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News: January/February 2007

Elephants recognize themselves in mirrors • Pope says ‘Feel free to disagree’ • Grayling launches offensive speech offensive — News reports by Sue Roberts

Philo Launches Academic Freedom Campaign

Philosopher and author A.C. Grayling has helped start a new campaign to defend unfettered freedom of enquiry in universities, including a ‘right to be offensive’. The group, Academics For Academic Freedom, has launched an online petition, which can be found on the camapign’s website at www.afaf.org.uk. It reads:

“We, the undersigned, believe the following two principles to be the foundation of academic freedom:

(1) that academics, both inside and outside the classroom, have unrestricted liberty to question and test received wisdom and to put forward controversial and unpopular opinions, whether or not these are deemed offensive, and

(2) that academic institutions have no right to curb the exercise of this freedom by members of their staff, or to use it as grounds for disciplinary action or dismissal.”

Elephants Pause for Reflection

What’s a girl to do when she discovers a large white cross on her forehead? In the case of Happy, an Asian elephant at the Bronx Zoo in New York, she raises her trunk and touches the cross on her mirror-image thereby passing a standard test known as the ‘mark test’. Happy’s response was on a par with those made when human children or great apes are presented with the test.

Happy, with her companions Patty and Maxine, were shown a very large mirror, and it was observed that after initial exploratory behaviour sniffing the mirror and looking behind it, the elephants took an increasing interest in their reflections. This led to each peering into its own mouth. There was no evidence of an elephant mistaking their reflection for that of another.

This self-recognizing trait is thought to relate to empathetic tendencies and the ability to distinguish oneself from others. The study was carried out by scientists from the Yerkes National Primate Research Centre, Emory University, and the Wildlife Conservation Society in New York.


What does the term ‘chimera’ conjure up for you? The fire-breathing monster of Greek mythology with the head of a lion, body of a goat and tail of a serpent? Or the biological version of a chimera – a mixed organism such as a cultivated plant consisting of two genetically different kinds of tissue as a result of mutation? British scientists are challenging the Human Fertilisation & Embryology Act 1990, which makes it illegal to mix human and animal eggs and sperm. They have submitted applications to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority to proceed with experiments which will involve fusing human cells with eggs from rabbits, cows and goats. They hope to benefit from an established exception, the ‘hamster test’, by which doctors are allowed to test the quality of human sperm by fertilising a hamster egg and then destroying it no later than at the two-cell stage.

The scientists’ aim is to create ‘chimeric’ embryos that would be 99.9% human and 0.1% animal in order to produce embryonic stem cells. Stem cells are known to be basic ‘building-blocks’ of the body and can develop into all other types of cells. If permission is granted, the embryos would be destroyed after fourteen days. At present human eggs are supplied by IVF patients, but as demand increases these are no longer sufficient. If given the go-ahead, Dr Stephen Minger of King’s College London hopes to use cloned hybrid embryos to create stem cells carrying the defects responsible for conditions such as Parkinson’s Disease and Alzheimer’s, thus facilitating research.

Opponents have expressed strong views; Josephine Quintavelle of Comment on Reproductive Ethics said: “This is abhorrent ... there is a basic human feeling that animals and humans do not mix in these areas. ” Calum Mackellar of the Scottish Council on Human Bioethics said “In this kind of procedure you are mixing at a very intimate level animal eggs and human chromosomes and you may begin to undermine the whole distinction between animals and humans.”

Pope Says He Could Be Wrong about Jesus

Pope Benedict XVI’s first book since his 2005 election has sparked controversy even before its Spring publication. Entitled Jesus of Nazareth, a Vatican spokesman said that “it is not a long encyclical on Jesus but a personal presentation of the figure of Jesus by the theologian Joseph Ratzinger, who has been elected Bishop of Rome.” In the foreword the Pope states that the book is “absolutely not” a work of Catholic doctrine, but rather the “expression of my personal research.” He continues “Consequently, everyone is free to contradict me. I only ask the readers that they read with sympathy, without which there will be no comprehension.” It is this statement that is proving controversial.

Many feel that a move by a Pope to open up their work to criticism or to separate their personal and public personas is a significant departure from normal procedure. Some critics have voiced their concerns that the Pope could not be both a free-thinking theologian and a leader of the Catholic Church. A professor of philosophy at Florence University, Luigi Lombardi Vallauri, is reported to have said, “It seems a coquettish thing to do to pretend there is a freedom of theology while knowing well that this theology rests on the shoulders of a Pope.” However, Professor Patrick Nold of Rome disputes that there is anything new or shocking in this distinction between the Pope’s public teaching and his personal opinion as a theologian. He cites the instance of John XXII (1316-34) who privately preached a series of speculative sermons on the beatific vision to his curia. Their content was subsequently declared unsound by the Church.

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