Lab-Grown Human Brains Show Brain Waves, Igniting Ethics Controversy

mini-brains showed neural activity similar to human fetuses

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

Sentient human brain tissue has been developed in labs, risking ethical breaches, The Guardian reported. Neuroscience has advanced by leaps and bounds in the last several decades, leaving scientists asking: Where do morals and cloning overlap?

Digital brain concept hovering over hand
Interest in growing mini-brains in the lab derives from prohibitive experimentation on live human brains to find cures for various illnesses. Photo by Tiko Aramyan

According to the article in The Guardian, small human brains that were grown from stem cells have “developed spontaneous brain waves” that are “similar to those seen in premature babies.” The immediate ethical concern with these so-called “organoids” is that scientists have grown a primitive life form that could be self-aware and suffering some kind of pain during its existence, let alone while being experimented on. Interest in growing these mini-brains has come from the notorious difficulty of experimenting on live human brains to find cures for various illnesses. Scientists have hoped that by cloning brain material, they could work on understanding the brain better without harming a living person. Human cloning makes great science fiction material, but this new development raises questions about real-world ethics and the cloning endeavor.

Designer Babies and the “Appeal to Nature” Fallacy

Cloning is a near cousin to the idea of genetically-engineered babies. Put simply, the idea of genetically-engineered babies involves scientifically altering a fetus’s genetic code for various purposes, like making the baby grow into a stronger athlete or making sure it has a specific hair or eye color or isn’t prone to certain allergies or inherited diseases.

Many critics of genetic engineering argue that the process is wrong simply and ultimately because it’s “unnatural.” However, that may not be the best defense.

“Such arguments fallaciously rely on what philosopher Daniel Maguire calls the biologism fallacy, or ‘the fallacious effort to wring a moral mandate out of raw biological facts,'” said Dr. David K. Johnson, Associate Professor of Philosophy at King’s College in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. “It’s also called the ‘Appeal to Nature’ fallacy. Something being natural does not make it moral; being unnatural doesn’t make it immoral.”

For example, air conditioning is unnatural, but it’s rarely condemned as being an immoral affront to nature—especially by anyone who’s ever spent a summer in the American South.

Ethics of Cloning

The revelation of lab-grown brains exhibiting brain waves puts us one step closer to cloning a full human being. So how does this compare to popular sci-fi depictions of cloned humans?

“Usually, clones are depicted as carbon copies who look, behave, and even have the same memories as the individual,” Dr. Johnson said. “But this simply wouldn’t happen. Although clones would look the same—because physical characteristics are determined by genetics—they would each be their own person, their own individual.”

This, he said, is because of the different environments in which each clone would be raised. Just as our own childhood experiences affect us for life, different childhood experiences from one clone to the next would produce people who behaved differently. Realizing this also helps us escape the sci-fi trope of clones being mindless, inhuman commodities, or “disposable entities without souls, which can be mistreated or used without moral regard” in Dr. Johnson’s words.

“The idea that ‘being born’ [as opposed to being created artificially] is necessary for someone to have a soul is ludicrous,” Dr. Johnson said. “If the soul does exist, why would being born be a necessary condition for having one? Wouldn’t having a functioning brain be the more likely candidate?”

If so, he said, clones would certainly qualify, since they would have functioning brains.

The final question is if cloning should be illegal, and Dr. Johnson points to the popular theory that society would treat clones as property or as mindless, soulless creatures even though they aren’t. However, he disagrees, citing the fact that people used to argue against mixed-race marriages due to society’s treatment of mixed-race children. That, he said, was evidence that society needed to change, not that two people of different ethnicities shouldn’t marry.

Our individual scientific and philosophical beliefs about personhood, the existence of the soul, where life comes from, and much more have all colored the debate about cloning. With the recent boom in mini-brain development in laboratories, it may be a discussion we have to have sooner rather than later.

Dr. Johnson is Associate Professor of Philosophy at King’s College in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania.

Dr. David Kyle Johnson contributed to this article. Dr. Johnson is Associate Professor of Philosophy at King’s College in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. He earned a master’s degree and doctorate in philosophy from the University of Oklahoma. At Oklahoma, he won the coveted Kenneth Merrill Graduate Teaching Award.