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Systems biology
- Framing the Future: Embryonic Stem Cells, Ethics and the Emerging Era of Developmental Biology


This example of disorganized growth provides a window into an important new conceptual realm in the study of life. 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. Systems biology offers us the view of an organism as a living whole, a dynamic network that is more than the sum of its parts.

The very word organism implies organization, an overarching principle of unity, a cooperative interaction of interdependent parts subordinated to the good of the whole. As a living being, an organism is an integrated, self-developing and self-maintaining unit under the governance of an immanent plan. The philosopher Robert Joyce explains: "Living beings come into existence all at once and then gradually unfold to themselves and to the world what they already but only incipiently are." Joyce continues: "No living being can become anything other than what it already essentially is."(12) For an embryonic organism, this implies an inherent potency, an activated drive toward the mature human form. By its very nature, an embryo is a developing being, its wholeness is defined by both its manifest expression and its latent potential; it is the phase of human life in which the organismal whole produces its organic parts.

Such a conception of the biological organism transcends the ‘nothing but its parts’ of reductionism. It adds the understanding that a living being is not merely a mechanism but rather, a dynamic system, an interactive web of interdependent processes that expresses emergent properties not apparent in the biochemical parts. Within this dynamic self-sustaining system is the very principle of life, the organizing information and coordinating coherence of a living being. Just as a gyroscope falls when it ceases to spin, so at the moment of death something is lost to the organism. The intangible something that is lost is not the ‘vitalistic force’ or dualistic ‘soul’ of certain earlier formulations; rather it is what the new systems perspective adds to the picture–the robust self-regulation that is the defining character of a living being. It is this overarching harmony of the whole, its dynamic balance of being, that distinguishes an organism from the mere physio-chemical material of its parts. This inherent principle of organic unity, in turn, provides the physical identity and continuity (and therefore the moral continuity) of a human being from conception to natural death.

The new perspective of systems biology forms the intellectual grounding for appreciating the physical and moral difference between an embryo and an entity such as a teratoma. A teratoma is an inadequately constituted biochemical system, a partial trajectory of development with an inherent potential for only incomplete and unorganized growth. According to systems biology, the important distinguishing characteristic of an entity having only partial developmental potential is not the visible appearance of its temporary development, however ‘normal’ it may initially seem; rather it is the lack, at the molecular level, of the structure and organization necessary for an integrated system. With the full complement of coordinated parts, an organismal system subsumes and sustains the parts; it exerts a downward causation that binds and balances the parts into a patterned program of integrated growth and development. Incompletely constituted or separated from the whole, the parts, as subsystems of growth (cells, tissues and organs), may temporarily proceed forward in partial develop ment, but without the self-regulating powers of the organismal system they will ultimately become merely disorganized cellular growth. This distinction could provide the principle for the resolution of our current controversy over ESC research.

If we look back to the 19th and early 20th century and the disputes over vitalism, we may recognize the roots of our current conceptual dilemma. The biochemical description of fermentation established the fact that a cellular function previously assumed to be empowered by a mysteriously immaterial force (and therefore supposedly an inherent indicator of moral-spiritual meaning) could be manifest apart from the living cell. It seemed to follow that all of life is reducible to explanation in terms of physio-chemical description, mere matter and information. This idea increasingly distanced (and eventually disconnected) the moral from the material, relegating all moral reasoning to the realm of culturally constructed social tradition and then, finally, to purely personal belief. Amid the pluralism of opinion, however, such a deracinated and arbitrarily assigned foundation for moral valuation provides no compelling rationale for the authority of moral principle. Most specifically, this concept of the moral allows no naturally grounded, empirically recognizable connection between the intrinsic potency of the developing physical physical form and the moral standing of a living being.

This demotion of the moral, however, was really just an over-extension of the material within the limited terms of our physio-chemical description. Fermentation is not, in fact, the equivalent of life, but a partial and incomplete subsystem of life. Without endorsing forms of substantive vitalism it is important to reaffirm the unique organismal character of living beings. For just as correcting the error of vitalism led to positive progress through the investigation of life on the biochemical level, so, now, to open further avenues of scientific advance, the claims of reductionism need to be supplemented by a richer notion of organismic biology that takes account of embryology and a systems-theoretic perspective.

This conceptual shift is essential for both scientific understanding and advance in establishing the ethical principles that can sustain our scientific exploration. Just as ethical principles can be informed and refined by a fuller scientific understanding of the biological foundations of life, so, likewise, true progress in science need not be divorced from ethical considerations, and in the case of developmental human biology it seems inseparable from it. A proper ethical framework can set the principles that preserve a coherent moral understanding while defining the boundaries of these principles with a clarity and precision that opens avenues of advance for the whole future of developmental biology. Most specifically, by recognizing a distinction between the living whole and the biochemical parts (and partial trajectories of development), we may recognize how small changes in chemical composition can dramatically alter the intrinsic potential and, therefore, the moral meaning of a thing. Just as it was an error to consider chemical processes such as fermentation to be life itself, so also it would be an error to consider a teratoma, (or a similar laboratory construction) to be a living organism. Thus, according to this ethical analysis, there is no fundamental violation of moral principle in producing and using such laboratory constructs for the production of ESCs.

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