AS 2005 closes and 2006 opens, we find that scientific outlook against Christian fundamentalism has made an important gain with the rejection of intelligent design theory by an US court. At the same time, it also suffered a serious reverse as Hwang Woo-Suk’s research on therapeutic cloning was found to be fabricated. In the battle against fundamentalism waged worldwide, the results are a mixed bag for the year.
A NEW STRATEGEM
Neither are major events in science. Intelligent design is just a cover up to teach the Biblical story of creation in another way. It is virtually a pariah even in the US academic circles where Christian fundamentalists have been fighting for more than 100 years to have evolution banned from being taught in schools. If not banned – they argue – then it must not be privileged over other views of creation such as the Bible. After failing in all such attempts with the courts striking down the teaching of religion in state supported schools, the fundamentalists have hit upon a new stratagem. It consisted of clothing all the old arguments against evolution to claim a space in schools for a theory of Intelligent Designer of all life. Who this Designer is, was left unsaid. During the proceedings in the court case in a Pennsylvania town, where a school board had prescribed teaching of Intelligent Design, the supporters even disingenuously suggested that it need not be god, it could also be a being from outer space! Fortunately for the Pennsylvania children, where a school board had introduced this in the 9th standard biology curriculum, US District Judge John Jones has now ruled that teaching “intelligent design” would violate the Constitutional separation of church and state. In his view, Intelligent Design is nothing but religion dressed up differently. Intelligent Design may finally be on the way to meet its maker! Kansas children are not so lucky, as a Kansas court has allowed this.
While the Pennsylvania judge, incidentally a Republican Bush appointee, ruled against intelligent design, the Kansas court refused to intervene in a similar case. This is not surprising in a country where 44 per cent believe that Darwin’s theory of evolution is wrong and their president has gone on record to support intelligent design being given space in science curriculum. Or a country where fundamentalists routinely bomb clinics where medical termination of pregnancies are carried out and even target doctors and nurses working there for assassination. While teaching bad biology or science in the US matters only to the US, fundamentalism takes on a different dimension if its president Bush claims that he attacked Iraq because God spoke to him. If a leader in a developing country spoke for the creation of myth to be taught in a science course or justified his political action as a result of god’s communion with him, international media – read the western media – would have gone to town on Islamic or various other kinds of backward beliefs so prevalent in such backward societies. Bush, of course, is immune to such criticism, never mind the consequences for Iraq (or West Asia) or even his own country.
SELF-GOAL IN STEM CELL RESEARCH
While the Christian fundamentalists attempts to smuggle religion as science failed in the US, the scientific community was also deeply scarred by the fraud committed by Hwang in stem cell research. It was a spectacular self-goal because stem cell research is already under serious attack by the Christian fundamentalists. Stem cell research uses stem cells from aborted foetus. Such use of aborted foetus has come under attack as anti-abortionists oppose all abortion, even when it is done for therapeutic reasons or to preserve the life of the mother. By introducing fraud in this highly contested field, Hwang has just helped all those who are opposed to science in any case. It is not that Hwang’s fraud is the most important one in science in the last few decades, but it is certainly the most visible one, partly due to the contested nature of stem cell research and also due to the promise that therapeutic cloning held out. It is now clear that we are not likely to have a stack of ready made body parts grown from our own cells to replace our damaged ones. The promise of therapeutic cloning in which we can grow replacement body parts is still there, but the date is uncertain. And it may still go the way of gene therapy touted as a solution to all birth defects 25 years back, but has still to make the cut.
Stem cell research is based on how the single cell that all embryos start with get differentiated later to become specialised cells of specific organs. Obviously, the single cell that we start with has the potential to become specialised which it loses later. Stem cells are therefore special and if they can be created from the patient’s own cells from cloning, then we, at least theoretically, would have the possibility of growing our own body parts from our own genetic material. This is what therapeutic cloning – or regenerative medicine – is all about.
However, stem cell research with its immense potential of repairing damaged body parts has also drawn the ire of Christian fundamentalists. Currently, the only way stem cells can be harvested is from aborted embryos. Since Christain fundamentalists oppose all abortion – irrespective of any reason – they have also opposed all stem cell research. In the US, stem cell research funding has been cut and the field made so restricted that researchers believe that it is not possible to do good quality stem cell research in the US. In spite of support from Nancy Reagan and Christopher Reeves, stem cell research continues to be under attack in the US, an attack that is openly supported by a fundamentalist president.
IMPORTANCE OF STEM CELL WORK
Hwang’s work was important on two counts. One was that he appeared to have successfully derived stem cells by infusing the nucleus of the patient into the egg cells harvested from donors. So the embryo was the clone of the patient and the cell lines derived from this embryo then would be capable of generating parts in patient’s body where it would be introduced. While this is not a simple issue, it was thought that generating a patient specific stem cell line meant that at least a very important first step had been taken. The second reason for its importance is that it would also show how the US was falling behind in an important scientific area due to fundamentalism. While the fraud that Hwang committed has impacted seriously the area of regenerative medicine, it would be on par with some other frauds that have been uncovered in the last 20 years in science. Unfortunately, the damage to the other battle of Hwang’s fraud has been considerable.
It is not that therapeutic cloning is the magic wand which will solve all problems of damaged body organs. There is important work being done in the world in this regard, including, for example, in L V Prasad Eye Institute in Hyderabad. Here, stem cell research is being done to repair damaged cornea with some success. But it is important to understand that in science whether such breakthroughs will take place next year of after 20 years or never at all is impossible to predict. Gene therapy, regarding which also such predictions were made 25 years back, has yet to take off. However, all such avenues need to be pursued as any breakthrough in any of these areas brings hope to people who currently have no hope. To stop research on the basis of religious beliefs is to snatch such hope away from people suffering from terminal conditions. It was Christopher Reeves becoming completely paralysed after breaking his vertebral column that he became a champion of stem cell research. So also with Nancy Regan. When Ronald Reagan became a victim of Alzheimer’s disease, the only hope lay in stem cell research.
Opposing evolution or stem cell research is only some of the examples of fundamentalist assault on science. Earlier, the church (or similar religious institutions) could dictate what could or could not be done by science. A whole range of areas was earlier outside their domain. Now fundamentalism has to wear scientific clothes to oppose science. This is in itself a victory for science. But the war is far from over. It continues whether over teaching evolution in the US or over the origins of Harappan civilisation in India. The people and views may be different, but the method is same. Parade selective evidence to support pre-conceived notions and claim this is scientific: this is the strategy of fundamentalism today –– from Kansas to India.