The Conservative Soul

This week the British parliament debated a bill that (among other things) sanctions the creation of animal-human hybrid embryos for stem-cell research. Recipe: take one animal egg, scoop out nucleus, insert human DNA, wait 14 days, then “dissassemble.” The idea is to use the stem cells that thereby develop for medical research, not to let the embryos grow into babies. (Long Olivia Judson editorial here.)

The human-animal divide has already been breached, of course. Already transgenic mice are commonly used in medical research, and mice have been bred with brains that are 1% human. (Article about hybrids here.) A pig heart has been transplanted into a human being. Maybe what’s causing all the distress over the hybrid embryos is the fear that some day they will be used reproductively, and who knows, some lab error some day may result in a creature that doesn’t just have a clear-cut pig component, but a more blurry intermingling of human and non-human features. (Eek!)

Conservatives are using religious language to respond to some of these developments, or vague talk of human dignity, but I get the feeling what’s really going on in the conservative soul is the desire to have everything in its place. Humans and other animals are different natural kinds, and shouldn’t be confused.

This sense of a natural order is all bound up with God in the bible, but it’s not difficult to separate the two. Humans and animals were separately created. Take God out of it, and the idea is simply that humans are different from animals, and have a different role in life. “Male and female” he created them—says the first account of the creation of woman (Genesis chapter 1), though things are messier in the second account, which has Adam make woman out of his own rib (Genesis chapter 2). The godless version: male and female are importantly different “kinds.”

The animals are further separated into the clean and the unclean. Some, God tells Moses, you can sacrifice and eat, some you can’t. Again, the basic thought is that there’s a natural order that’s also a moral order. Every time you sit down to dinner, you have to adhere to that order.

The problem is, people in the modern world keep messing things up. There’s a running story in the US media about a transgendered man (former woman) who’s pregnant. A story in the New York Times magazine a few weeks ago had male couples pose in domestic tableaus reminiscent of 1950s housekeeping magazines. Though the story was entirely gay-friendly, the pictures deliberately provoked the sense of things being mixed up, and laughably so.

Now I will make a confession. Yes, I have a conservative soul. The problem is, I have a liberal soul as well, and a few other souls too. I can’t say I like the idea of a pregnant man. It’s just not…(what can I say?)…natural. But wait, this is a person who made a choice to become a man, and may very well be thriving as a man, and then made a second choice to have a baby. Who the hell am I to want laws to get in the way, or even so much as to disapprove? (Can I honestly say the baby doesn’t have a good chance of a good life?)

And why shouldn’t the divide between human animals and other animals get blurred, if thereby people can fulfill their own choices to…stay alive, reproduce, avoid debilitating diseases (leaving aside, for the moment, the risk of harm to animals)?

And so I am pulled in more than one direction.


Hey, the soul talk’s all metaphorical. Don’t get worked up about it.

You might have noticed I’ve been blogging a lot this week. That’s because I finally finished and sent out my book proposal. It’s either blog or just sit around waiting for a rejection letter. Sniff.

Credit where credit is due. Julian had a good editorial on the embryo bill this week.

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