The Most Popular Posts From the Politeia Archive

Over the weekend, I looked back at this blog’s most popular posts from 2011. I like to believe they were popular because readers found them interested and recommended them to their friends. But of course they may simply have been the most timely posts or the ones with the most titillating headlines. What are more interesting to me are the older posts that keep getting hits. So today I want to share the posts from more than a year ago that for whatever reason continue to attract readers.


Government Secrets and Lies,” November 3, 2009

“All governments lie,” the journalist I.F. Stone said. In this post, I looked at the history of U.S. government claims that it needs to keep secrets to function. I argued that while there are some genuine national security secrets, historically the government has used its ability to keep secrets to avoid responsibility for its actions. And although as a candidate Obama criticized the Bush administration for its use of government secrets privileges, as president he has made broad use of secrecy claims than Bush ever did.

“The Myth of a Post-Racial Society,” November 13, 2009

A year after Obama’s election, I argued that the election of a black president didn’t demonstrate that race was no longer an issue in the U.S. There is still a tremendous disparity between the economic conditions of whites and blacks in the U.S. In any case, the extent to which Obama’s skin color was a polarizing issue in the election demonstrated that as a nation we are hardly colorblind. Likewise it is hard to imagine that a centrist president like Obama would face accusations that he is a secretly Muslim foreign radical if he were white. As much as we might wish the issue were behind us, I argued that it’s important that we acknowledge the role of race in our society and talk about it openly.

“What’s Wrong With the Criminal Justice System?” February 14, 2010

When the so-called "Underwear Bomber" was arrested, the Obama administration was attacked for treating him as an ordinary criminal rather than treating him as an “enemy combatant” and subjecting him to military interrogations. But in this post I argued that the Constitution requires us to grant the same rights to everyone—even foreign nationals who are suspected of terrorism—and that in any case there’s no evidence that our regular criminal justice system doesn’t work just fine as it is.

“The Dangers of Corporate Democracy,” February 22, 2010

The title of this post was misleading. It’s not about how shareholders govern corporations, but rather about how the Citizens United decision enables corporations to sway elections. Corporations only real interest is their bottom line. When we allow them to participate in politics without limits, we risk having a democracy that serves only to increase that bottom line.

“How Multinational Corporations Dodge Taxes,” April 8, 2010

In this post I explained how companies like General Electric are able to pay no taxes at all, in spite having of billion dollars of revenue. I wrote about the issue again last year, when General Electric once again managed to avoid paying any taxes. Essentially, corporations like GE have found that it is cheaper to pay for lobbyists to push for tax loopholes and accountants to take advantage of them than to pay even the same tax rates that ordinary Americans do. That allows them to have the benefits of operating in the U.S.—and in many cases even to receive generous subsidies from the U.S. government—without paying their share of our collective costs.

“The Weak Case Against Same-Sex Marriage,” August 11, 2010

In this post I argued that it is hard to reconcile laws against same-sex marriage with the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment—a case I recently made again in a debate with Peter LawlerI wrote that it is hard to see any legal reason why forbidding us to marry someone on the basis of that person's gender is any different than forbidding us to marry someone on the basis of their race.

“The Poor Rich,” September 24, 2010

In this post I attacked the idea that the rich are suffering under the burden of high taxes in America. As I wrote, I can certainly understand that people who make $250,000 a year don’t feel rich by the standards of American culture. But they still make five times as much as the average American household. And their tax rate is low compared by the standards of the developing world and has been getting lower for years. No one likes to pay taxes, but it is not the rich in the U.S. who are suffering, it’s the poor.

“The History of Integration in Europe and America,” October 22, 2010

After German Chancellor Angela Merkel declared that attempts to build a multicultural society had “utterly failed,” I argued that as painful as integration can be, it can work over time. I looked at this history of integration in both Europe and America and pointed out that the the terrible ethnic conflicts of 150 years ago are now long-forgotten. One commenter objected that it was ridiculous to think that modern Germany would necessarily follow the same path. And of course it may not. But it is worth remembering that those old conflicts seemed intractable too. Some perspective would help.

President Obama image from whitehouse.gov

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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

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