Real-World Transdisciplinarity and Public Debate

Science and religion in the political conflict over human embryos and their alternatives

This paper reflects on the meaning of the theme of our conference—transdisciplinarity—by considering a case study. In many places around the world, religious scholars, scientists, and politicians are debating the moral status of the human embryo. This debate provides a helpful case study that draws our attention to the political, social, and economic contexts in which transdisciplinary scholarly discussions often occur. In this particular case, the social and political dimensions are abundantly obvious. In other scholarly explorations of a transdisciplinary sort, however, these external dimensions may be less conspicuous. This paper is motivated by the conviction that transdisciplinary scholars are well advised in every case to pay attention to the political, social, and economic context that surrounds their work, influencing it in ways they may not realize unless they look for it and using their efforts in ways they might not anticipate until too late.1

Recent advances in embryo-related research, in particular the isolation of human embryonic stem cells in 1998, have raised the possibility that research involving human embryos might open new fields of scientific research and medicine, with new treatments for many diseases and with economic benefits for those who first develop some of the technologies. This research is already leading to significant new insights in the basic biology of the embryo as the scientific field of embryology or developmental biology explodes with new knowledge.

The controversy that has arisen over these developments is well known. Advocates of human embryo research point to the value of advancing scientific knowledge and to its potential for medical benefit. Opponents argue that the human embryo must never be used as a mere object of research. It may be treated therapeutically, in ways that advance its own health, but never used for the sake of knowledge or for the treatment of someone else. Often, those who object to human embryo draw on science to support their argument. They point for instance to the joining of egg and sperm to form the complete genomic DNA of life, or to the immediate and complex structure of the fertilized egg, to support their argument that the moral equivalent of a full human being is present from conception.

The debate between advocates and opponents of research is played out in many political contexts. At least in the United States, politicians adopt one position or another on embryo research, not always on principle, but because it will help them win votes. Whether for principle or for convenience, however, political views on complex subjects like the morality of human embryo research are embedded in political pressures and constraints, which affect the conduct of the debate at every level. The political, in turn, is closely linked with economic considerations, which range from national competitiveness to corporate interests. Which nations, which corporations, which universities will “win” the race to turn embryo-related research into economically valuable treatments? Anyone active in the debate, whether scientist, religious scholar, or policy analyst, knows very well that it is naïve to ignore these political and economic factors. What is not so clear is whether these individuals always realize how their work as scholars is affected by the political context that surrounds them.

Looking only at the surface of the debate, one might be tempted to say that the opponents of this research are using a transdisciplinary method of reflection. Advocates of research, on the other hand, might be seen as interested only in the science and in what benefits research. As a result, it might be thought that the advocates of research, precisely because they lack a commitment to transdisciplinarity, are guilty of diminished regard for human uniqueness and human dignity, leaving the advance of scientific knowledge and medicine the supreme value. This paper is an effort to dig below these initial impressions.

Transdisciplinarity: Definitions and Challenges

As an intellectual method, transdisciplinarity offers the promise of taking various fields of research into account, but also of giving careful attention to the economic, social, and political factors that shape and drive the discussion. In this first section, I ask about the definition of transdisciplinarity, how it calls attention to social and political factors, and what its advocates suggest that it offers us.

In the effort to define transdisciplinarity, the first point to be made is to distinguish transdisciplinarity from disciplinarity, which of course is the organizing principle of the modern research university. Disciplinary studies allow for the development of discrete approaches to distinct realms, based on a foundation of methodological reductionism that promises advances in human understanding by first isolating each part or level of nature from each other. This approach has been wildly generative of new knowledge, especially in the sciences and in related technologies.

At the same time, as disciplines sub-divide, the net effect is increasingly unsatisfactory in science and technology itself, with the growing realization that wholes (such as cells and their cytoplasm, the whole genome with its “junk DNA,” tissue niches, not to mention ecosystems and social systems) play determinative roles over the constituent parts, whose behavior cannot be fully predicted based on a thorough knowledge of the part in isolation from the whole. Thus we see not just the study of proteins but “proteomics” (the study of the whole, living system of protein expression within an organism in real time) and not just genes but genomics, even comparative genomics that compares base by base the DNA of one species with another in order to understand the evolution of genetic difference.

One indicator of this trend is the scientific journal Omics, A Journal of IntegrativeBiology, which “seeks high quality, original-research papers dealing with all aspects of integrative biology, diverse ‘OMICS-es,’ such as genomics, transcriptomics, proteomics, metabolomics, pharmacogenomics, physiomics, etc., and their integration, data analysis, and modeling.”2 Transdisciplinarity, however, takes “omics” to the next step, going beyond merely joining the insights of adjacent disciplines or the forming of transdisciplinary research teams, which are often formed in the modern university as a way to advance work that is specialized but requires several specializations. Transdisciplinarity is more than multi-specialist teamwork.

A second way to ask about the meaning of transdisciplinarity is to distinguish transdisciplinarity from “interdisciplinarity,” a term used often in science and religion by scholars such as Wentzel van Huyssteen. Van Huyssteen defines interdisciplinarity this way: “Interdisciplinary discourse, then, is an attempt to bring together disciplines or reasoning strategies that may have widely different points of reference, different epistemological foci, and different experiential resources.” To this point in his definition, van Huyssteen appears to suggest a clear difference between interdisciplinarity and transdisciplinarity. Interdisciplinarity looks for conceptual relationship between separate disciplines, such as theology and science. Interdisciplinarity is a dialogue between two or more established disciplines, when it is thought that they bear on common questions and that their findings have relevance for each other. If theology is to speak today about human uniqueness, van Huyssteen argues, it must learn from the natural sciences and then integrate what it has learned into its own perspectives, revising traditional perspectives as it goes, a highly commendable exercise. Transdisciplinarity, on the other hand, looks at what lies not in one discipline or the other so as to relate the two established fields, but at what lies between them, in the unexplored space that neither considers as its own, beyond the scope of established scholarship.

However, in the very next sentence of his definition, van Huyssteen writes: “This ‘fitting together,’ however, is a complex, multileveled transversal process that takes place not within the confines of any given discipline…but within the transversal spaces between disciplines.”3 According to this definition, interdisciplinary discourse (like transdisciplinarity) moves into the spaces between the disciplines, not confined to the scope of the disciplines themselves and not limited to getting them to talk to each other, but in working through them to unexplored territory. Compare van Huyssteen with this statement from the Charter: “The keystone of transdisciplinarity is the semantic and practical unification of the meanings that traverse and lay beyond different disciplines….In comparison with interdisciplinarity and multidisciplinarity, transdisciplinarity is multireferential and multidimensional.”4

The Call for this Metanexus Conference sounds a similar note when it speaks of the epistemic promise of transdisciplinarity: “Transdisciplinarity complements disciplinary approaches. It occasions the emergence of new data and new interactions from out of the encounter between disciplines. It offers us a new vision of nature and reality. Transdisciplinarity does not strive for mastery of several disciplines but aims to open all disciplines to that which they share and to that which lies beyond them.”5 Here we find a clear statement of the promise of transdisciplinarity, with its anticipation of “the emergence of new data” and the offer of “a new vision of nature and reality.” On the basis of this promise, the distinction between transdisciplinarity and interdisciplinarity becomes more clear, at least in the hopes of the advocates of transdisciplinarity. Unlike interdisciplinarity, transdisciplinarity goes beyond the “data” of any of the disciplines and finds its way to what has previously been neglected. The Call also suggests that compared to disciplinary research, transdisciplinarity opens “an even richer vein in a quest for synthesis” that promises to lead to “the emergence of new data.”6The advocates of transdisciplinarity clearly suggest that, compared to interdisciplinarity, transdisciplinarity goes beyond the combined resources of the constituent disciplines.

In that regard, we might think of transdisciplinarity as the epistemic correlate of the criticism of methodological reductionism. Every discipline is limited, and dialogue between disciplines (interdisciplinarity) is merely an aggregate of limitations. Only transdisciplinarity opens the inquiry to the level of the whole of the sweep of the intellectual challenges that face us today. Precisely because of the success of reductionism, transdisciplinarity is needed to put life (in its fullest sense) together intellectually. But to do so, transdisciplinarity must take into account the social, political, and economic dimensions, both as scholarly disciplines (sociology, etc.) but as lived dimensions in which scholars do their work and intellectuals live their lives. None of us is untouched by these dimensions. The central advantage of transdisciplinarity over interdisciplinarity is that transdisciplinarity appears to include the social, political, and historical embeddedness of human inquiry. Thus we read in the Conference Announcement for this Metanexus Conference that transdisciplinarity “strategically considers the natural, social, and human sciences, philosophical perspectives, and even religious insights in multi-pronged approaches to theoretical and practical problems. It takes up questions that transcend the boundaries of any given body of expertise.”7

This statement points in the right direction but perhaps should go even further. Perhaps we should say something like this: transdisciplinarity considers the social, economic, and political context, the “real world” of political power and persuasive rhetoric, and is suspicious of any view of academic work that ignores other disciplines or ignores the political context that supports and uses research. The “Charter of Transdisciplinarity contains a similar statement, also pointing in the right direction but perhaps overly cautious: “The transdisciplinary vision is resolutely open insofar as it goes beyond the field of the exact sciences and demands their dialogue and their reconciliation with the humanities and the social sciences, as well as with art, literature, poetry and spiritual experience.”8 In the sections that follow, these suggestions will be pursued further by considering some of the rhetoric of the public debate about embryo research.

Embryo Research and the Question of Potentiality

Of all the terms used in the debate over embryos and embryonic stem cells, the word potentiality is perhaps the most pivotal and, at the same time, misunderstood. Indeed, it may be impossible, at this stage in the public discussion, to sort out one use of the word and apply it consistently across the various contexts of discussion. By exploring various uses of potentiality, this section of the paper aims to point out how some key terms are filled with meanings that transcend current science research, perhaps because they are borrowed from older conversations in which the original meanings may be largely unknown to the researchers who employ these words, perhaps because the public speaks another language when addressing questions of developmental biology. One might wonder whether words like potentiality, quite apart from the intentions of those who speak them, exhibit a certain transdisciplinarity of their own.

In recent developmental biology, the term potentiality is used most often in compound forms, such as pluripotent, multipotent, and totipotent. To anyone trained in theology and philosophy, these terms evoke memories of a long and complex discussion, dating back at least to Aristotle, about the difference between what a thing is and what it is becoming by its own inward tendency or “potentiality.” One question to ask as we go along is whether the compounded forms of potentiality all use the root of the word in the same way, or whether the various prefixes (pluri-, multi-, and toti-) each add a unique twist to the definition. In the context of research using human embryo and embryonic stem cells, however, it is commonly said that the human fertilized egg (zygote) is a cell that is totipotent, capable (given the right nurturing environment) to give rise to every type of cell in the developing body and in the placenta. It has, therefore, the potential to become a fully developed human life. This sense of potential is most akin to potentiality in the classical, philosophical sense. If allowed to develop to the blastocyst stage, when about 100 cells are present, certain cells are formed that appear to be pluripotent. These were first isolated and cultured from human embryos in 1998. Because of their source, they were called “human embryonic stem cells.”

In the course of development, stem cells may pass through various stages of differentiation, becoming more specialized cells with each step and losing their potential to become just any kind of cell. Pluripotent cells stand at the beginning of this process. As they differentiate, they lose some of their potentiality or potency to become a wide range of cell types. They become “precursor” cells with potential to become fewer types of specialized cells, which are the ones the body actually uses, such as skin or bone or muscle. Precursor cells is with flexible potential are sometimes call multipotent, a term with a wide range of meanings. A key area of research is to find multipotent cells in the adult body. The hope is that scientists will learn how to “de-differentiate” these cells, restoring some of their potency to become cells of different types. Future treatments from these patient-derived stem cells will be easier to use medically than embryonic stem cells, assuming this search succeeds.

The use of the words that describe these various capacities of cells has perhaps become needlessly complex. The word “stem” cell is metaphoric, suggesting a stem from which branches might “differentiate,” in some cases these branches being “precursors” with potential for further “stemming.” The metaphor becomes an abstract property, with researchers routinely speaking of “stemness,” which presumably is the property of possessing potentiality. Furthermore, pluripotent” stem cells have been called “embryonic,” an adjective which no longer implies the noun. That is to say, pluripotent cells might possibly be found in sources other than embryos. The key point for our discussion, however, is how this terminology of potentiality plays out across the scientific, religious, and political contexts of research and debate, becoming a mode of rhetoric rather than a set of precisely definable terms. In one sense, the challenge of transdisciplinarity is for people working in each of these contexts to speak the same language. In this instance, however, the same word is employed, but does it mean the same thing in each context?

When used by developmental biologists, these words ordinarily refer to the potential of one type of cell to become other types of cells. In traditional theological and philosophical use, and perhaps in the wider, public use, the question of potential has to do primarily with how one sort of being, the embryo, has an innate capacity to become another form or stage of being, the adult. In today’s developmental biology, potential has more to do with the developmental potential of the cell than of the organism. In the wider public context, informed if only vaguely by the distant memory of Aristotle or Aquinas, potentiality (in the context of embryology) is a property possessed intrinsically by entities. In the case of the human zygote, the potentiality is present in the zygote itself for development to continue along a pathway that results in a fully formed human being. Because this potentiality is present, the zygote must be regarded (according to many) as being that human being or person from the completion of conception. In the view of Aristotle and Aquinas, this potentiality exists, not in any part or physical component of the zygote, but in the presence of the human form in the entire physical matter of the zygote.

Manipulating Potentiality

Why is this important to point this out? In part in order to sort out the claims made by advocates of a special research strategy known as “altered nuclear transfer” or ANT. ANT is largely the inspiration of William Hurlbut, a physician and a member of the U. S. President’s Council on Bioethics who opposes human embryo research but who is strongly supportive of medical research, including the use of pluripotent stem cells. He has proposed altered nuclear transfer as a way to supply human pluripotent stem cells—commonly called human embryonic stem cells (hESCs)—without involving any human embryo. Hurlbut’s idea is based on any number of modifications of the process of somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT, which is commonly called cloning). According to Hurlbut, if the SCNT “process could be altered so as to produce ESCs from a biologic construct having only partial developmental potential, no embryo would be created or destroyed.”9

The first thing to be said about ANT is that this is a hypothetic idea or thought experiment rather than a specific technology. One of the leading documents that promotes consideration of ANT defines it as “a broad conceptual proposal for producing pluripotent stem cells without creating and destroying embryos.”10 This document singles out one particular ANT strategy as particularly promising, mostly for its moral features. This strategy is called “oocyte assisted reprogramming” (OAR). If successful, it “would immediately produce a cell with positive characteristics and a type of organization that from the beginning would be clearly and unambiguously distinct from, and incompatible with, those of an embryo. Incapable of being or becoming an embryo, the cell produced would itself a pluripotent cell that could be cultured to establish a pluripotent stem cell line. Significantly, this cell would not be totipotent, as a zygote is.”11

What is the difference between the entity created by ANT and the same sort of entity created by SCNT or, for that matter, by fertilization? According to the advocates of OAR-ANT, the difference is both ontological and biochemical. Biochemically, the product of OAR-ANT and the product of SCNT will be different because the two will express different transcription factors. It is known that zygotes and hESCs express different factors. Detecting these factors is routinely used in the laboratory to distinguish various types of cells in terms of their developmental status.  If some transcription factors expressed in the zygote are known not to be expressed in the pluripotent cell, and vice versa, this fact (according to the advocates of OAR-ANT) can be used to provide reassurance that laboratories are dealing with cells, not embryos. They might even control some of these factors to “ensure that the epigenetic state of the resulting single cell would immediately be different from that of an embryo.”12 This thought suggests that potency is soon to be something that can be managed or controlled, maybe switched on or off at will. Because it is based on discrete biochemical factors, rather than a feature of the embryo as a whole, potency can be detected, predicted, and perhaps even manipulated.

Based on these biochemical differences, the advocates of OAR-ANT argue that there is a second, more profound difference between cells and embryos. According to Hurlbut: “If the zygote lacks essential elements such as the necessary complement of chromosomes, proper chromatin configuration and cytoplasmic factors for gene expression, it will also lack an inherent potency, a self-organizing drive in the direction of the mature form. It will not have the characteristics necessary for it to be an organism, and therefore will not be an embryo.”13 In other words, the potency and the ontological status (which in some ways are the same thing) both depend on the presence of certain key biochemical factors, which may in the end be manipulated. What might seem strange about all this is the slender thread of difference between the cluster of cloned cells that make up the totipotent “embryo” and the cluster of cloned cells that are merely pluripotent stem cells. “Transcription factors” is not part of the daily vocabulary of most people, and they are to be forgiven if they fail to see how a difference in the presence of these factors can make such a huge moral difference. “Through systems biology, we are beginning to recognize how even a small change of one or a few genes can affect the entire downstream working of an enormous network of biochemical processes.” This may be true from a scientific point of view, but it represents a new meaning of the word potentiality, in a way this will lead quite predictably to further confusion and debate.

In fairness, it should probably be said that the public’s view of potentiality is based on a vague notion of an undetermined future, as when young people are routinely told that they have the potential to become whatever they want. This is clearly not what advocates of ANT or developmental biologists have in mind when they speak of the potential of zygotes or pluripotent cells. If there is a deeper reservoir of meaning that lies beneath the surface of the public’s view of potential, it is mostly likely grounded in the Aristotelian-Thomistic tradition which sees the potential of the embryo as an inherent power of the whole, possessed not in any part but only in the whole.

The key point to note here is that for the advocates of ANT, the biochemical part is the necessary and sufficient ingredient that determines the potency, ontological status, and moral worth of the whole. Again, Hurlbut: Speaking of the deliberations of the President’s Council on Bioethics, Hurlbut: “We had to ponder what potential capabilities and manifestations of form or function, endow a developing live with human value and inviolability. Similarly, we had to ask what lack of these qualities or capacities reduces a biologic entity to raw material, mere matter and information, to be instrumentally used for projects of the human will.14 Absent certain biochemical factors, such as specific transcription factors, an entity no longer has “human value and inviolability” but is “mere matter and information.” But if so, one wonders what specific bits, of “mere matter and information,” present or absent, can add or remove such lofty status, which by definition exceeds that upon which it is based.

The Rhetoric of Potentiality

To its proponents, nonetheless, ANT solves the public policy problem. Research goes forward without embryos being harmed. The task of selling this idea, however, is challenging, to put it mildly, especially in the context of the political rancor that has recently characterized elections in the U.S.

In a remarkably detailed and lucid address, former U. S. Senator Jim Talent (Missouri) separates these two meanings of “potential.” When he gave the speech, Talent was facing an election challenge over his restrictive views on human embryo research. In the speech, he announced that he was removing his name as a co-sponsor of a bill that would, among other things, ban any use of somatic cell nuclear transfer using human materials. Talent had recently been persuaded that ANT is morally acceptable, even though it uses SCNT. ANT, he suggests, is “a form” of SCNT in which the “somatic cell is altered prior to being transferred. The resultant entity would be capable of producing pluripotent stem cells but because of the preemptive alternations during the transfer process it would be incapable, from its creation, of the organization and developmental potential that are the defining characteristics of an embryo.”15 What ANT produces never has the “capacity to be considered a human embryo.”

Talent continues is greater detail: “The entity which ANT could create would produce pluripotent stem cells from a laboratory-constructed cellular source lacking the developmental potential of a human embryo….It renders moot the question of whether human life begins at creation or implantation of an embryo since the entity that ANT could create would not have at its inception the organizational and developmental capability to be considered a human life.”16 To back up this political and moral claim, Talent cites one of the leading scientific experts, Rudolf Jaenisch, who told a congressional committee that “Because the ANT product lacks essential properties of the fertilized embryo, it is not justified to call it an ‘embryo.’”17

It is clear to Talent himself that not everyone will agree and that some will think he is splitting hairs. After all, the product of ANT will look like the cloned embryo or the product of SCNT. It will have much of the same function as the product of SCNT. Looking at these similarities, Talent insists, is misleading, for “…it fails to account for the possibility, created by Altered Nuclear Transfer and some other alternative methods, that an entity may be ‘virtually identical’ to an embryo in the sense that it has a similar external appearance (and can seem to be developing as it divides) without ever possessing the inherent organizational capability to be rightly considered a human being.”18 How can that which is “virtually identical” to an embryo not be an embryo?

Non-Embryos, Pseudo-Embryos, and Sick Embryos

The rhetoric of ANT heats up with the suggestion that the entity created by ANT is not a “nonembryo” or a “virtual embryo” but is indeed a real embryo, a “sick” or “disabled” embryo at that, and it is deliberately made sick by scientists who want to exploit its extreme vulnerability. This attack, sometimes inappropriately vicious in its ad hominem tone, points to the slenderness of the distinction between the product of ANT and the product of SCNT. It is a criticism that has dogged the advocates of ANT since the beginning, when Hurlbut first proposed the topic for discussion before the President’s Council on Bioethics.

Reflecting on this debate, the President’s Council on Bioethics summarizes its rather tentative conclusions in its White Paper, published in 2005. “Hurlbut’s claim that his method would not yield a defective embryo rests on the fact that a genetic alteration sufficient to prevent embryogenesis is introduced into the nucleus before it is transferred to the oocyte, and that the alteration would be so fundamental that it would preclude the integrated organization that characterizes a human embryonic organism. If no embryo is created, then none is violated, mutilated or destroyed (which would be the case if the alteration were introduced after normal fertilization).”19 The Council, recognizing that t is is far from convin

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