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Simon Carr

The Sketch: What is a stem cell? Most MPs don't have a clue

Pens faltered, brows furrowed, note-taking stopped. One by one you could see MPs and gallery journalists realising that the most fundamental fact about the debate is they didn't actually know what a stem cell is. That's quite a disadvantage when it comes to the big ethical question of human/animal hybrids for research purposes.

For instance is the statement "mitochondrial DNA is autonomous" a) true, b) false, c) a misreading of illegibly scrawled notes?

Mark Simmonds told us scientists were making sperm from pluripotent cells. I asked the departmental official how it was spelt. He didn't know. Maybe it's pleuripotent. As to what it means – seven people on the floor of the House would have known.

"I know science," Dr Ian Gibson told us, but spoilt his effect by adding, "I know science backwards!" Because that's how I know science too.

So we all have to ease back on the mockery, I fear. "We should not be spliced together with the animal kingdom," Edward Leigh told us, bravely, I suppose. There was some spluttering from Labour benches, but I doubt they'd get into double figures on a Mastermind genetics quiz. Ian Gibson intervened a little grandly, perhaps, to ask what the difference was in base sequences between animal and human DNA. Mr Leigh said: "The hon gentleman is trying to blind us with science." There was more aggressive spluttering. Leigh then revealed that he knew he was genetically 30 per cent a daffodil. He'd been told so that very morning.

Chris Bryant (30 per cent fruit fly) said that many of these church-based anti-research arguments sounded like the campaign against vaccination all those years ago. This ad hominem point marked the poor fellow's final descent from sweet reason into politics.

Brian Iddon criticised Leigh's use of words like "entity" and "being" to describe "a blastocyst consisting of 150 cells". Leigh replied: "An embryo is not a thing." It was an assertion of faith with no logical basis. Of course, I don't mean to imply he was wrong.

It's the provision for 50-50 hybrids that make some of us drop our morning toast. Evan Harris asked for the ethical difference between a 50 per cent hybrid and a 1 per cent hybrid. He didn't get an answer – but there must be one, and a little reflection would produce it. But there wasn't time before the vote at 6.30pm.

Gordon – I'm guessing – doesn't know any more science than the rest of us. So how can he – or we – know what the moral course of action is?