Monday, November 26, 2007

Red can be wrong

Everybody recalls the simple reassuring words of the 23rd Psalm of David, which I prefer in the old-fashioned language of the King James version:

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures:
he leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths
of righteousness for his name's sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley
of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil:
for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.

We have here a striking case of the celebrated ovine metaphor, which was later enhanced by the evangelist John.

The fundamentally awkward nature of the assimilation of Christians to lambs struck me dramatically when I settled down here in Gamone with a small flock of sheep, and started to participate regularly in the slaughter of lambs. Since then, whenever I run up against the Biblical shepherd metaphor, I'm reminded immediately of bloody and smelly sheep operations at Gamone. I think, for example, of the day I used my self-defense revolver to send a rubber marble through the skull of a young animal, which was an alternative to seeing it stunned mortally by the usual technique of a hammer blow delivered by the butcher. I think of all the plastic bags full of dirty fleeces, hoofs and guts that I've dragged down the slopes to burn. I think too of stacking dozens of packs of prime lamb in my freezer, followed by memories of countless excellent dinners at Gamone. Needless to say, these recollections have altered considerably, for me, the poetic charm of the ancient texts.

The words of the 23rd Psalm have even given rise to a popular song, which I heard hundreds of times on the radio during my childhood. Since then, I've often wondered why most people—at least in the English-speaking world—retain the number 23 associated with this poetic text. This number 23 reappeared later in my life, in Paris. For many years, I lived in a flat at 23 rue Rambuteau.

The surname of this 65-year-old ecclesiastic, André Vingt-Trois, means 23 in French. Apparently the identity of one of his paternal ancestors was unknown, so the authorities referred to him by a number, like a soldier or a prisoner. And that number became a surname. As a youth, André studied at the Henri IV lycée: the same school where I taught English for three years, back at the time I met up with Christine. In 1968, when Daniel Cohn-Bendit and his comrades were mounting the barricades in the Latin Quarter, André Vingt-Trois was studying for the priesthood at the seminary down in Issy-les-Moulineaux: the south-western suburb of Paris where I would be working, a few years later, as a scientific consultant for the research division of French Telecom. After his ordination in 1969, Vingt-Trois remained in Paris for three decades, before a stint as archbishop of the city of Tours, on the banks of the Loire. Today he's back in Paris as the archbishop of Paris. And last weekend, the pope made him a cardinal: that's to say, one of the major princes of the Roman Catholic church.

Unfortunately, this man has decided to intervene in a domain in which he knows no more, a priori, than the local grocer... if only there were still grocers in the parish of Notre-Dame de Paris: the use of human stem cells for medical research. Parading as a specialist in the fuzzy field referred to as bioethics, "Monsignor 23" has dared to denigrate France's great annual fund-raising event, coming up shortly: the Téléthon.

Now, if there's one thing I hate, it's narrow-minded religious fanatics who step outside their intellectual prison called Beliefs and Faith with the aim of attacking Reason and Science. The cardinal's obstruction of future medical research might well have been a tragedy. In fact, it's likely to be seen rather as a tragicomedy, for the silly man doesn't seem to have done his homework.

Two days before Vingt-Trois was awarded his red hat, international media announced that Dr Shinya Yamanaka of Kyoto University had taken less than a month to coax a banal cell from a woman's cheek into behaving as if it were an authentic embryonic stem cell. That's to say, this "doctored" cell was henceforth capable of developing into any of the 200 or so basic types of human cell. Consequently, medical researchers will be able to exploit such cells with no risk of being accused—by Vingt-Trois and his kind—of destroying human embryos. Cells of this kind [seen in the blue photo, above, from Kyoto] can be described as reprogrammed. To indicate that they can be made to evolve into any type of human cell, they are designated as pluripotent.

At practically the same moment that the Japanese researcher announced this extraordinary and exciting news, an American biologist named James Thomson, at the University of Wisconsin, revealed that his team had obtained similar results.

In the revolutionary fervor of May 1968, it's a pity that "Danny the Red" didn't think of trying to get the seminary at Issy-les-Moulineaux transformed into a scientific research institute...

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