In the black gloop of down-beat news on global warming and Iraq, we sometimes forget that, in at least one respect, we are living through a shimmering moment of progress that should fill us with awe. The twenty-first century is - as the science writer Ronald Bailey puts it - an era of Liberation Biology. Every week now, scientists are steadily defusing the diseases that have cut human life short for millennia, and stolen from us the grandparents we never knew or the lovers who died too soon. They are setting us free.
Only yesterday, it was revealed by Yale University scientists that they have been able to make it possible for primates with severe Parkinson's disease to walk, move and eat unaided, by injecting them with human neural stem cells. The implications for further research into humans are obvious - and dazzling.
Even those of us who are not privileged to be scientists can get the gist of what is happening. In 1998, researchers were first able to isolate embryonic stem cells - immature cells taken from human embyros that are no bigger than a speck of dust. These cells matter because they have the potential to develop into many different types of tissue. Scientists are now slowly trying to discover which molecular signals make them develop in different ways.
If they can unlock this code - if they can make the cells grow into whatever we need - they will be able to transplant nerve cells into broken spines, making the lame walk. They will be able to inject insulin-producing cells into diabetics. They will be able to generate motor neurone cells to treat Parkinson's. And on the list goes, each one freeing millions of humans from misery.
But - incredibly - there is a large slice of humanity who stubbornly refuses to see any of this as progress. Instead, they see it as a massacre.
The religious backlash against Liberation Biology has been viciously successful, holding back scientific progress in almost every part of the world. In Nigeria, Islamic Mullahs have this year successfully prevented the World Health Organisation from finally eradicating polio from the human condition, by claiming the vaccine is part of an "anti-Islamic plot" and ordering their congregations to refuse it...
And we all know about the christianist crusade agin' evolution and stem cells in 'Merika.
...In the US, President Bush again pledged this week to veto legislation sent to him by Congress that would permit federal funds to be used for stem-cell research. And - lest we Europeans get smug - Britain is about to introduce new laws restricting the development of 'hybrid embryos' that will slowly strangle life-saving research.
This is all part of an old story: the conflict between science and religion. For all the prattling by bishops that there is "no incompatibility here", in reality they are based on fundamentally contrasting ways of understanding the world. Science is based on strict empirical observation of the world, and deductions based on reason from it. Faith is based on divine revelation (that is, hallucination), or following the words of men who claim to have experienced it.
This battle has been playing out every since modern science developed. The religious damned vaccinations, autopsies, IVF, and even the introduction of pasturised milk. Today, they are trying to halt the latest wave of Liberation Biology because they claim that blastocysts - hollow spheres of cells almost invisible to the naked eye - are "human beings," and therefore cannot be harvested for life-saving stem cells.
What fact or reason can they point to, to make this point? There are none. We can see through empirical observation that blastocysts have no brains, no thoughts, no capacity to feel pain. So the religious ignore empirical fact. Instead, they say that an invisible, intangible thing called "the soul" magically appears at the moment of conception. How do they know? They just do. Okay?
These beliefs have animated the hardcore evangelical base in the US to fight to retard and supress research - and they have won. If they can delay research in America - which is the world's laboratory, due to its pro-science Enlightenment constitution - they can do it anywhere...
Back in 2004 Stirling Newberry wrote an essay on the fusion of the chrisitianists with the aristocrat wanna-bee families here in 'Merika.
Those who would rule us are using religion and the inevitable depletion of fossil fuels to make a whole lot of money in the short-term, consolidate their version of reality in the weak-minded to the point of blind obedience, and in the long term send most of the world into a post-industrial preliterate neofeudal state over the next few generations.
Liberation biology is a great term, and exact description of the greatest danger to the plans of the hegemons in the world today.