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Archive for April, 2007

It is illegal in Canada to buy human eggs. The Assisted Human Reproduction Technology Act says:

No person shall purchase, offer to purchase or advertise for the purchase of sperm or ova from a donor or a person acting on behalf of a donor.

This is not a trivial criminal offense. The maximum penalty upon conviction is a $500,000 fine and 10 years imprisonment. Compare that with the maximum penalty of 5 years for infanticide, proscribed in s.237 of the Criminal Code.

Even so, CBC News is finding this isn’t a deterrent. Women are selling their eggs, and being paid $5,000 to $7,000 for each harvesting procedure. This is similar to CTV’s coverage of the story one year ago. Both of these exposés rely on anecdotal stories and anonymous interviews, as well as experts’ concerns about the lack of enforcement. We are left to imagine how this, and expectations of minimal medical risk, entices more than just a few women to pay off student loans.

To those women in Canada who sell their eggs, here is this timely reminder: when you file your taxes today, you need to claim any sales of your eggs. According to the Canada Revenue Agency, the proceeds of crime are taxable.

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I’ve just finished Ghost Map, a book by Steven Johnson. It tells the fascinating story of John Snow, a doctor who mapped the 1854 cholera outbreak in London, and used his results to identify the Broad Street pump as the source of the disease. Those maps can be found here, and a short video interview with Johnson about his book.

A modern equivalent can be found in the use of Google Maps to chart illness on the Who is Sick website. (Hat tip to BoingBoing.) You can see the same idea implemented at Pandemic Watch, although it has no content.

This idea might be familiar to those who read this Nature article, which uses Google Earth to chart the avian flu. As the article is locked behind a paywall, here’s a link to a description of the project.

According to a EurekAlert press release today, a more recent venture maps the H5N1 virus with more detail.

The researchers used the novel technology to chart the spread of H5N1 through Asia, Indonesia, the Middle East and Europe by various hosts, including its transport by specific orders of birds and mammals… They also used the supermap to track key genetic traits prevalent in some avian flu genomes that appear to confer the ability of H5N1 to more readily infect mammals, including humans, he said.

The title of the paper is not mentioned, and the journal is behind a paywall, so I offer instead a link to a webcast about the results. Particularly impressive is the use of data from National Institutes of Health within the map.

Up next, perhaps a Google Outbreak for bees: could apiculturists (bee-keepers to the rest of us) charting Colony Collapse Disorder help solve the mysterious disappearance of bees?

Update: Effect Measure now posts on this.

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Writers with the New York Times have a strange sense of priority. A story about Peter Braunstein, a man who has admitted to posing as a firefighter to enable a vicious sexual assault, begins with a critique of his writing skills:

His prose was dense, sarcastic, with intellectual overtones.

That aside, the article is a fascinating look at how a lawyer is using neuroscience to deflect criminal responsibility from his client.

The defense has conceded that he committed the crime, and is working on a risky defense that will combine traditional psychiatric testimony with the burgeoning field of “neurolaw,” which holds that there is a biological basis for behavior.

With a free subscription, you can read the full article, Disease Drove Sex Attack, Defense Says.

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In an earlier post about the Clean Internet Act, I connected legal constraints on Internet Service Providers with the Wayne Crookes lawsuit against websites with defamatory user-generated content. Both would impose legal duties on intermediaries to police the data going through their tubes. As you might guess, this creates a problem for large websites which have gained popularity by publishing third-party content – Flickr, Youtube, Google, Technorati, Wikipedia, Facebook, blog hosts and bloggers are all threatened by this legal development.

For some expert opinion, look to Michael Geist’s blog post on the Crooke case. It links to his column Law Bytes, where he says:

If successful, the suits would effectively require websites – including anyone who permits comments on a blog or includes links to other sites – to proactively monitor and remove content that may raise liability concerns.

For a more academic treatment of these issues, see Elizabeth F. Judge’s paper Cybertorts in Canada: Trends and Themes in Cyber-Libel and Other Online Torts.

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Personhood is a foundational concept in ethics, but after centuries of philosophical debate there is still no consensus about what counts as a person. One consequence of this is that debates in bioethics get hung up on definitions of personhood, a concept closely linked to the similarly troublesome notion of ‘human dignity’.

Since conceptions of personhoood tend to rely on human mental capacities (rationality, intelligence, language, self consciousness), it is reasonable to ask the question: Can neuroscience give us criteria for personhood?

For an answer, lets turn to January’s inaugural issue of AJOB-Neuroscience (Volume 7, Issue 1, 2007). Every year, three issues of the American Journal of Bioethics are now devoted to neuroethics, and the first one has a target article making a dramatic claim: There is no such thing as personhood, and neuroscience proves it.

… instead of naturalizing the concept of personhood by identifying its essential characteristics in the natural world, neuroscience may show us that personhood is illusory, constructed by our brains and projected onto the world.

This is stunning stuff, and attracted a lot of criticism in the journal’s commentary. I’m still digesting their claims, but here’s how I break down their argument. Let me know if I stray…

  1. We are hard wired to distinguish persons from non-persons. One set of brain regions represents properties of persons, while another set represents properties of non-persons. This innate behaviour does not rely on us observing a real distinction between persons and non-persons.
  2. In sorting out persons from non-persons, our brains often get it wrong. More generally, our brains sometimes identify natural kinds where there are none.
  3. This means the person/non-person distinction is just in our heads, not in the world. Persons and non-persons are not natural kinds. Instead, “personhood is a kind of illusion.”
  4. Moral theories relying on objective criteria for personhood should be abandoned.

Isn’t that a coincidence. I posted about natural kinds just a few days ago: in Are emotions natural kinds? I referenced work suggesting emotions such as love, hate, and anger were not natural kinds. As this might indicate a trend, I offer the following by way of a public service announcement:

Warning to philosophers: Neuroscience doesn’t like natural kinds.

(And now, back to our regularly scheduled philosophical analysis…)

While I’m sympathetic to the author’s premises, I have a hard time getting to their conclusion. It seems a bit of a stretch to go from “brains do a poor job of distinguishing persons from non-persons” to “there is no such distinction in the real world”.

In an incidental way, Faran and Heberlein address this point in their reply to commentators when they say their analysis is mostly about demonstrating we should not assume we have intuitions about personhood because it exists as a natural kind in the world. Fine. Absence of a causal connection between reality and intuitions noted. But if this is all, why make strong statements about personhood being an illusion?

It also seems a bit odd to ground this argument in evidence that our brains are not good at sorting persons from non-persons. If these are not natural kinds, how are we to know when the brain gets it wrong? Are we just talking about using an uncontroversial baseline relying on everyone’s opinion about what is and is not a person? Perhaps my view isn’t nuanced enough, so mention your thoughts in the comments if my confusion on this point is grounded in an error that should be obvious.

For a journalist’s take on this, pop over to Reason Magazine’s Are Persons Just an Illusion?, wherein Ronald Bailey makes the mistake of confusing persons with personhood when he concludes:

In the end, Farah and Heberlein are wrong, persons are as real as mountains, diseases, weeds, pets and daylight.

(Hat tip to Pure Pedantry for mention of the Reason article).

It would be a good idea to remember this is not about denying persons exist and are not plants. This is about denying the existence of a unique set of characteristics which together make up personhood.

For more discussion of this article, here’s the list of open peer commentaries:

  • Banja, J. (2007) Personhood: Elusive but not illusory. American Journal of Bioethics (AJOB-Neuroscience) 7:1 , pp. 60-62.
  • Blackford, R. (2007) Differing vulnerabilities: The moral significance of Lockean personhood. American Journal of Bioethics (AJOB-Neuroscience) 7:1 , pp. 70-71.
  • Bufford, C. and Allhoff, F. (2007) Neuroscience and metaphysics (redux). American Journal of Bioethics (AJOB-Neuroscience) 7:1 , pp. 58-60.
  • Churchland, P. S. (2007) The necessary-and-sufficient boondoggle. American Journal of Bioethics (AJOB-Neuroscience) 7:1 , pp. 54-55.
  • Fins, J. J. (2007) Border zones of consciousness: Another immigration debate? American Journal of Bioethics (AJOB-Neuroscience) 7:1 , pp. 51-54.
  • Glannon, W. (2007) Persons, metaphysics and ethics. American Journal of Bioethics (AJOB-Neuroscience) 7:1 , pp. 68-69.
  • Grey, W., Hall, W. and Carter, A. (2007) Persons and personification. American Journal of Bioethics (AJOB-Neuroscience) 7:1 , pp. 57-58.
  • Meghani, Z. (2007) Is personhood an illusion? American Journal of Bioethics (AJOB-Neuroscience) 7:1 , pp. 62-63.
  • Meyers, C. (2007) Personhood: Empirical thing or rational concept? American Journal of Bioethics (AJOB-Neuroscience) 7:1 , pp. 63-65.
  • Nelson, J. L. (2007) Illusions about persons. American Journal of Bioethics (AJOB-Neuroscience) 7:1 , pp. 65-66.
    Perring, C. (2007) Against scientism, for personhood. American Journal of Bioethics (AJOB-Neuroscience) 7:1 , pp. 67-68.
  • Phelps, E. A. (2007) The neuroscience of a person network. American Journal of Bioethics (AJOB-Neuroscience) 7:1 , pp. 49-50.
  • Racine, E. (2007) Identifying challenges and conditions for the use of neuroscience in bioethics. American Journal of Bioethics (AJOB-Neuroscience) 7:1 , pp. 74-76.
  • Roskies, A. L. (2007) The illusion of personhood. American Journal of Bioethics (AJOB-Neuroscience) 7:1 , pp. 55-57.
  • Saghoff, M. (2007) A transcendental argument for the concept of personhood in neuroscience. American Journal of Bioethics (AJOB-Neuroscience) 7:1 , pp. 72-73.
  • Farah, M.J. & Heberlein, A.S. (2007) Response to Open Peer Commentaries on “Personhood and Neuroscience: Naturalizing or Nihilating?”: Getting Personal The American Journal of Bioethics (AJOB-Neuroscience) 7:1 , pp W1–71. [correspondence]

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