The Briefing, Albert Mohler

Thursday, October 20, 2022

It’s Thursday, October 20, 2022.

I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part I

‘Blow on a Rat's Whiskers and the Human Cells on the Opposite Side of its Brain Light Up.’: Stanford University Research Lab Successfully Injects Human Brain Cells into Rats’ Brains

Thinking biblically, operating, thinking out of a Christian worldview often comes down not only to making correct affirmations, but making correct distinctions. One of the most interesting issues about Genesis 1, and this continues throughout the scripture, it’s just so plain in the scripture’s first chapter, Genesis 1. It’s just so interesting to see how much attention in the literary structure of that text is given to distinctions. The distinction between the heavens above and the earth beneath, the distinctions between the dry land and the sea, the distinctions between the animals that are created for God’s glory along with the rest of creation and human beings made in God’s image. And then of course, there is the distinction between male and female, absolutely central to understanding a biblical worldview.

But as we’re thinking about the distinctions that are revealed in scripture and in particular, even in Genesis 1, we understand that some of the most vexing issues facing us today are efforts to try to deny those distinctions or to confuse those distinctions. Now interestingly enough, a major issue related to those distinctions, the distinction in particular between animals and human beings. One of the most interesting issues right now is the use of animal and human tissues in medical research or in scientific or biological research. But it’s almost always packaged as medical research because the rationale given for these experiments is that somehow they might lead to therapeutic interventions and treatments for vexing human diseases and syndromes. So the argument is, it is worth it to test these boundaries because there just might be an efficacious of very productive medical breakthrough that will come by means of the experiment of combining animal and human tissues, animal and human cells, or as is the frontline case right now, putting human brain cells into other animals.

Now, right now, the most important other animal into which human brain cells are being inserted are rats. Now if that shocks you, the reason why rats are being used right now is because, well, number one, it’s not considered unethical under many conditions to conduct medical experiments on rats. Secondly, rats are small and they develop very, very quickly. One of the problems in working with other animals is that their gestation and their physical development take a very long time, not so with rats. Rats are the sprinters when it comes to physical development. Now, it’s also really interesting that a major report on this ethical issue has appeared in a frankly unlikely place. That place is in the editorial section of USA Today.

USA Today is a very liberal newspaper, but it doesn’t often go in depth into this kind of issue. There has to be some reason why this article appeared in yesterday’s print edition of USA Today. Karen Weintraub is the author of the article, and the headline sounds more like a scientific journal than USA Today, “Ethical questions loom for lab rats with human cells.” Now, it just so happens that one of the most influential journals in the world of science, that is the journal Nature, has also run some articles as well as reports on research coming from the lab of Dr. Sergiu Pasca.

The USA Today report begins this way, “In Dr. Sergiu Pasca’s research lab at Stanford University, the resident rats have clumps of human cells in their brains.” Now, listen to this. Frankly, it’s really interesting, “Blow on a rat’s whiskers and the human cells on the opposite side of its brain light up.” Again, let’s just hear that sentence. You probably weren’t expecting it today on The Briefing, “Blow on a rat’s whiskers,” Something, by the way, I doubt you have ever done, “and the human cells on the opposite side of its brain light up.” Now, that really is interesting. Then the article continues, “Teach a rat that it can get water from a spigot only when it’s human cells are activated, and it will learn how in about two weeks. It’s proof,” Pasca said. Again, this is the researcher, Sergiu Pasca at Stanford University. “It’s proof,” he says, “that the human cells have integrated into its brain,” that is into the rat’s brain, “and are performing an important function.” But then USA Today telling us that the research has been published in the journal Nature tells us that the reports are “both significant and ethically challenging.”

Now, that’s absolutely right. We’re looking at a revolution in human biology and we’re looking at biomedical research that quite frankly only could have been imagined in the world of science fiction just a matter of a couple of generations ago. Back in the period of the 1960s and into the 1970s, scientists began to be concerned about breakthroughs in medicine that could lead to treatments, experiments, and even routine medical procedures that would clearly violate some of the distinctions that medicine had been making as a profession for a matter of centuries. And again, let me just remind us that many of those distinctions were explicitly based on the distinctions revealed in Scripture.

They understood even then that the motive at first would be packaged as the breakthrough in medical treatments that many people are praying for. This would lead to, it is promised, treatments for diseases like Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, many other diseases. Alzheimer’s disease is one that’s right now, of course, at the forefront. The argument is often made, it’s a pragmatic argument. That if there is even an opportunity for some kind of breakthrough treatment that could come by this kind of research, then we ought to put aside all of our ethical reservations about mixing humans and animals and even the cells of humans and animals, the organs of humans and animals in medical research. We need to put those qualms, those concerns away and find out if this just might produce some kind of productive or effective medical treatment.

But of course, that’s what Christians have to understand that, that kind of utilitarian or pragmatic argument comes with grave moral dangers. Because if you’re going to use that argument, you could use it to justify just about anything. And by the way, the history of medical research in the modern age indicates that someone somewhere is indeed likely to make that very argument, doing things that are clearly unethical. And furthermore, there’s another motive, we just have to face this, and that is the profit motive. And that profit motive means that there are billions of dollars being pumped into medical research. Because if you can trademark, if you can get a patent, most particularly on your particular version of medical research, your product, your treatment, your procedure, well then, you are talking about potential for tens of billions of dollars of revenue for your company or note this, your institution. That’s why so many major American universities are heavily invested in this kind of research.

But that also implicates a third rationale, a third motivation we have to watch. And that is the pride of having something named for you, a procedure. In surgery, this is rather common. This procedure or that procedure. It’s also common in terms just of the awards that are given. There’s a Nobel Prize that is often given for fields related to just this kind of research.

So as you’re looking at this, you recognize there are all kinds of motivations that come into play. Christians understanding the fallenness of human nature, and thus the evidence of human sinfulness understand that those motivations can often lead us into ethical rationalizations and frankly, immoral activities. But at the same time, Christians understand that those motivations can also be a rightful part of the dominion mandate, of our response to seeking to manipulate nature in the right way to try to bring about good things, such as irrigating a field that had been dry or constructing a house in which people can live. Or yes, in one sense, splitting an atom in order to release energy.

Medical research can fall in that same category. It’s certainly a right and good thing. Just consider this. We should be thankful for the development of modern antibiotics. But at the same time, even when you look at modern antibiotics, all these motivations and all the distinctions that are necessary, they remind us that even those pharmaceuticals are often laden with ethical complexity. Christians need to be the people who understand that it’s true and understand why.

But as I began, I expressed appreciation to USA Today for giving this prominent reporting in the print edition of their newspaper because there’s a lot of space devoted to this story, about a half page in the print edition, just a little less. That means that USA Today is taking a risk in bringing this story to the attention of the American people. I’ve also looked at the article as published in the academic journal, Nature, and USA Today raises the right issues.

For instance, the paper tells us this, “Brain conditions such as autism and schizophrenia do not naturally occur in rodents, and scans don’t reveal enough about human brain cells in action so they aren’t well understood or treated.” Fascinating line comes from Dr. Pasca. He said this, “The human brain has certainly not been very accessible, which has precluded the progress.” He means progress in medical research. But you know, there’s really something to that. There’s something deeply biblical whether he recognizes it or not, to understanding that the human brain is not really accessible. Now, he means accessible to medical research, and we understand why that’s true in ethical terms, but it’s also beyond our understanding. The human being is in the end and always will be to a considerable extent, we are a mystery to ourselves.

Dr. Pasca went on to explain, “Building human models that are not invasive of the human brain is one of the most promising avenues in trying to tackle these conditions.” Now at face value, Christians operating from a biblical worldview can understand and even concede part of his point. We can’t invade the human brain the way it is ethical to conduct research upon lab rats or rodents. But the reason this is a news article and the reason why there’s a headline in this case is because we’re not just talking about experiments on the brains of rats. We’re talking about experiments in which human brain cells are being put into rats and with effect.

Now, by the way, even before we get to these cells and before we get to the rat, much less blowing on the rat’s whiskers, the reality is that just the use of the term stem cells, it reminds us of the fact that even the derivation of these cells is often unethical from the viewpoint of scriptural Christianity. Because in so many cases, it really means creating a human embryo in order to remove the stem cells which destroys the human embryo. Just consider what that means from a pro-life Christian biblical ethic. But that issue’s not even raised here. The issue of stem cells is cited as required for this research. But the big issue is the development of what has classically been called a chimera.

Now, as you think about ancient Greek mythology, think of the centaur and understand that a chimera is a human-animal hybrid. Now, of course, it was entirely imaginary back in the classical age. It really does require the development of something like modern embryology and stem cell research to make this possible. And of course, this isn’t by means of some kind of reproduction. This is by the means of scientifically inserting human brain cells into the developing brain of a rat. That gets us back to the brain and the whiskers.

Now, one of the things we need to watch here is that we will see the claim made repeatedly that this kind of research is being carried out only under the strictest of rules and adequate supervision and protections put in place. We are, after all, talking about an institution with the kind of reputation that is invoked with the words Stanford University. But at the same time, here’s what we need to understand that in so many of these areas of scientific research, it’s basically the scientists who are self-policing. They’re coming up with their own ethical boundaries and guidelines. And we simply need to note, they have changed radically over the course of the last several decades. What a previous decade of scientists said that would be clearly unethical, well, it’s being conducted now. What was science fiction in the past is now modern medical or biomedical research.

There’s something else for us to watch. Just a few months ago in The Briefing, we talked about the fact that a Chinese doctor had carried out research that clearly broke all of the rules. In this case, actually leading to the birth of a human baby. And of course, when you’re dealing with that, you’re dealing with breaking rules in virtually every country. And by the way, that included even China. And the scientist, China being China, was not so much brought up on investigation as disappeared.

Part II

We Can Inject Human Brain Cells into the Brains of Rats, But Should We? — The Ethical and Theological Dilemmas of Injecting Human Cells Into Other Species

And that leads to another horrifying argument that you need to be ready for. The argument is like this, if we don’t conduct this research here under the tightest conditions of ethical consideration and oversight, then it’s going to be done elsewhere without that kind of consideration and oversight. What’s not often said is that there are Western companies saying, “Look, if we don’t do this first and get it patented, someone else somewhere else will.”

The USA Today article tells us that in his research, Dr. Pasca “inserts clumps of human brain cells, he calls them organoids or assembloids, into a rat brain. About one third of the mouse cortex consists of human cells. By using cells from typical brains in some rats and cells from people with brain conditions into others, he can see what’s different.” Now, again, we just need to note what’s going on here. We’re talking about something like a third of the rat’s brain cells now being human cells. There you have a chimera, a human-animal combination. And you might say, “Well, you’re just talking about a few brain cells or a few thousand brain cells. You’re not talking about something that’s going to look like a human-rat combination.” But that’s the point, isn’t it? Now, at the level of stem cell research and this level of biomedical research, you are looking at the fact that you might not recognize a chimera when you see one. That raises another fundamental issue.

It is not articulated this way in the USA Today research, but it is elsewhere. The question is this, just what percentage of a brain must consist of human brain cells before that is a human brain? 30%? What about 35%, 40%? What about 70%? What if the majority of the rat’s brain is made up of human brain cells? Is that now a rat or is it a human being? Is it a rodent or is it a man or a woman?

Near the conclusion of the USA Today article, the issue of the insertion of human brain cells into other forms of animals is raised. Now, for example, Dr. Pasca says that he thinks it would be wrong to transfer human brain cells obtained by stem cell research into the brains of a primate. Why? Because the primate is so much more similar to us genetically. As you’re looking at something like a gorilla and orangutan, just consider the fact that if you’re talking about putting human brain cells in that kind of animal, you’re getting closer, at least the way scientists count it, to the human species.

Now, of course, we as Christians understand there is still an absolute distinction between human beings and every other species. We understand that genetically there’s much more overlap between human beings and primates than between human beings and rodents. But you’ll notice here Dr. Pasca, who insists that he’s been conducting this research for years, combining human brain cells and the brain cells of rodents. He says, “That’s acceptable.” But he says he thinks an ethical boundary would be crossed if the brain cells were put into another species, particularly a primate. So here’s the issue Christians understand. Well, just how long do you think researchers are going to hold back because of Dr. Pasca’s concern here? Someone’s going to make the very same argument he’s making now to justify doing the very research he says shouldn’t be done.

Now, this raises an issue as we conclude this section of The Briefing, our consideration of this issue, we just need to remind ourselves that the Christian worldview does actually make distinctions in such a way that it is absolutely necessary at times to say, “We just can’t do that kind of research.” We hope for treatments for those diseases, we hope for all kinds of new medical procedures and treatments to be developed, but not by any means possible. And we just have to recognize that supposedly modern Western medical ethics came face to face with that fact in the Nazi medical experiments, which after all were not entirely unproductive and said, “Look, there are certain lines we can’t cross.”

But one of the facts we see right now is that in medical research and in this sense, it’s just a parable of human life, isn’t it? In medical research, there are so many motivations, there are so many reasons to say, “Okay, that is a line we won’t cross.” And then come back rather shortly and say, “Okay, let’s redraw that line, then let’s redraw it again.” And before you know it, you are looking at the fact that you’re not blowing on the whiskers of a rat, but we’re talking about research of an entirely different category, or is it?

Part III

In Red States, Islands of Blue are Growing Larger and Bluer: What the (Older) Californians Moving to Texas and (Younger) Texans to California Could Indicate About the Future of Our Society

But now, we’re going to talk about how moral change takes place say, in a society like the United States. We’re a free society, which means that people are free to move from one state to another. People can move from New York to New Jersey, but even more interestingly, they can move from New York to Miami. They can move from Montana to California or from California to Idaho. But there are patterns of migration and relocation now in the United States that once overlaid would say, the map of red blue America indicates some really interesting developments.

One of those got the attention of the Los Angeles Times. And by the way, the reason it has the attention of the Los Angeles Times is that in the 2020 census, California for the first time, lost net population and actually lost a seat in the House of Representatives. Now, that has California’s attention, but by the way, let me tell you what hurts California more than losing a congressional seat, losing the tax revenue from people who are moving from California somewhere else.

Now, as you look at that pattern of immigration, where are they moving? Well, indeed, many of them are moving to Idaho. So much so that people in Idaho are now moving into Western Oregon in order to get away from the people who moved from California to Idaho. But there’s a really big story here that tells us a lot about what’s going on in the United States and how these population shifts become part of the moral shifts in our nation, and that is net immigration from the State of California to the State of Texas. But wait just a minute, how much net immigration is there from California to Texas? Well, as it turns out, there is quite a bit of immigration. There are a lot of folks leaving California and moving to Texas.

Now, if you ask Texas Governor Greg Abbott why that’s so, he’s likely to say it’s because of the more conservative nature of Texas, of the libertarian ethos of Texas. People who are tired of the regulatory state there in California, they are likely to want to be liberated from that kind of society. They want to move to Texas, big Texas, red Texas. We can understand that. But at the same time, many analysts at the national level say, “No, it’s actually easier to understand.” It is because so many businesses that would attract California-like people are exploding in terms of their business models in Texas, think particularly of the new Silicon Valley there associated with Austin, Texas and going around the university system there in Texas. But others are saying, “No, you don’t even need that in order to explain this pattern of immigration from California to Texas. The bottom line is taxes, California taxes, high, Texas taxes, low.”.

And so it’s not accidental that a good number of the people moving from California to Texas are very wealthy people who have all kinds of economic reasons to leave the Golden State in order to go to the Lone Star State. Lots of things to consider here.

An article that appeared in the Los Angeles Times just in recent days by Richard Parker suggests that the picture is actually more complicated than that, and it is more complicated. The report’s actually very interesting because we are told that if Texas expats who arrived in California since 2000 had their own city, it would be close to the size of San Jose, about a million people. So are Californians moving to Texas or are Texans moving to California? The answer is yes, but it’s disproportionate because those who are moving from Texas to California are overwhelmingly young. And those moving from California to Texas are by a considerable measure, on average older. Now, that’s really interesting, and it tells us something that should awaken cultural conservatives in the United States to a fundamental issue, a fundamental challenge. And that is the fact that so many young people from more conservative states are for any number of reasons, relocating to more liberal cities, cities such as New York in the east, cities such as Los Angeles, San Jose, San Francisco, the Silicon Valley in the west.

Okay, in moral and political terms, what are we looking at here? Well, here’s one dimension. The people moving from California to Texas, they tend to keep voting as if they live in California. That is to say they voted blue in California, they’re tending to vote blue in Texas. Meanwhile, the younger Texans have moved to California. Arguably, they become more blue and less red by relocating to a far more socially progressive or morally liberal society. So why is that a challenge for cultural conservatives in the United States? It is because as we think about the future of the culture, we are looking at a rising tide of progressivism among the young. And even as you look at a solidly red state, at least in terms of recent decades like Texas, you’ll notice that the islands of blue are growing both larger and bluer. You’re now talking about the city of Dallas being in so many ways more a blue and at best purple region in terms of its voting and moral patterns.

And you’re looking at Austin, well, some people in Texas actually call it the People’s Republic of Austin. It’s blue, it’s getting bigger, it’s getting richer, it’s getting more powerful, and it’s growing bluer. Texas, at least in Democratic hopes, would be moving into the purple category, and that’s certainly true as you look at population trends. The blue areas of Texas are fast growing, but so are the political tensions. Just think of the back and forth between California’s Governor Gavin Newsom and Florida’s Governor Ron DeSantis. Now, there’s not a big pattern of immigration between Florida and California, probably because of the distance, and you’re not really moving between one of those two states primarily because of the climate.

Now, there is more than has been the case in the past, but you are looking at competition for political influence in the United States. And in that sense, Florida is growing. Arguably, California is declining. But just look at the taunting that has come from Governor Newsom in California towards Governor DeSantis in Florida, and frankly, back in the other direction as well. It is because finally for today’s edition of The Briefing, the future of the country is either likely to be more like California or Texas, more like California or Florida. And just about everybody understands that the answer to that question will come with huge consequences, and those consequences won’t be limited to those three states.

No, those consequences will affect all 50 states, and that’s why citizens everywhere in the United States should be watching this pattern closely.

Thanks for listening to The Briefing.

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I’m speaking to you from Washington, D.C., and I’ll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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