A Birthday Gift for Darwin

Two hundred years after the author of On the Origin of Species was born, President Obama is poised to fund embryonic stem cell research, while 54% of Americans still scoff at evolution.

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Will President Obama recognize Charles Darwin's 200th birthday by lifting federal funding restrictions for embryonic stem cell research?

The symbolism couldn't be riper: a newly installed, pro-science president signs a promised executive order overturning his predecessor's anti-stem cell policy on this day and in this year, which also celebrates the 150th anniversary of Darwin's seminal work, On the Origin of the Species.

Already, the half of Americans that profess to deny Darwin's central theory of evolution are cringing at this birthday being celebrated by the other half who do believe. Many of the nonbelievers also oppose embryonic stem cell research, although this number has been dropping, particularly as treatments and cures using these special cells inch ever closer.

Just a few days ago, the Food and Drug Administration approved the first-ever human tests using embryonic stem cells, those cells formed in an embryo soon after conception that can grow into any tissue in the body. Geron Corporation of Menlo Park, California will implant stem cells in up to eight paraplegics in effort to repair their spinal chord injuries.

If all goes well, the stem cells will help repair a material around nerve cells known as myelin, which should restore the ability of nerve cells to carry signals and to function. Some cells may also be spurred to regenerate.

Other companies are poised to begin testing embryonic stem cell treatments for a market that analysts say could equal over $8 billion by 2016 - including therapies derived from "adult" stem cells, those taken from fully-formed humans to regenerate specific cells in the heart, pancreas, and elsewhere.

It seems eons ago that President George W. Bush signed an executive order in 2001 limiting federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, a move applauded by the religious right who consider human life to begin at conception. Critics have long complained that this move crippled crucial research, delayed therapies, and caused unneeded suffering and death.

In 1859, Charles Darwin had no idea that stem cells existed, and that they are the crucial building blocks developed by complex organisms over the course of billions of years to launch the process of creating a person - or a toad, falcon, spider, and guppy.

He also might be astonished that his theory is denied by millions of people - by 54 percent of Americans, and more than half of his own countrymen in Britain, according to a recent poll.

Perhaps this is understandable at one level, since Darwin challenges our fundamental view of the place of humans in the universe. If God created us, then we are special. If we are descended from bacteria, pufferfish and chimpanzees, we are merely another organism.

This sort of thinking misses the point about Darwin's enduring theory: that understanding the progression of life for some 3.5 billion years on Earth is fascinating in its complexity and diversity. It also provides us the tools to understand the wonders of stem cells, which finally, after years of being starved of federal funding, are poised to be unleashed.

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