If it wasn’t for Jonathan Moreno, PhD, bioethicist and historian of science, I might never have heard about Clyven, “The First Transgenic Mouse with Human Intelligence.” This “hu-mouse” is said to be so intelligent that he’ll answer your questions at the Web site of RYT Hospital.
In the course of writing an article for Penn Medicine about Moreno, one of the Penn Integrates Knowledge professors, I learned it was going to be a challenge to keep up with him. He seems constantly to be accessing, integrating, and transmitting knowledge. And the knowledge ranges from the lofty to the arcane and humorous.
In addition to his most recent book, The Body Politic: The Battle Over Science in America (2011), Moreno was producing frequent commentaries and blog entries. Even before arriving at Penn in 2006, Moreno was a highly sought commentator for such TV and radio programs as ABC World News Tonight and NPR’s All Things Considered and Science Friday, and he was frequently quoted in the nation’s major newspapers and magazines. In his time as a PIK professor, he has not slowed his pace one bit. He has been interviewed by The Atlantic and is a regular contributor to The Huffington Post, where he can respond in a timely matter to many of the events and opinions of the day that fall into his range of expertise, and to Psychology Today. He has also posted for The Wall Street Journal.
Since I began working on my article, Moreno was named to another honored position, joining UNESCO’s International Bioethics Committee. In that period, he also spoke at least three times on the Penn campus. One such event was sponsored by Knowledge by the Slice -– i.e., of pizza –- a program of the School of Arts & Sciences, which made a valiant and fairly successful attempt to draw students and others to the lunchtime talk on one of the first warmish days of March. Then in May, a revised and updated edition of Moreno’s 2006 book Mind Wars: Brain Science and National Defense, was issued. The Guardian praised the updating for bringing “chilling news” of the latest projects of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and called Moreno “an excellent and authoritative guide.” (DARPA’s self-description has a bureaucratic chilliness: It was established in 1958 “to prevent strategic surprise from negatively impacting U.S. national security and create strategic surprise for U.S. adversaries by maintaining the technological superiority of the U.S. military.”)
In June, Coursera, which provides free online courses taught by leading university professors, announced that he would be giving a course in neuroethics in January. I’m assuming Moreno will tackle one of the crucial points he made in Mind Wars: Just as technologies that derive in some way from defense-funded projects are often open to dual use and can be used for the general good as well, so can discoveries in neuroscience be adapted for military use. Moreno also emphasized the responsibility of scientists to consider the social and ethical issues raised by their research.
As noted in the Penn Medicine article, the theme of The Body Politic is America’s love-hate relationship with science, from the nation’s very beginnings to the present day. Some Americans have been suspicious of science, its fruits, and its practitioners; others have sung its praises with enthusiasm; and still others have felt an uncomfortable ambivalence. As a PIK professor, Moreno is both a member of the Department of Medical Ethics and Health Policy in the Perelman School of Medicine and of the Department of History and Sociology of Science in the School of Arts & Sciences. With his wide range of interests and expertise, he is well suited to explore the particular strain of American history that is the subject of The Body Politic.
Moreno’s recent postings suggest that he continues to integrate knowledge enthusiastically. Topics have included “vaccine politics” and the impact it had in the early months of the Republican Presidential primaries; the widely differing views of what constitutes “personhood” and recent efforts by some conservatives to define it as including the embryo at the moment of conception; and the importance of a “frontier” in inspiring American progress and the possibility that a NASA manned mission to Mars might “save” American science from American politics. Moreno also commented on the firestorm over Plan B (also known as the “morning-after pill”), noting that Kathleen Sebelius, Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, overruled the recommendations of the Food and Drug Administration and its panel of scientists and denied over-the-counter access to the pill by girls under 17. That decision, noted Moreno, “is particularly awkward for an administration that early on pledged to ‘base our public policies on the soundest science’ and to be ‘open and honest with the American people about the science behind our decisions.’”
A more contemplative, somewhat less urgent piece noted the 80th anniversary of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Moreno described it not as “prophecy” but as “a kind of evidence-based thought experiment: considering where we are now, where might we go? Dystopically but realistically speaking, how bad might it get?” Then he mentioned that the question is a central one in America’s culture wars, as analyzed in The Body Politic. The following month, Moreno’s post was picked up by an unexpected organization, Turkish News Wires.
Not all of the knowledge Moreno examines and shares is of the same lofty nature. Moreno seems to deal very well with students and interested citizens. At public events, he knows how to keep things moving briskly and doesn’t hesitate to interject some humor. At the Knowledge by the Slice event, he contrasted American attitudes toward science. On one hand, the nation was in some ways “the child of the Enlightenment”; but the same nation also finds room for the Creation Museum, which is, according to Moreno, “basically the Flintstones in a diorama.” (The museum’s Web site notes, among other things, that the scenes include children and dinosaurs that “roam near Eden’s Rivers.” In April 2010, one month short of its third anniversary, the museum announced it had reached 1 million visitors.) A Gallup poll released in June underscores the division among Americans where science and religion are concerned: 46 percent of Americans polled believe in the creationist view that God created humans in their present form, within the last 10,000 years -– a view, notes Gallup, “that is at odds with the preponderance of the scientific literature.”
During that same presentation at Penn, Moreno touched on the increased use of rodents as models for human disease. He reported that scientists have grappled with the idea of creating a mouse with a “humanized brain.” Should that be permitted? Such a possibility horrified Gov. Bobby Jindall (Louisiana), who signed into law a bill prohibiting human-nonhuman hybrids. Penalties would include a seven-figure fine and 10 years of hard labor. It was in this context that Moreno introduced Clyven, “The First Transgenic Mouse with Human Intelligence,” who seems to have advanced far beyond initial conceptions. But Moreno went on to note that Clyven is hosted by RYT Hospital, which also claims to be the site of the first male pregnancy!
As it turns out, my subsequent encounter with Clyven was something of a disappointment. The Web site offers an opportunity to “chat” with Clyven by entering a word or phrase in a box. Using a tip from Moreno, I entered “girlfriend.” Immediately, there was a response: “My girlfriend’s name is Minnie. She is talented, beautiful, passionate, just all around lovely!” I was impressed by the exclamation point. I entered “how are you.” Again, an immediate reply: “I am feeling just fine thanks.” But when I entered other words or phrases, the results were less impressive.
John: Cheese Clyven: Please explain.
John: Mickey Mouse Clyven: What are you saying to me?
John: Football Clyven: What?
John: Lady Gaga Clyven: What do you mean by this?
John: Fraud Clyven: Huh?
Perhaps it is time to initiate a full-fledged journalistic investigation of Mr. Clyven and company.