How Many Cells Does It Take?

Listening to RadioLab is a regular pastime for me. For those who don’t know, it’s a podcast produced by WNYC and aired by NPR. The informative, somewhat quirky guys on the show mostly discuss topics of science, but laced in is often a comment on philosophy and human experience. It was one of these podcasts, called Famous Tumors, that struck upon our discussions about identity.

There were three segments, but I will be focusing on the last one about Henrietta Lacks. To sum up, scientists had been trying to clone human cells for years for experimentation purposes, but none were successful until they successfully cloned Henrietta’s cells. Henrietta died soon after scientists took a sample of her cells.

When she died, she left a family of five children who barely knew her. This was especially true of her youngest daughter, Deborah. And here’s where it gets into identity. Deborah believed that her mother was in a sense kept alive in the clone cells. She was worried her mother would feel something when her cells were injected with diseases. Of course, since the cells aren’t connected with the body and brain, we understand that Henrietta wouldn’t feel the symptoms of any of the diseases, but this brings up an interesting question. How many sand grains does it take to make a heap, how many boards to maintain the identity of a ship, and how many cells to make a person? Is Henrietta still alive?

In the update to the story, this discussion continues when scientists publish the cell’s genome online, and the family gets upset, because they still feel connected to these cells. This raises another question linked with identity: who do these cells belong to?

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