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News: June/July 2001

The Boys from St. Barnabas • Dutch opt for death on demand • Aristotle makes guest appearance in Dhaka • Chocolate shakes theory • Church warms to philosophy

First Genetically-Altered Human Babies Born

For the first time ever, human babies have been born with artificially-altered genes. This came about as an unintended side-effect of some human fertility experiments at the Institute for Reproductive Medicine and Science of St Barnabas, in New Jersey.

The experiments reported in April in the journal Human Reproduction involved taking genes from mitochondria in the eggs of donor women and adding them to the eggs of infertile women in the hope of curing their infertility. The treatment seemed to work well, and around 30 healthy babies were born as a result. However, DNA testing about a year later revealed that two of the babies had a small number of genes which appeared not to come from either parent. This isn’t expected to affect the development of the children in any way, but has raised concerns over ‘accidental’ alteration of the human genetic makeup.

Coincidentally, the Canadian government has just introduced a bill to ban human cloning and regulate assisted human reproduction. In the US, some members of Congress are also calling for a ban on human cloning; the New Jersey experiment may fall under that heading, though that is a matter of fierce dispute.

Aristotle Visits Bangladesh

In Dhaka, a group of philosophy enthusiasts have recently formed a society called the Aristotelian Society. Unlike the exclusively academic British society of the same name, its objective “is to popularise the study of philosophy. The society proposes to enroll both professional philosophers and amateurs, academics and non-academics and women and men from different walks of life who share an interest in philosophy.” The Aristotelian Society is based at B Block, Lalmatia, Dhaka. It is not Dhaka’s first popular philosophy initiative, however, as a study circle called the Dorshon Club has been operating for the last seven years. Its President, Dr Liaqat Ali, hosts weekly discussion meetings which over the course of a year work their way chronologically through the history of philosophy from the pre-Socratics to present, taking in Indian and Islamic philosophy along the way. The Dorshon Club is located at 7/A Paribagh.

Dutch Opt for Euthanasia

In April, after an extraordinarily heated debate, the upper house of the Dutch parliament voted to approve a law legalising euthanasia under strict conditions. The lower house had voted in favour by a large majority last year, but in the upper house the Christian Democrats and the Greens expressed concern that the measure could result in doctors and nurses opposed to euthanasia coming under pressure to assist in ending lives.

Holland has for years informally tolerated euthanasia provided that various safeguards were adhered to, but in theory the doctors involved could have been jailed. The new law makes Holland the first country in the world with legal euthanasia.

Reason In Practice

Have you ever wondered whether business judgements must be self-interested? Or whether there is a way to combine the aim of full employment with the need for meaningful work? A new academic journal has just been launched which aims to apply philosophical methods to the world of business management. Reason in Practice, edited and published by Nigel Laurie, has the subtitle ‘The Journal of Philosophy of Management’. Laurie told Philosophy Now that he was aiming for a readership including thoughtful practising managers in industry as well as the more theoretical types who inhabit business schools, plus philosophers. The new journal is off with a bang, organising a one-day conference at the London School of Economics on 22nd June. Those interested can find out more from Nigel Laurie at 01883 715419.

So What is Chocolate, Exactly?

At the Pacific Division meeting of the American Philosophical Association in March, one paper focussed on the definition of ‘chocolate’. At the request of chocolatiers in Belgium and France, the European Commission considered restricting the word ‘chocolate’ to the gourmet products of those countries and banning its use to describe the cheap vegetable-fat-laden products of Cadbury and Hershey. According to Mark Philpott of Stanford University, nobody would have taken any notice – our association of the word ‘chocolate’ with the bars we buy in the corner store is too strong to be changed. Philpott claims this poses a problem for the semantic theory known as ‘externalism’, which says that people rely on expert knowledge to help shape the definition of words. Meanings start in our heads but are then fixed and made more precise by the rulings of experts. However, Philpott believes his chocolate example shows that this isn’t the end of the story – that we then choose how much of the experts’ opinions to accept or reject.

Art Meets Philosophy

Kate Davis’ contribution to a recent art exhibition in Colchester, England, consisted of a white installation of 140 baguettes. What made her think of that? Philosophy! The artist has been doing research into the works of the neo-Kantian philosopher Hans Vaihinger, especially his ‘Philosophy of As If’, which was the inspiration for her art.

Music Meets Philosophy

Charlotte Church, the 15 year old singer from Cardiff launched to fame by her breathtaking voice, has told OK! magazine that she may not, after all, become an opera singer. She said that she is thinking of studying philosophy instead.

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