In theory, the Manichees lost the war. Indeed, historians will tell you that they pretty much died out in the 5th century. But don't you believe it. For the Manichean worldview – a powerful dogma which saw existence as a conflict between equal primeval powers of good and evil – is still very much with us today. In evidence of that, take the current debate on whether the stem cells of embryos should be used for research which promises deliverance from strokes, diabetes, Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and a host of humankind's other worst diseases.
It is a debate of totemic significance and everyone is getting involved.
The US House of Representatives voted last week to outlaw human cloning even for therapeutic purposes – which Britain has made legal. George Bush and the Pope have also been in discussions on whether the American president should stick to his election pledge to withdraw federal funding from stem-cell research on embryos. Yes, said the Pope. No, said 80 Nobel laureates when they came to lobby the President; it will set back scientific progress and damage the US scientific and pharmaceutical industries. The president has yet to announce his decision.
The debate has got personal too. One of America's leading researchers in the field, Dr Roger Pederson, has started a reverse brain drain by quitting the University of California to continue his work in Britain. And, to muddy the waters even further, Professor Severino Antinori, a controversial Italian embryologist, revealed that in November he plans to implant cloned embryos in 200 women – eight of them British – in the world's first attempt to produce a human clone.
There are two distinct issues here. The first is research on human stem cells – cells which have the potential to develop into many different types of tissue and could provide cures in many fields of medicine. Such cells can be taken from adults or from embryos. The second issue is cloning. Again there are two types. Reproductive – to make identical human beings – which raises revulsion, or at least caution, in most politicians and scientists alike, with the exception of Professor Antinori. Then there is therapeutic cloning – the cultivation of human embryos to extract stem cells from them for research into the promised wonder cures.
The problem is that the two issues have become hopelessly tangled up. Which takes us back for a moment to the Manichees. The religion's founder, the eponymous Mani, with his vivid sense of the powers of light and darkness, would had instinctive sympathy with George Bush's black and white view of the world. It is interesting that Mr Bush recently turned to the Pope over his dilemma on stem cells. The Pope, of course, is not a Manichee. Manicheanism was years back declared a heresy. But John Paul II is, as commentators are fond of saying, Augustinian in his theology. The great thinker of the early church St Augustine of Hippo was a Manichee for nine years before becoming a Christian and never shook off the habit of seeing everything in highly charged opposing poles. Like Augustine, both the Pope and George Bush are more disposed to set up extremes than to explore the middle ground.
The world is ill-served by this new outbreak of certainty. For the debate on stem cells ought not to be a battle between moral absolutism and scientific relativism. There is another strain of thinking too.
It is probably no coincidence that therapeutic cloning has been made legal here in the UK by an establishment still influenced by the judgment of Anglican thinkers consistently more ambivalent about whether a human embryo is the same thing as a human being. The embryo has "something of the human" but until the formation of the primal streak – the wormlike beginning of differentiation in the embryo around Day 14 – it is not yet fully a person. So Anglican thinkers have persuasively argued.
Revealingly, the chairman of the British Government's working party on cloning, set up jointly by the Human Genetics Advisory Commission and the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, was the Rev John Polkinghorne who, before he became a Church of England vicar, worked for many years as a theoretical elementary particle physicist. Scientists have not always helped with the politics of the issue. Many of them also have their own Manichean certainties in which scientific progress is always the lightness set against the darkness of religious ignorance.
The result is that scientists can be decidedly unscientific in their defence of their truth. Even the letter from the 80 Nobel laureates to President Bush mistakenly asserted that a breakthrough on diabetes in mice was made using embryonic cells when, in fact, adult cells were used. They also used the key stem cell terms "pluripotent" and "totipotent" inexactly to bolster their case. Scientists might also acknowledge that there is a moral difference between specifically creating embryos for research and, on the principle of the lesser of evils, creating a cell bank from embryos which have already been produced as surplus in the IVF process.
The fact is that morality changes with our unfolding scientific understanding. Not acknowledging this is how the Catholic Church has so often got itself in a mess at the interface of science and religion – on everything from Galileo's solar system to modern rulings on contraception.
But this is not a one-way process. The latest research on embryo stem cells shifts the balance towards the church's position by suggesting that it may be at 4 or 5 days after fertilisation that it may be proper to suggest that "personhood" begins, rather than with the primal streak 10 days later.
Other new evidence also suggests that a more precautionary approach would be prudent. Previous experience with adult stem cells suggested they were not as versatile as their embryonic counterparts. But in the past two years researchers have gone from thinking that adults have very few stem cells in their bodies, to recognising that many, perhaps most, of our organs maintain a reservoir of these cells. And new research has demonstrated the ability of these adult stem cells to transform from one tissue type to another: we now know they can also make bone, muscle, cartilage, heart, liver and even brain tissue.
Adult stem cells are already successfully being used clinically – in treatments for cancer, arthritis and skin diseases and for making new corneas – while clinical use of embryonic stem cells remains only theoretical. Moreover, using stem cells from a patient's own tissue avoids the risk of transplant rejection; lifelong drug therapy would be necessary to prevent rejection of embryonic stem cells – unless they were produced by cloning from the patient, which is where the stem cell and cloning issues get entwined.
All of which gives additional credibility to the argument that more work should be done on adult stem cells before launching into the wide-scale creation of new embryos for experiment. But to say that is as much a matter of practical politics as it is of moral certainty. As an argument that would not appeal much to the Manichees – whether in research laboratories, the White House or the Vatican. But it does at least have the virtue of creating a bridge between many people's moral unease and the evolving scientific facts.Reuse content