correspondent Ronald Bailey has published a new book, Liberation Biology: The Scientific and Moral Case for the Biotech Revolution. In the following interview, Science Blog correspondent Luke Ford challenges Bailey on why biotechnology is a good thing, and whether there are some things man simply shouldn’t know.

Science Blog: "When you were a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?"

Ronald: "An astronomer.

"I was inspired by a book from the Scholastic Book Service, The Great Astronomers.

"I grew up on a dairy farm in Virginia. I was expected to become a dairy farmer.

"In high school, I hung out with the band crowd. I played the saxophone and clarinet."

Bailey's parents never attended college, but Ronald got undergraduate degrees in Philosophy and Economics from the University of Virginia. "In high school, I thought I was going to become a science major in college, but I made a terrible mistake and joined the debate team. It turned out that I was a good debater. I made the mistake of thinking that this suggested I shouldn't become a biologist, which was what I had planned, but instead I'll become a lawyer.

"I stuck with that plan until I had gone to law school for a year-and-a-half (also at the University of Virginia), and after a while, I said to myself, 'If I keep doing this, I'm likely to become a lawyer. This is the most boring thing I've done in my life.' So I quit.

"I transitioned into journalism. My first love is reporting about science. That's centered on facts while in politics, you go to Senator A and ask him, 'What do you think about this?' He says, 'I hate it.' Then you go to Senator B and ask him, 'What do you think about this?' He says, 'I love it.' Then you have your story."

SB: "How have you found the transition between disinterested reporting and advocacy reporting you do with Reason?"

Ronald: "I've been evolving towards opinion journalism throughout my career, trying to get to the point where I'm not just a spectator but also to inject my analysis as well. I don't think I do anything different than a lot of other people at The New Republic, Commentary or National Review."

SB: "What are the moral foundations for the way you look at the world?"

Ronald: "I write for Reason. I'm very much in favor of individual liberty and the insights of the Enlightenment, particularly the Scottish Enlightenment. My basic commitment is that people should be allowed to do what they would like to do so long as they don't harm anyone else."

SB: "What is the basis for morality?"

Ronald: "What Frederich Hayek was talking about -- a second nature. Humanity is discovering more and better rules of how to organize ourselves and behave better towards one another. It's a combination of experience and reason."

SB: "As everyone has different experiences and people use their reason differently, what do we do?"

Ronald: "I go with Hayek that the societies that adopt the better rules, that is, morality, will eventually out-compete, succeed and persuade other societies to adopt their rules. A perfect example is the expansion of liberalism since the 18th Century across the globe.

"You have read the book, right?"

SB: "Yeah.

"In the PR release I got with your book, it reads: 'Bush has aligned himself with a coalition of religious and bio-conservative groups that are determined to stifle scientific research that most scientists believe will lead to cures for diabetes, Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, and countless other diseases.' Do you believe that it is that clear that most scientists believe that stem cell research will lead to these cures?"

Ronald: "They believe that they could lead to it. You need to do the research to find out. You can't prejudge the efficacy of stem cell research."

SB: "I assume that, generally speaking, the US leads the way in medical research?"

Ronald: "Generally speaking, yes. It's just one area that is being held back because of the restrictions that President Bush put on the field in August of 2001. It is not so much the lack of money from federal resources, it's had a chilling effect. Graduate students are having to decide if they're going into the field or not. There are lots of other choices and they're afraid to go into [stem cell research] because they are afraid their careers will be cut short. At worst, Congress is considering legislation that will criminalize the research."

SB: "You write in this article [May 23, 2005 for Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service]: '...Americans who go abroad to seek cloned stem cell treatments in the future to cure, say, their diabetes or Parkinson's disease, could be jailed on their return to the US for up to 10 years for illegally "importing" cloned stem cells.' Do you really think America would jail people who went overseas to get medical treatment?"

Ronald: "I would hope not, but I'm only citing the legislation that the House of Representatives has passed twice before, where the scenario you just sketched out would occur or could occur. What do you think?"

SB: "I find it impossible to believe that Americans would be jailed when they came home because they went abroad to have medical work. It just doesn't comport with my common sense."

Ronald: "Common sense and congressional legislation are not necessarily congruent. But I agree with your point. The public is already in favor of this research. The debate in Congress among the ideologues who are grandstanding up there will simply dissolve the first time some poor American is able to walk again because embryonic stem cells were installed and knitted up his broken back."

SB: "How is this stuff breaking down politically?"

Ronald: "On stem cells it's breaking down on a classic Left/Right divide.

"On the possibility of physical immortality, there are a lot of people on both sides who oppose that. The people on the Left are afraid that the rich people will get these technologies first, and the poor people will be left to hang, and that's wrong, and the people on the Right fear that extra-longevity would break down their sense of hierarchy, the normal order of the world."

SB: "Is Heaven populated chiefly by the souls of embryos [to quote the headline of Bailey's December 22, 2004 article for Reason]?"

Ronald: (Laughs) "You tell me. The analysis is that embryologists now know that perhaps 80% of all natural conceptions never implant in a woman's womb and go out with the menstrual flow. If life begins at conception, then 80% of all souls are these unimplanted embryos."

SB: "Do you believe in Heaven?"

Ronald: "I do not. Do you?"

SB: "Yeah."

Ronald: "Which version?"

SB: "The Jewish version, that there's some sort of reward and punishment."

Ronald: "Isn't that up in the air depending on your particular view of Judaism?"

SB: "The first sentence in the Encyclopedia Judaica entrance on Afterlife reads: 'Judaism has always affirmed a belief in an afterlife.' The sacred texts of Judaism hold that there's something after life and that God rewards and punishes. Christianity is more specific and graphic."

Ronald: "I don't know enough about it. During college, I tried to convert [not for reasons of marriage] to Judaism but unfortunately I had a Conservative rabbi and he wouldn't let me convert. I went through all the requirements [for six months]. As you know, the rabbi is supposed to discourage you from converting.

"We're sitting in his study and talking about it and he says, 'Ron, you have to tell me that you believe in God.' I said, 'I don't know that I absolutely believe in God.' He said, 'Well, I won't let the conversion go forward.' I said, 'None of my Jewish friends believe in God.' He said, 'Ah well, they're legacies.' That they are within the fold already.

"I'm still very attracted to Judaism."

In his book, Bailey points out significant differences between Judaism and Christianity on the status of the embryo.

SB: "As you don't believe in Heaven, isn't this question [about the number of embryos in Heaven] a cheap shot?"

Ronald: "No. It's a question. I'm laying out the arguments being made. For those of you who assert that life begins at conception, what do you do about those embryos that nature profligately destroys? What is their moral status? You hold that human beings using those embryos to try to find cures for diseases are evil. Do you want to be logically consistent? Do you see the logical inconsistency there?"

SB: "They hold that life begins at conception, any conception, but 80% are flushed out of the woman's body through her menstrual flow."

Ronald: "What happens to their souls? I'm not kidding. It seems to me that this should be a serious metaphysical question to those who believe that embryos have the same moral status as you and I do. Such people may be consistent and say, 'Heaven is populated 80% by the souls of embryos.' I don't think they believe that."

SB: "What was it like talking with [Bailey's opponents on these matters] Francis Fukuyama and Leon Kass?"

Ronald: "Both of them are great intellects and a lot of fun to talk to. They're serious men. The experiences are slightly different though they do come out of the same intellectual tradition -- a kind of neo-Straussian philosophical point of view. Leon Kass talks with great gravitas. He's very serious all the time. He's extremely sure of himself. Francis Fukuyama also has great gravitas, but he seems more willing to entertain alternative ideas. On the surface, he seems more intellectually flexible."
SB: "How seriously do they listen to your questions?"

Ronald: "I don't think they listen to me very much right now. I don't think they like me very much right now."

SB: "Did you feel personal antipathy from them?"

Ronald: "I have felt personal antipathy from Leon Kass but not from Francis Fukuyama."

SB: "Are they able to hear in a deep way opposing points of view and genuinely respond?"

Ronald: "They think they're genuinely responding. The problem is there is a gap in the way we see the world. I am a modernist, a post-Enlightenment kind of guy. They're steeped in a different view, Kass in particular. Sometimes it is hard to know that we are talking to each other rather than at each other.

"Neither of their arguments are grounded in a religious discipline."

SB: "Kass is grounded in Torah."

Ronald: "But his arguments about biotechnology are philosophically based. He does not cite religious positions as justifications for his views."

SB: "Do you wish that you had a transcendent moral code?"

Ronald: "I'm not sure what that would look like. Pie in the sky bye and bye?"

SB: "No. Without a transcendent code (Christians, Jews and Muslims have a sacred text that they can refer moral questions to)..."

Ronald: "I don't think that's very interesting. It's like going to law school. Here are the answers and just go and do that. Judaism is more interesting that way because there are so many different ways of interpreting the tradition. It's not like God made it crystal clear. Why else would you have the Talmud?"

SB: "But you have some source you can go to beyond personal opinions?"

Ronald: "But man is the measure of all things. We do have a source -- the natural world and human nature. The process of continual criticism, what Jonathan Rauch called "liberal science," stretching from the daily press to peer-reviewed scientific journals is how modern societies discover the truth.

SB: "Would you say that the natural world and human nature is basically amoral, immoral or moral?"

Ronald: "The natural world is amoral. Humanity is the moral animal. We are working out over time better and better ways of treating one another."

SB: "Do you think that human nature is basically good?"

Ronald: "Yes. If you mean by 'good' that people have an impulse towards treating each other well and cooperating."

SB: "Then, if so the 20th century was probably the darkest century in human history, with mass genocides?"

Ronald: ""The 20th century was a terrible time with the twin totalitarianisms of Communism and fascism astride the globe murdering of tens of millions of people. But you can look back at pre-modern and medieval societies and you discover that 30-40% of all adult males died violent deaths. That's not the case in the 20th Century. That's an improvement."

SB: "What would people have to do for you to rethink your view that humans are basically good?"

Ronald: "There are some people who are evil but most people are pretty good. Most of us are not Hitler, Stalin or Mao.

"I don't have any faith in human nature. It is something that is describable. We can see how it operates."

SB: "Who or what are the moral referents on your side of this argument?"

Ronald: "There are no authorities. There are philosophers who might inform. There aren't texts that one goes to, to say that this is the case. Most of these arguments are secular. The people I'm arguing with, like Leon Kass and Francis Fukuyama, are strictly secular and philosophical in these issues. I'm not trying to argue with religious people. I'm making secular/moral arguments in favor of allowing people access to biotechnology to increase their lifespan and give them more choices with regard to the health of their children and things like that.

"I'm all about searching for the truth and allowing other people to search for their truths."

SB: "Is it possible that in the search for truth in liberation biology, we could stumble upon some horrible truths that could ruin the human condition?"

Ronald: "Can you give an example?"

SB: "I can't."

Ronald: "Then I can't imagine [such a thing]. If you can't think of such a thing, that should tell you something about the implausibility of your supposition.

"Research can always go wrong. Was invention of the nuclear bomb an example of research going wrong or going right?"

SB: "Going right.

"Do you think we'll have a brain drain?"

Ronald: "We've already had a couple of researchers move from the U.S. to Britain because of [Bush's rules against stem cell research]. Aside from stem cells, on other issues of [biotechnology] we're having the opposite of a brain drain. The moment someone in South Korea is able to walk because of stem cells, the United States will say, let's not make that illegal.

"In the 1970s, the United States made in vitro-fertilization essentially illegal. Then the first test-tube baby was born in Britain in 1978 and two years later, we had in vitro clinics all over the U.S. America is essentially pragmatic.

"California will be spending $300 million a year on stem cell research, making it far and away the largest source of government money for this research (maybe larger than all the rest of the world combined). It makes whatever the federal government is likely to do pale by comparison."

SB: "Have you seen people lose their temper in stem cell research discussions?"

Ronald: "No. But I do get a lot of hate email."

SB: "Thank you for your time. I was always a horrible student at science."

Ronald: "I'm sorry to hear that."

SB: "I cheated my way through chemistry."

Ronald: "I have a question. Why did you convert to Judaism?"

After our telephone interview, I emailed Bailey some questions a friend had given me. Here they are with Ronald's responses.

Ronald: "First, I want to stress that Liberation Biology is much more than a book about stem cells as important a topic as that is. I discuss and analyze development in longevity research that would lead to people living healthy lives for more than 200 years or so. I also look into the science and the ethical debates about using genetic engineering to enhance one's children's athletic abilities, immune systems and intellects. I talk about novel reproductive techniques including cloning in which all sorts of people will be able to have children. I show that genetically enhanced plants and animals will revolutionize the way food is produced and will enable humanity to begin the process of ecological restoration of the earth."

Q: "At what point does a fertilized egg (e.g. zygote) become a person or deserve to be protected as a person by our laws? When does it have a soul?"

Ronald: "Surely whenever an embryo should become protected by our laws occurs sometime well after 14 days of development. Embryos from which stem cells are derived grow for 5 to 7 days and consist of around 100 to 150 cells or so."

Q: "Is there a specific point in time when something should go from non-person to person (e.g. when the heart starts beating)? Or is it a gradual process (e.g. at 6 months its 40% person; At 8 months its 80% person)?"

Ronald: "I think that there is no specific point when an embryo develops into a person -- it is a gradual process. I suspect that determining when to treat a developing fetus as a person will shift with technological developments and the wishes of would-be parents. For example, the current ethical guidelines of the American Academy of Pediatrics leave the decision to initiate resuscitation of extremely premature babies up to parents and suggest that "noninitiation of resuscitation for newborns of less than 23 weeks' gestational age and/or 400 g[rams] in birth weight is appropriate." If you're interested in a more developed analysis of this point see my column "Born Alive."

Q: "What characteristics do you examine to determine whether something is a person? What are the characteristics that you examine to determine the extent to which something is person? What makes those characteristics relevant?"

Ronald: "Right now the chief characteristic to consider is whether or not the entity has a more or less normally working human brain. As far as we know creatures with human brains are the only creatures that can give reasons for why they behave the way they do, make and keep promises, and understand the differences between right and wrong. In the future, one can imagine self-aware computer systems or cognitively enhanced animals being accorded higher moral standing."

Q: "Does this guy believe that an embryo has a soul? What about a fetus at 7 months? A typical teenager? What about a teenager that listens to rap music?"

Ronald: "I don't believe in immortal souls that are distinct from human bodies. Teenagers are people too."

Q: "How big a benefit must stem cell research potentially confer before one would endorse research?"

Ronald: "This issue doesn't arise because embryos do not have special moral status."

Q: "How likely must success be before stem cell research is legitimate?"

Ronald: "It's legitimate now."

Q: "Bush apparently seeks to limit the number or types of cells that federally funded researchers may use. What is the technological controversy concerning how much this restriction hampers research?"

Ronald: "A couple of reasons-first, only 20 or so human embryonic stem cell lines that qualify for federal scientific funding are available. Some of them are known to be defective now. All of them were created using mouse cells and calf serum for support and nutrition. This means that they may be contaminated with animal viruses which could rule them out for use in human therapies. Thirdly, more robust stem cell lines have been subsequently derived. Finally, the limits on federal funding preclude the creation of perfect tissue transplants using cloned embryos to make stem cell lines that are immunologically matched to patients. This is similar to work that has just been done in South Korea where scientists created 11 cloned human embryonic stem cell lines earlier this year."

Q: "Get a summary of exactly what sort of experiments should be performed and how? What do the scientists hope to find out, and how?"

Ronald: "This is a pretty broad question. Researchers are forging ahead with a lot of experiments. For example, the Reproductive Genetics Institute in Chicago has developed a number of tests for genetic diseases that can screen embryos before pre-implantation. So far nearly 2000 babies have been born healthy thanks to such screening tests and more tests are coming. The Genetics and IVF Institute in Fairfax, Va., have developed a sperm sorting machine that helps parents select their child's sex before conception. On the longevity front, researchers are discovering that aging is the result of cumulative faults in our cells energy producing mitochondria. Scientists at Elixir Pharmaceuticals are hot on the trail of a compound that will protect cells from aging. Geron Corporation is testing a telomerase vaccine that could be a wide spectrum treatment for all types of cancer. Plant breeders are genetically engineering insect and disease resistant crops that will be a big boon to poor farmers in developing countries. With regard to stem cells (both embryonic and adult) scientists are figuring out ways to transform them into any type of tissue making them suitable for transplantation."

Q: "What are the arguments of the opposition that he considers most meritorious? Least meritorious? (Scientific as well as moral arguments?)"

Ronald: "This is the big question -- why would anyone oppose life enhancing biotechnologies? Meritorious arguments against proceeding with any particular experiment in this arena are arguments based on safety concerns and informed consent. Look, the benefits of biotechnology are well known -- the cure of diseases and disabilities for millions of sufferers; the production of more nutritious food with less damage to the natural environment; the enhancement of human physical and intellectual capacities. All of these benefits can be easily foreseen. It is the alleged dangers of biotechnology that are, in fact, ill-defined, and nebulous. Throughout history, people have opposed various biomedical advances including smallpox vaccinations, use of anesthesia in childbirth, condoms, pasteurization of milk, the contraceptive pill, organ transplants, and in vitro fertilization, all now widely accepted by the public. The same will be true of new biomedical technologies such as using pre-implantation genetic diagnosis to ensure the birth of healthy children, future rejuvenation therapies based on stem cells and replacing mitochondria to prevent aging."