Michael Novak on "The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism"

Novak: Oh, I’ve learned an awful lot. You know, I, I’m not an economist. I’m not a political scientist. I’m a theologian and a philosopher but I do love America and I did want to understand what’s the inner philosophy, what’s the inner dynamism of the American system, and you couldn’t learn it just from the economist and you couldn’t learn it just from the political scientist and the humanists seemed to spend most of their time doing footnotes on one another instead of trying to understand the whole. It was very little trying to understand, though. If a European or an Asian asked me what is the American idea? What is the Novus Ordo Seclorum that is written on the seal of the United States, the New Order of the Ages? Not very many could help. And so, I, you know, I sat down myself to try to work it out in my own terms. A free society such as I love and would like to see grow hereto is of a creative, dynamic economy, liberating the poor from poverty, my own family among them came here very, very poor a hundred years ago, and a republic which protects human rights and the rule of law and allows for the sovereignty of the citizens who as it were hire and fire their elected leaders, since you need to have leaders to move forward. We call that democracy now, but the old idea for that, I think a better idea for it is a republic. And third, a powerful set of institutions teaching a good character and love for the truth and love for honesty and courage and nobility of soul, and setting up ideals for our young so that they become a disciplined adults who love their own liberty and they’re willing to take the responsibilities necessary to be sure that they don’t chuck all the burdens off to the state. That’s the road to tyranny. It’s when free citizens decide to do things for themselves and have a capacity to organize to get things done. That should generate free societies. Tocqueville said the first principle of democracy, the first law of democracy is the principle of association, the ability to join together to get things done. I think that’s quite true. I think those ideas are still quite germane and are being cited… You know, people using the term democratic capitalism everywhere. I was not the first, but, practically, the first to make it popular, and if I had a nickel, if I even had a penny for every time the word is used now, I’d be, I wouldn’t have to worry about my retirement. So, I think the concept has great utility and helps to shed light in several different directions. I learned to put more emphasis on creativity, that the heart of a capitalist system is not a free market. There had been free markets in history but not much dynamism and it’s the patent of copyright law, the sense that the greatest wealth is not land, which it was for almost all of history, but the greatest wealth is in ideas. It’s caput, the old head in Latin, caput. That’s where the wealth comes from and the release of that, that every human being born is a carrier of capital, that this capital is of more value than land, more value than machinery, more value than money, you know, I think that’s an extraordinarily powerful idea. Not every baby born doesn’t consume more, eat more than he or she would… They’re capable of creating a lot more than they’re going to consume. That’s the secret to progress. You know, so I’ve learned to think deeper by each one of these elements and, you know, see where I was wrong here, where I was wrong there, but I see more and more people picking up the idea and applying it. So, you know, I feel blessed that the book had a certain merit in it.

Professor Novak discusses his most famous book.

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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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