Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Donkey's tail

Once upon a time, US presidents could be wise men. I'm delighted by this conversation between Abraham Lincoln and a colleague:

Abraham Lincoln: Sir, how many legs does this donkey have?

Colleague: Four, Mr Lincoln.

Abraham Lincoln: And how many tails does it have?

Colleague: One, Mr Lincoln.

Abraham Lincoln: Now, sir, let's suppose we were to call the tail a leg. How many legs would the donkey then have?

Colleague: Five, Mr Lincoln.

Abraham Lincoln: No sir, for you cannot make a tail into a leg by simply calling it one.

If you test this tale about the donkey's tail among friends, you're likely to find out that the situation is not as clearcut as Abraham Lincoln (and I) believe it to be. Many people consider sincerely that, in certain cases, once it is said that X is Y, then X is indeed Y. In our modern societies, we're often required to see things in that way. For example, once a law court has concluded that an individual did in fact commit a certain crime, then everybody sees that decision, henceforth, as a statement of truth. In a more superficial domain, that of sport, once an umpire or a referee [I've never known the difference between these two terms] has determined that a ball is out, the players and spectators are required to consider, henceforth, that the ball was in fact out. In totalitarian societies, too, when a dictator says that something is the case, citizens are expected to act as if that something were indeed the case.

In the same way that somebody might wish to call a donkey's tail a fifth leg, individuals such as George W Bush, gifted with imagination rather than wisdom, are prepared to call an embryonic cell a potential human being. In my recent article entitled Red can be wrong [display], I evoked the invention of so-called reprogrammed pluripotent human cells, which should normally be able, in the near future, to replace embryonic stem cells in medical research. Kind observers have suggested that Bush, through his stubborn outlook on embryonic stem cells, should be credited retrospectively for creating the research context in which this invention was made... by force, as it were. To my mind, that's like thanking the donkey for the non-existence of its fifth leg.

Forgive me, Moshé, for making that silly comparison. I don't need to reassure you, my dear donkey, that you're far wiser than the current US president.

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