Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Henrietta Lacks Soul

Theists have a problem with souls.

The problem is that they were invented in ignorant times when people knew nothing of the microscopic structure of the human body and very little about how it actually worked. It sort of made sense to think that there is another entity living inside our body giving it 'life' and somehow looking out at the world through the windows of our eyes.

And of course, since it is almost impossible to imagine oblivion where all memory has gone and no thoughts exist, it's tempting to think this thing lives on in some form outside the body when the body dies. Kinda comforting too for those who are afraid of death and especially for those who have nothing to aspire to and for whom the hope that this soul thing will experience something better offers a few crumbs of comfort.

The problem is that the theologians who sell this false hope and daft notion of something magic living inside us that will survive our own deaths and yet will somehow still be us, have never really managed to incorporate the idea into modern science and knowledge of things like neurophysiology, cell biology and the exact details of reproduction. One way they try to force fit the idea into modern biology is to assume that a new, unique 'soul' somehow enters a fertilised cell at the moment of conception, and that somehow this soul makes each person unique, even identical twins, though they have to ignore the fact that that would mean identical twins share the same soul. Theology rarely has a problem with believing two mutually exclusive things simultaneously.

It was so much easier when people didn't know about cells and how all humans start out as two already living cells which fuse together. They didn't need to bother with where exactly this soul lives. For example, it can't live in any one organ because until the ball of dividing cells has differentiated there aren't any organs. If the soul is present in the first cell, does it live inside cells? Well, it must do initially, presumably.

How about when there are two cells, or four, or eight? Does the soul stay in the cells getting divided up or is there some point at which the soul leaves the cells and takes up residence somewhere else?

So many questions and no real answers from theologians.

Henrietta Lacks (1920-1951)
And the problem is thrown into stark relief by the story of Henrietta Lacks.

Henrietta Lacks was an African American who died in Johns Hopkins Hospital, Baltimore, Maryland on 21 October, 1951 from cervical cancer but not before samples of her tumour were taken without her permission, ostensibly for biopsy but also for experimentation. The cells were found to do something not seen before - they could be easily cultured and continued to live and divide in a suitable culture medium. From a single cell from her tumour, a researcher, George Otto Gey, produced the 'immortal' human cell line known to the world as HeLa cells - the cells used by Jonas Salk to test his poliomyelitis vaccine which has saved millions from death and disability and which has come close to eradicating this once common and devastating illness.

I remember using HeLa cells when studying Applied Biology in about 1969. We were told the myth that HeLa stood for Helen Lane. Henrietta Lacks' family only became aware that there was something going on when researchers kept turning up at their doors asking for blood samples. A lucrative business had been developed culturing HeLa cells and supplying them to laboratories around the world, and Henrietta's children lived in abject poverty, knowing nothing about it.

Scanning electron micrograph of newly-divided HeLa cells
But now here's the problem for theologians and people who believe in souls, and that souls and 'life' are somehow inextricably bound up. If the cells aren't where the soul lives, where does it live before there are organs? If however, the soul does live in the cells, is Henrietta Lacks' soul still in these cells which live in myriads of test-tubes around the world, somehow divided up into myriads of little soulettes? The total weight of the immortal HeLa cells is estimated to be some 20 tons, far, far larger than the group of cells which initially made up the living body of Henrietta Lacks herself.

Did Henrietta leave a bit of her soul behind when she died and is this soul now far bigger than the one she took with her when she 'departed' this life for another one? If not, are HeLa cells not really living human cells, despite the fact that they behave just like normal living human cells behave and can be used for medical research with proven results such as the Salk Vaccine?

In short, how do HeLa cells fit in with the theological notion of a soul?





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3 comments :

  1. A soulful mess for the believer of hopeful outcomes and the eternal orgasm. Whenever, I see fervour among 'The Flock' as they seem happy to be referred as, I see the equivalent of 'A Teenager In Love'. Irrational but very entrenched.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Um...Cancer is the devil's creation, so cancer cells can't have any bit of soul in them? (Some religious person help me out here!)

    ReplyDelete
  3. Anti-abortion nutters in the US thrive on the confusion generated by the "soul" concept. Murder is immoral because it means killing a person, a self-aware entity. But if you claim that personhood is conferred not by self-awareness but by a "soul" which exists at the earliest stages, you can claim that abortion is murder and create a legal fiction which allows for Old-Testament-style regulation of women and punishment of taboo sex.

    Since Henrietta Lacks is dead, fundies presumably believe her soul has gone on to the afterlife -- but if they believe even mindless dividing cells in the womb have a soul, logically they should believe that part of her soul is still here. I'm sure if pressed they could come up with some rationalization for why that's "different". Anything but admit that the concept of the soul has been rendered obsolete by biological knowledge.

    ReplyDelete

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