October 14th 2006

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY: COMMONWEALTH-STATE RELATIONS: Will Howard override WA on natural gas?

EDITORIAL: Bushfires: an ounce of prevention

CANBERRA OBSERVED: Behind the move to lift cloning ban

INTERNATIONAL TRADE: Farmers protests over free trade in Cairns

TRADE POLICY: Why WTO trade talks failed

STRAWS IN THE WIND: The decline of Labor, the fate of Smith Street, Blair's departure and the Regensburg Address

NATIONAL AFFAIRS: T3 sell-off will not end Telstra's woes

HOUSING: Urban planning is destroying the great Australian dream

FOREIGN AFFAIRS: North Korea's nuclear ambitions: is China really powerless?

ANTI-LIFE CAMPAIGN: The selective indignation of Senator Stott Despoja

OPINION: The case for optional preferential voting

BIOTECHNOLOGY: The ascent of Mount Improbable

The debt trap (letter)

The Pope and Islam (letter)

The Ice epidemic (letter)

BOOKS: LONDONISTAN: How Britain is Creating a Terror State Within, by Melanie Phillips

BOOKS: SCOURGE AND FIRE: Savonarola and Renaissance Italy, by Lauro Martines

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The ascent of Mount Improbable

by Brian Coman

News Weekly, October 14, 2006
Think of modern research in human biology as a journey up the slopes of a huge mountain - Mount Improbable.

Here, science has mastered all medical 'problems' - the human genetic code and every aspect of human physiology. There are limitless possibilities - indefinite prolongation of life, 'designer' babies, human-animal hybrids, bionic limbs, and computerised 'cyborgs'.

John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress, a great classic of English literature, is an allegorical tale of a soul's earthly journey towards the Celestial City.

Let's apply the same sort of allegorical approach to illustrate a very different sort of journey, at the very summit of the mountain is not the Celestial City but a sort of materialist heaven-on-earth.

The purpose of the journey is not to surmount the main peak because that is regarded by the climbers as being highly improbable, dangerous, and of doubtful merit. Rather, the purpose is merely to keep climbing up to ever higher altitudes, conquering minor peaks one after another.


Picture now our current-day laboratory researchers, far below the main peak of Mount Improbable at some base camp. As I have indicated, they have no intention of climbing up to the top. They insist that such a target is unrealistic and, in any case, unpopular with those who are supplying the money for the expedition.

They merely wish to reach the next staging camp where another research challenge can be ticked off the list. And when they get to that campsite, they will then set their sights on the next, and so on.

They have to climb because that is the job we have given them. If they decide to plant the flag on some lesser peak and pull out, then the research grants dry up, the media camp-followers desert them, and a once admiring public now ignores them. So, on they toil.

Nonetheless, at each new campsite a meeting is held amongst the climbers to determine whether an assault on the next peak should be attempted or not.

Sometimes the vote to continue is unanimous, but at other times there are dissenting voices and, as a compromise, a lesser and safer journey is agreed upon. Always, though, the climbers are moving to higher altitudes.

And then one day, to the immense surprise of everyone, they struggle up the last few feet of what they thought was just another minor peak and find that there is no land above them. They have conquered Mount Improbable without ever setting out to do so.

How accurate is this allegorical tale? We cannot really know the answer to this because the journey is still in progress.

We can, however, look back over the ground so far traversed and see how well our tale corresponds to the expeditioners' journal entries. Cast your mind back a couple of decades or so to that moment when the first in vitro fertilization experiments took place.

The researchers, when questioned about the ethics of this business, were unanimous in proclaiming that their research had only one limited and highly laudable aim - to help childless married couples. Any further uses were highly improbable.

In due course, the technology was mastered and childless, married couples were helped (so, incidentally were a lot of non-married folk and non-couples, but that's another story). But, of course, the conquest of that minor peak and the establishment of a new base camp then supplied the wherewithal for an assault on the next peak. And so on.

Ethical reviews

And what of these meetings at each staging camp? These are the government enquiries and reviews which purport to safeguard the whole journey. We may note that they never recommend that the ascent should be halted.

If the danger seems too great, then it is simply a matter of providing more safety gear and, perhaps, setting the sights on a peak of lesser magnitude. They are supremely confident in their ability to manage the dangers.

This outcome should not really surprise us because, after all, the meeting attendees are nearly all climbers. Not to climb would be unthinkable.

No cumulation of evidence detailing the risks will prevent this outcome because the climbers are supremely confident of their ability to provide the necessary safeguards and to choose their paths carefully.

Notice that this ability is entirely self-generated.

To put the issue in metaphysical terms, they have recourse to subjectivism in their ethics. Had they looked to an objective standard, operating outside and above mere human opinion, then the tent pegs might have been pulled up some time ago and the climbers put to work in other, more pressing areas of human need.

- Brian Coman

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