Millennium Post

Obscurantism beyond tolerance

Bizarre statements to combine science with mythology showcase the irrationality being practised – with the scientific community silent about it

Obscurantism beyond tolerance

The statement of Andhra Pradesh University vice-chancellor G Nageshwar Rao at the Indian Science Congress in Jalandhar about the birth of Kauravas through stem cell transplantation needs a critical review. "We had hundreds of Kauravas from one mother because of stem cell research and test tube baby technology. It happened a few thousand years ago. This was science in this country," Rao had said.

It is important to review this statement from the perspective of history and modern medicine. Before going into other questions of rationality it is necessary that the scientific information about stem cells is reviewed.

As per the information on stem cells by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), US Department of Health and Human Services, scientists discovered ways to derive embryonic stem cells from early mouse embryos in 1981. The detailed study of the biology of mouse stem cells led to the discovery in 1998 of a method to derive stem cells from human embryos and grow the cells in the laboratory. These cells are called human embryonic stem cells. The embryos used in these studies were created for reproductive purposes through in vitro fertilisation procedures. When they were no longer needed for that purpose, they were donated for research with the informed consent of the donor. In 2006, researchers made another breakthrough by identifying conditions that would allow some specialised adult cells to be "reprogrammed" genetically to assume a stem cell-like state.

A stem cell is a basic unit from where many complex structures of the body develop. As the fertilisation of egg takes place, the newly formed cell starts to proliferate and form the embryo. In a 3-5 days embryo, which has about 150 cells, develop embryonic stem cells. These cells are basic raw material for the body. They can either keep on growing and dividing into further stem cells or may take up specialised functions. Stem cells are important for living organisms for many reasons. In the 3- to 5-day-old embryo, called a blastocyst, the inner cells give rise to the entire body of the organism, including all of the many specialised cell types and organs such as the heart, lungs, skin, sperm, eggs and other tissues. In some adult tissues, such as bone marrow, muscle, and brain, discrete populations of adult stem cells generate replacements for cells that are lost through normal wear and tear, injury, or disease.

Stem cells are distinguished from other cell types by two important characteristics. First, they are unspecialised cells capable of renewing themselves through cell division, sometimes after long periods of inactivity. Second, under certain physiologic or experimental conditions, they can be induced to become tissue or organ-specific cells with special functions. In some organs, such as the gut and bone marrow, stem cells regularly divide to repair and replace worn out or damaged tissues. In other organs, however, such as the pancreas and the heart, stem cells only divide under special conditions.

Thus stem cells research and its applications are a very complex issue developed only very recently. It needs a lot of further research for its application to be utilised for the benefit of the health of mankind.

We are yet to find evidence of such research and its applications anywhere in the world in the past. To talk of stem cells in ancient India when people used to wear wooden chappals "kharawans", ride the elephant (not even horse), used gadaas, spears and arrows as weapons, to expect them to use the highly complex advanced technology of stem cells is difficult to swallow. Such a statement shows either bankruptcy of mind, the irrationality of thinking or deceit in the effort to mix science with mythology. This could also be to please the masters for personal benefits. Whatever the reason, it has raised a serious question as to which way we are heading.

Some time back a similar statement was given by a retired judge of Rajasthan high court in which he had said that the peahen gives birth to the offspring when it licks the tears of the male peacock. What type of judgments this man would have pronounced can easily be deduced from this statement, which crossed all limits of irrationality.

When PM Narendra Modi while addressing a gathering of doctors and other professionals at a hospital in Mumbai said that in ancient India plastic surgery was so advanced that an elephant's head could be transplanted on a human body or "......Karna was not born from his mother's womb. This means that genetic science was present at that time. That is why Karna could be born outside his mother's womb," it was no matter to rejoice but it could be tolerated presuming that it was a gimmick by a politician to woo those who believe in such irrational ideas. Barring a few rationalists, the scientific community did not speak much about this illogical utterance.

But when such a statement comes from the mouth of an academic it is a very serious matter. Even a more serious matter of concern is that the medical and scientific community has not shown outrage over such obscurantist ideas being spread by those at the helm of affairs. It is time the medical associations came forward to condemn such irrational ideas before it is too late and the country is pushed into a medieval set of mind.

We have great respect and honour for our epics Ramayana and Mahabharata for their highlighting the contemporary value system, but to use them for political ends must be condemned.

(The views expressed are strictly personal)

Dr. Arun Mitra

Dr. Arun Mitra

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