Can We Make an Embryo in a Dish?

Induced pluripotent stem cells and embryonic stem cells are functionally equivalent, but should we be concerned about making embryos in a dish?

Induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) have been hailed as the discovery of the decade, providing an ethical alternative to embryonic stem cells (ESCs). Both types of stem cells are pluripotent, which means they can potentially make all of the cells in they body. This is contrasted to totipotent cells, which can give rise to an entire organism. The very early embryo consists of totipotent cells.

Induced pluripotent stem cells have technical advantages over ESCs because the patient’s cells can be used rather than donor cells, and they are easier to control compared to ESCs. However, one of the concerns with iPSCs was whether they are truly equivalent to ESCs because of the various transcription factors that need to be turned on or off to get the cells to regress back to their pluripotent state. This debate was laid to rest with a new research report in Science, demonstrating that while iPSCs are genetically distinct from ESCs, they are functionally equivalent.

Before deeming every iPSC procedure ethical and effective, consider the question several researchers from Australia, The Netherlands, and the U.K. ask in a Nature Methods commentary “What if stem cells turn into embryos in a dish?” Their reason for asking stems from research that shows how pluripotent stem cells (both iPSCs and ESs) can form organoids, small three-dimensional clumps of cells that are comprised of a particular organ’s cell type. The techniques to make pluripotent stem cells undergo the self-assembly and morphogenesis required to form an organoid also causes these cells to have many of the properties of embryos at the gastrulation stage of development.

Without delving too deeply into the complexities of embryonic development, the gastrulation stage is a key point when it comes to regulations for human embryo research. (See here for a simple summary of recent research about stem cells that have been dubbed “gastruloids”). The U.K. has a fourteen-day limit on human embryonic research. Human embryos are not allowed to remain intact in vitro beyond the fourteen-day point or after the formation of the primitive streak, whichever comes first. Australia has similar regulations. The pluripotent cells that appeared to reach the gastrulation stage seemed to form a primitive streak and showed signs of forming the beginnings of the Central Nervous System.

There are two things to consider. First, while these are hallmarks of a particular point in embryonic development, it is not the case that this clump of cells is an embryo. The stem cells are self-organizing, but they are without the same kind of holistic directionality that an embryo has. So while these stem cells proliferate in a more “organized” way than, say, a tumor, they lack key embryonic features. However, the authors pose an important question that needs to be addressed because the technology could eventually make embryos in a dish.

Consider two situations in which it is possible to make an embryo without two genetic contributors, a mother and a father. The first is cloning, or somatic cell nuclear transfer, and the second is making gametes using iPSCs.

Somatic cell nuclear transfer has been successfully done in both animals and humans, although only animal cloned embryos have been implanted and birthed. Cloned animals tend to be unhealthy and often die young. This continues to be an area of research, as evidenced by a recent article in Cell Stem Cell in which researchers from South Korea reported more efficient methods for cloning human embryos.*

Gametogenesis is another active area of research. If induced pluripotent stem cells could be induced to differentiate into gametes (egg and sperm), then this would theoretically allow the creation of an embryo. This embryo may only have one parent if the egg and sperm were made from the same donor. Or, it could be made from two parents who are the same gender. This is not yet possible because the oocyte is particularly tricky to form, but there is ongoing research attempting to produce both types of gametes from induced pluripotent stem cells.

Whether one uses somatic cell nuclear transfer or gametogenesis via iPSCs, the creation of a human embryo is ethically problematic for many reasons. The authors of the Nature Methods commentary raise important questions that hinge on when an embryo becomes an embryo in the laboratory setting. There are valid reasons to give the embryo a special status whether it is ever implanted in a uterus or not. As technology allows us to unravel the complex operations that go into meiosis and embryogenesis, we must carefully consider where moral lines are drawn.

Because making an embryo in a dish would be taking the technology too far, drawing ethical lines may require a nuanced approach to just what types of experiments are okay and where in the technical process the line must be drawn so that pluripotent stem cells remain at the pluripotent stage.

* Technically, “clones” like Dolly the sheep are really chimeras, meaning there is a small amount of DNA from the oocyte donor that is different from the nuclear DNA. The clone would produce an embryo from one genetic source if both the original cell and the oocyte came from the same animal.

11/07/15 – This post has been changed from the original to clarify some of the scientific terms.

The New Compassion: California Is the Fifth State to Legalize Physician-Assisted Suicide

John is an 18-year-old young man who has struggled with depression for most of his life. He has tried to commit suicide in the past. Now that he is an adult, he has decided to take his own life and end his struggle. He purchased a gasoline-powered water pump to poison himself with carbon monoxide.


Mark is a 40-year-old man who just received a diagnosis of terminal cancer. He has a wife and young children.  He would like the option to take a lethal drug that would allow him to die peacefully before his health declines to the point that he is in unbearable pain and a burden on his family.


Amos is an 81-year-old man who is in generally good health, but is unable to do some of the things he used to enjoy doing. He feels that he has led a good life and is ready to move on before he physically declines any more than he already has. He would like to go to a clinic in Europe to die.


Somewhere in the last twenty years, the idea of compassion changed. There was a time when compassion meant caring for the suicidal person, not enabling him to go through with it. Compassion used to mean stepping into a messy situation and convincing the person that he didn’t have to end it all, that his life still had meaning and value. Now compassion means providing a way for certain groups of suicidal people to end their lives because they want relief from physical, emotional, or financial pain more than they want to continue living.

In the above examples, John’s story is based on an incident out of Massachusetts in which a young man’s girlfriend, who lived 50-miles away, encouraged him to follow through with his plan to commit suicide over text messages and phone calls. Currently, there is a lawsuit to determine whether she is guilty of manslaughter.

Amos is a fictional character inspired by a nurse who decided that she did not want to grow old and physically decline. She was a healthy 75-year-old woman with a partner of 25 years and adult children who stay in contact with her. She didn’t want to age, and she didn’t want to be a burden on people. She went to Switzerland to die.

Mark is a fictional character loosely based on a man who chose to go to Switzerland to die after he found out he had cancer. In the real-life case, the man was not terminal, and his wife and daughters did not want him to go through with it.

These stories can help us understand the new legislation out of California. California is the fifth state to legalize physician-assisted suicide. Advocates tout the bill (ABX2 15, “End of Life Option Act”) as providing an option for terminally ill people who wish to end their lives peacefully and at a time that they desire. Detractors say that the bill opens the door for abuse and exploitation, and if other countries are any indicator, physician-assisted suicide will expand beyond the terminally ill.

The California bill is for people like Mark. Or, real-life people like Brittaney Maynard, the 29-year-old woman who was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. She died by assisted suicide last year after moving from California to Oregon where physician-assisted suicide is legal. Her case sparked a national debate over legalizing physician-assisted suicide in various states, including California.

In our three examples, the arguments for why it is okay to provide pills to let someone like Mark commit suicide could easily apply to John or to Amos. The argument for physician-assisted suicide is based on the newer version of compassion, one that elevates choice and autonomy over care and dignity. An argument from compassion could apply to John and Amos’s cases as much as it does to Mark’s case. Indeed, all three would qualify for assisted suicide in places like Belgium or the Netherlands where laws have expanded to include physician-assisted suicide for people with depression or for children over the age of twelve.

Advocates of physician-assisted suicide tell stories of their loved ones being placed on machines at the end of their life or undergoing painful chemo, suffering and in pain until the end. Often people will say that they never want to go through what one of their parents or a loved one went through before they died. To them, the option of a peaceful death via suicide keeps them from this bitter fate. However, there are other options that do not involve suicide and maintains the dignity of the individual. There is comfort care.

A quote attributed to Hippocrates reads that physicians should “cure sometimes, treat often, and comfort always.” In medicine there is an in-between state where the goals are no longer curing, but switch to comfort so that the person can still have meaningful interactions with her loved ones and not suffer unbearable pain. For example, a person can decide not to undergo chemo therapy and, instead, have a better quality of life for her last few months. A palliative care physician who taught one of my clinical ethics classes said that there have been great advances in palliative care therapy. People do not have to die in pain.

As to the fear of being hooked up to machines, there are times when a machine would be burdensome and yet due to its minor efficacy, should not be part of a patient’s treatment plan. This isn’t giving up on a patient. It is not negligence, and it is not physician-assisted suicide. It is recognizing that this machine will cause more harm than good by burdening the patient rather than helping him.

There are even cases when it would be ethical to withdraw machine support because the machine is doing nothing to help the patient’s condition and is not staving off the progression of the disease. This can be an ethically gray area where the clinical details make a difference, but in the cases when treatment is not working, then the patient is often weaned off of the machine and the goals are switched to comfort care as the untreatable disease finally takes the person’s life.

Often, the person who wishes to have physician-assisted suicide says that she does not want to be a burden on anybody. While this is a noble sentiment, it is wrong. Every one of us, from the moment we came out of the womb as a vulnerable, helpless baby, has been a burden on our loved ones and on society. That is part of being human. Even in the prime of our lives, we affect the people around us. We can burden them and we can help others carry their burdens. Indeed, love is often about helping someone carry their burden. As noble as the sentiment sounds, it dismisses what it means to be human and live in community.

However, there is one burden that a person does not have a right to require of someone. It is the burden of taking another life. The physicians who prescribe these medicines are asked to carry the burden of administering death, a burden that physicians were never meant to carry. Originally, the Hippocratic Oath said that a physician should not give poison to anyone even if asked to do so. Physician-assisted suicide changes the role of the physician from doing no harm to doing what the patient asks whether it brings him harm or not.

Governor Jerry Brown ultimately decided to sign the bill because he would want the option of physician-assisted suicide in the face of “prolonged and excruciating pain.” Not only does this fly in the face of medicine, but it ignores hospice and palliative care.

Rather than adopting legislation that would provide adequate comfort care to those populations that do not have access to it, something that is badly needed in our skewed healthcare system, the California bill and Governor Brown’s reasoning helps promote the notion that suicide is at best, as compassionate an option as palliative care, and at worst, the only option in the face of suffering at the end of life. In the midst of a terminal diagnosis in which a person’s life is already cut short, a truly compassionate perspective would seek to manage the pain and provide opportunities for more meaningful moments with loved ones, not eliminate suffering by eliminating the person.

Synthetic Biology and Making Morphine in the Lab

Prescription pain medicine addiction has become prevalent and widespread with several areas in the U.S. calling it a public health crisis. Opiates include prescription pain medicines, such as Vicodin, OxyContin, or fentanyl. The surge in opiate drug addiction can be traced to changes in the increase in prescriptions for opiate drugs beginning in the 1990s. Now headlines tout the possibility of a “home-brewed heroin.”

If we unpack the headline, it turns out this “home-brewed” heroin is not exactly here yet. Scientists have replicated all of the metabolic processes that opium poppies use to turn glucose into morphine. They have replicated parts of this process in yeast strains in an effort to make less addictive pain medicines as well as other analgesics. This synthesis of cellular processes is called synthetic biology. By way of a quick review, synthetic biology involves creating the digital DNA code to make proteins, the internal machinery of a cell, in the lab. Yeast and e.coli are simple organisms and are often used to insert the DNA in a cell fitted with the necessary equipment to replicate and express the DNA. Craig Venter, in his book on synthetic biology, Life at the Speed of Light, calls DNA the software and yeast provides the hardware. Scientists want to tweak the software to make tailor-made drugs.

Synthetic biology overlaps with genetic engineering, but where it differs is that synthetic biology allows scientists to replicate an entire cellular pathway within an organism, such as yeast, as opposed to inserting or deleting mutations in a DNA strand and then inserting it in a cell.

The metabolic pathway reported in Nature (See the Nature News article) is the first part of the glucose-to-morphine pathway. The second part of the pathway, as well as a reaction that links the two parts, was recently reported by other research groups. All of these parts have been demonstrated separately in various yeast strains. If scientists were to combine these parts in one yeast strain, then theoretically, they would be able to convert glucose to morphine. This has not been done yet, but will likely occur soon.

The process for making morphine from glucose is complex (it’s approximately eighteen steps), and because scientists do not know the whole genome for the opium poppy, they have had difficulty identifying the enzymes that catalyze each step in the reaction pathway. To overcome this hurdle, scientists turned to enzymes in other organisms to that catalyze similar reactions. The most recent research that identifies the first half of the morphine pathway used an enzyme from sugar beets that scientists mutated to ensure that it produced the product they needed without unwanted byproducts.

The question remains, are we at a point where people can brew their own synthetic morphine? The short answer is no, not yet.

First, all of the steps have not been combined into a yeast strain. While this may be the next step in making synthetic morphine in the lab, it will need to be tested, and it may not work at first. Once scientists succeed at creating a yeast strain that can accomplish all of the steps, the process will need to be refined and optimized.

Secondly, in order for someone to brew their own morphine, he would have to acquire the yeast strain containing the synthetic DNA. This would mean acquiring the yeast from someone who not only knows the DNA code, but also has a PCR machine or some way to make synthetic DNA and then incorporate it into yeast.

Lastly, even if someone did acquire the yeast strain, according to Christine Smolke of Stanford University whose lab has made a semi-synthetic opioid using yeast, in an interview with Wired, said that the fermentation process would require specialized equipment and conditions that would be difficult to do outside a laboratory. It would also not produce enough morphine to make it cost effective.

While we are not at the point of worrying about home-brewed liquid morphine, the authors of the study were concerned about future consequences of their research. One of the motivations for designing the synthetic pathway is to tweak it to make less addictive pain medicine or to make medicines for other uses. This same ability to tweak the morphine-producing pathway could also be used for nefarious purposes.

The authors of the study sought ethical guidance from biotechnology-policy specialists Kenneth Oye, of MIT and Tania Bubela, of the University of Alberta. They published an article in Nature with Chappell Lawson, also from MIT, that came out in tandem with the research article. Oye, Bubela, and Chappell delineate the ethical and legal considerations for such research and provide four broad areas that should be considered:

  • Engineering – The yeast strains could be engineered to make them less appealing to criminals and more difficult to cultivate outside of a laboratory setting, similar to biocontainment practices with e. coli.
  • Screening – Since the DNA sequence would need to be ordered from a lab, there could be a screening process in place that flags orders of opiate-producing yeast strains
  • Security – They could employ biosecurity measures, such as watermarking yeast made from certain labs and background checks on people working with the strains.
  • Regulation – Opium is a globally controlled substance. The laws that apply to opium could be extended to cover opiate-producing yeast strains.

Overall, the headlines are a little misleading in that we are not yet on the cusp of people brewing their own morphine. However, the authors should be commended for considering the consequences of publishing their research and seeking ethical guidance. It is a good example of pre-emptively considering the hazards and consequences of technological advancement rather than responding to a crisis.

For more information, see my article in Salvo 31, “Dying to Feel Good: Modern Self-Realization & the Painkiller Addiction Epidemic

Indiana’s HIV crisis

Indiana is dealing with an incredible HIV outbreak, centralized in Scott County. The HIV outbreak has been directly tied to needle use for opiate drug users. The Governor has called it a public health crisis, and while normally an opponent to needle exchanges, he is allowing for a 30-day needle exchange to curb the outbreak of HIV.

To give you a sense of the numbers, typically Scott County will see about five new cases of HIV in a year. They saw 26 new cases between mid-December and the beginning of March, and the count is up to 72 cases as of March 26.

The cause of the cases has been traced to intravenous drug use of a liquid form of Opana, a prescription painkiller. Doctors in the area report that the drug addiction problem, like many other places in the US, has been going on for at least the last ten years, with increasing incidences of other blood-borne diseases from needle sharing and deaths due to overdose.

Scott County is struggling against poverty as well as addiction. However, opiate drug addiction is a problem that is spanning all demographics across the US. My article in Salvo Issue 31 looks at nationwide statistics of opiate drug addiction from both prescription pain medicine and heroin use and the underlying causes.

Typically, people start with prescription pain medicines. It can even be from their own prescription that they obtained legitimately for a hurt back or a tooth extraction or any number of reasons that physicians dole out prescriptions for hydrocodone. One guy, mentioned in my article, got hooked on fentanyl after receiving it as an anesthetic for a colonoscopy. He was already abusing alcohol and other substances in an effort to cope with depression over a break-up. Fentanyl, indeed, served as a pain reliever in more ways than one.

Not everyone becomes addicted to opiate drugs when they take pain medicines, but with chronic use, many people do become addicted. And, unfortunately, it is a very difficult addiction to break. Once you’ve tickled those paths in your brain, the tracks that usually take naturally produced endorphins (named for endogenous morphine), you wear a neurological path that is VERY difficult to undo. Unlike endorphins, which our bodies administer through a sophisticated regulatory process that ensures you are receiving the right amounts, opiate drugs stand in as stronger, more potent endorphin replacements.

On a short-term, temporary basis, opiate drugs, like hydrocodone, are supposed to decrease pain, and many of them, when in pill form, are time-released. When our bodies experience pain, endorphins help to quell the effects; however, the endorphins are not enough for injury or sickness, so people take pain medicine. Sometimes people will experience some physical withdrawal symptoms when they stop taking pain medicine if they have been taking them for a while, but physical withdrawal does not necessarily mean the person is addicted. Even physical tolerance is not the full picture of addiction. Addiction has to do with seeking out a high, and in an effort to do so, the person becomes consumed with overcoming physical tolerance to the point that he or she may grind pills and take them intravenously or turn to heroin which is cheaper and sometimes easier to obtain. Scott County is seeing the effects of people sharing needles for opiate drug use.

My article gets into both the neuroscience as well as the cultural and psychological factors that lead to addiction. Suffice it to say that one of the problems is accessibility to a substance that is too potent and too addictive to be administered for trivial reasons (such as tooth aches or minor aches and pains).

Prior to 1990, opioids were not typically prescribed as painkillers except for cancer patients. But in 1990, that all changed. Doctors wanted a solution to patients’ chronic pain,  patients were desperate for relief, and big pharma was ready to profit from the situation. Fast forward to now. The CDC reports that in 2014, physicians wrote 259 million painkiller prescriptions in a single year, the equivalent of one bottle of pills per American. They have seen a four-fold increase in overdose deaths since 2000.

At the end of the Washington Post article reporting on Scott County’s crisis, Dr. William Cooke points out that this issue is not unique to Scott County, Indiana. They are the canary in the coal mine.

Where Do Babies Come From? Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells…Sort of

Recent headlines tout that it may be possible for same-sex couples to have biological children thanks to stem cell technology. Using skin stem cells, scientists from the University of Cambridge and the Weismann Institute found that it is possible to make primordial germ cells, the cells that eventually form into egg and sperm (gametes), from induced pluripotent stem cells created from a donor’s skin.

The opportunity for same-sex couples to have biological children may take over the headlines, but it is not the only, or necessarily the primary reason, scientists are interested in this research. One thing scientists hope to do is to use this technique to study age-related diseases. As we go through our lives, we accumulate epigenetic messages that tell genes when to turn on or off, when to make more cells, or when to stop making cells. Recent research shows that certain cancers and age-related diseases are likely due to these epigenetic factors going awry. These epigenetic factors are “reset” in germ cells, meaning scientists can start over and see how these factors develop at the cellular level. There is still much research that needs to be done in this area, including questions as to which epigenetic factors are passed on and which ones are actually reset in germ cells (See Nature’s recent issue on the results of the NIH’s Roadmap Epigenetics Project here).

While the epigenetic research is interesting, the headlines emphasize the reproductive possibilities. This technique could be another option for infertile couples who want to have biological children, including same-sex couples who want children that are biologically related to both of them. However, what is not touted as loudly is that, for now, the technology only works for male same-sex couples.

The why this technique can be used for two men but not two women has to do with how the cells are made. Primordial germ cells are made from skin cells are taken from each person to be converted into induced pluripotent stem cells. Those stem cells are then converted into primordial germ cells by turning on or off certain genetic factors involved in converting pluripotent stem cells to particular cell types.

Female cells have XX chromosomes and male cells have XY chromosomes, but in order to make primordial germ cells that are precursors to sperm, researchers need a Y chromosome. Lead researcher, Dr. Hannah pointed out, that it is easier to take away a chromosome than to insert one. Women don’t have any Y chromosomes to contribute, meaning that making primordial germ cells from women “is a long way off.”

Finally, one of the more troubling factors in this research is that little has been said about the health and well-being of the children that would be produced from this technique. A key point in the original research article in Cell is that SOX17 is a key factor in the process of making primordial germ cells and likely plays an important role in gene regulation. This was surprising to scientists because SOX17 does not play a key role in mouse development. This means that even though mice have been used in prior studies on creating primordial germ cells, they may not be a good model system for creating the subsequent sperm and egg cells. Often before a procedure or a drug makes it to human trials, it is first tested in mice and then in primates. When it comes to human development, though, things do not translate from animal models to human models as easily.

Once scientists are able to take the primordial cells and advance them to egg and sperm cells, they will be able to create an embryo. However, because the mouse models are different, this is a case in which we have no way of knowing whether these embryos or the children will be healthy until the experiment is actually done.

It is unclear from the interviews or the article if the assumption is that “unhealthy” embryos will die off before they implant in the uterus or how exactly researchers are expecting to test whether this technique work as another reproductive technology. If unhealthy embryos die, this poses an ethical problem for those that assume embryos should be granted dignity in their own right. But even if one does not accept that embryos are accorded a certain level of dignity, what about babies and children? What do scientists plan to do if the children born from this procedure are unhealthy or deformed?

Finally, it is worth mentioning that this technique would provide a source of eggs, which are needed for various other reproductive techniques and research endeavors. For example, The UK just passed legislation permitting what has been dubbed “three-parent IVF” in which scientists transfer the nucleus from one woman’s egg to another woman’s enucleated egg that will then be used in IVF. The hope is to prevent mitochondrial disease which is genetically passed down to offspring from the mother. Obtaining skin cells from a donor is much less invasive and poses less of a risk to the donor than obtaining her eggs after inducing hyperovulation.

This research is rife with ethical concerns, most notably the fact that it amounts to human experimentation on people who did not have the opportunity to choose to be the product of experimentation, but must live with the consequences, if they live at all.

Is Being Productive the Highest Good?

Peter from Office Space (Picture from Rotten Tomatoes)

What happens when all we live to work. Let’s take a look at two shows that poke fun at the white-collar office worker. In the movie, Office Space, the main character, Peter, is disillusioned with the “rat race” of office life. His work is repetitive and unimportant, and therefore, he feels that his life is also repetitive and unimportant. His life is centered on his job. He lives to work, and because he does not have the right job, he is unhappy. The “happy ending” of the movie is not that Peter eventually learns that there is more to life than work and his identity is not wrapped up in his job. The happy ending is that he eventually finds a job that has the things he likes, being outdoors and working with his hands.


Jim from The Office (Picture from

In the television show, The Office (U.S. version), one of the characters, Jim, is apathetic about his job at a paper company, Dunder Mifflin. Jim has hobbies, like cycling and playing guitar, but we get the impression that he generally considers his job boring and one of those necessary evils of life (his views change as the series progresses). Dwight, on the other hand, approaches his job at Dunder Mifflin with enthusiasm, showing up early, leaving late, and always trying to be a team player. He also happens to live and work on beet farm, of which he is equally enthusiastic.

Both Office Space and The Office are written so that we relate to Peter and Jim. They represent the angst that most white-collar workers feel, even if we cannot put our finger on exactly what that angst is. Peter wants to be outside. Jim plays music. But are cubicles and paper-pushing really the problem?

Perhaps the problem has to do with how we prioritize our lives. Our Western culture has bought into the idea that productivity is the highest good, and therefore work should be an end in itself. Productivity is certainly one of many signs of a good employee or a well-run business, but it is not an end in itself. Being productive should not be the end-all-be-all of life. To live for productivity is hollow and dehumanizing. Machines are fine-tuned to be optimally productive. People strive for something more, and productivity helps us get there.

What is leisure?

In pre-modern times, people whose lives were centered on work were called slaves or laborers. They put in twelve or fourteen-hour days and spent their non-working time resting and recuperating so that they can work the next day. Their value is in their productivity. This is contrasted to the aristocracy. They engaged in leisure activities, but these activities are not what we think of when we think of “leisure” today. The aristocracy considered leisure activities important for cultural enrichment. Those that used their freedom to engage in diversions or hedonism were considered slothful.

Leisure, in the classical sense of the term, is different from restful activities to help recuperate from a long day or mindless activities to cope with the mental tedium of repetitive, labor-intensive work. Leisure activities consisted of the higher pursuits, like education, art, music, and sport. It is no accident that the word we use for “school” comes from the Latin translation of the Greek word for leisure. Leisure activities often consisted of difficult things that required hard work to master, but these activities were personally enriching and culturally significant. They often involved creating or writing things that have aesthetic appeal and are good in and of themselves.

The Industrial Revolution

This two class system was turned on its head with the advance of the Industrial Revolution. Industrialization, over the course of one hundred years, took menial, repetitive, undignified work and automated it. It also meant that people did not have to work as many hours, allowing all people to have a life that consisted of rest (including sleeping, eating, and bodily care), non-work, and work time. The non-work time was to be a time for leisure pursuits so that all men may cultivate a virtuous character and engage in culture-making.  This resulted in more people getting an education and engage in the arts and sciences.

But something happened that caused people to lose track of those priorities. Mortimer Adler, an early-twentieth century scholar, points out that while the Industrial Revolution did much to dignify work and rid of us a labor/aristocracy class system, it also skewed our understanding of work, leisure, and recreation.

Adler lists four negative consequences of the Industrial Revolution that contribute to our malaise:

  1. The Industrial Revolution eliminated the value of individual craftsmanship. Things that used to be made by artisans and craftsmen, like shoes, clothes, candles, or food, were easily produced in the factory setting, thus trivializing certain kinds of work.
  2. The Industrial Revolution changed our priorities such that producing more and more goods became the purpose of all of our efforts. Adler says that we ought to regard the increase in productivity only as a means and not as an end.
  3. As a result, people now think free time should be used only for recreation (or recuperation) in order to get back to work and produce more. It is no longer a time to engage in those things that are edifying and that often bring people joy. Instead, it is spent engaging in diversions which are not ultimately fulfilling.
  4. Classical, or liberal, education was replaced with training for the job so that a person can become a productive member of society. This perpetuated a kind of empty meaning to education that goes something like this: “Go to school and make good grades, so you can go to a good college, so you can get a good job, so you can be a productive member of society.”


By placing an emphasis on productivity, people live to work, and therefore, their free time is spent on things that are not tiring, but also not particularly enriching. This leads to a kind of boredom that philosopher-types like to call hyper-boredom. You get the sense of this hyper-boredom when you watch Peter in Office Space. However, hyper-boredom is more than “being in a funk” or not finding the right job. It is a malaise that is best described as operating as though everything was ultimately meaningless.

Why is a proper view of leisure important? Adler summarizes the classical concept of leisure as “consisting in all those activities by which the individual grows morally, intellectually, and spiritually, through which he attains personal excellence and also performs his moral and political duty.” Essentially, it is the things people love to do and would do whether they were paid or not.

Leisure is not the same has having nothing to do or “killing time” and it is not a diversion to cope with life. Adler points out that, based on the classical concept of leisure, the good life depends on labor, but it consists of leisure.

A couple of caveats are in order, though. First, some people are blessed to be able to do the leisure activities that they love as their full-time job. Adler, a college professor, considered his job both work and leisure. But, as anyone who has ever been a full-time teacher, writer, or artist knows, there is still a labor aspect to their leisure activity. Most people do not consider grading papers, filling out tax forms, or making sales pitches leisure activities. These things tend to be compulsory, making them work rather than leisure.

Second, this is not to say productivity is bad. It is good to be productive as part of pursuing excellence in work. However, orienting your life around productivity is to enslave yourself. Recall that in The Office, Jim was apathetic about work, but Dwight was not. Their characters are meant to be comic foils of each other, but as always, comedy is funny because it contains elements of truth. Dwight had a beet farm, a leisure activity, while Jim had diversions. Jim’s character started to change when he engaged in a meaningful relationship.

We often think that our leisure, or non-work time, is unimportant, but in reality, it is very important. A proper view of leisure helps us orient our lives in a way that acknowledges the reality of having to earn a living to survive but that we crave more than merely survival and consumerism.