Friday, May 21, 2010

Playing God, again

(excerpt from Escaping the progress trap) Moral and ethical questions surrounding certain scientific innovations have resulted in continuous debate. In one area in particular, recombinant DNA, new developments have had dramatic implications for genetic engineering and the possibility of laboratory-created diseases. In the early 1970's laboratory experiments had been conducted that enabled gene cloning and chromosomal DNA splicing. This gave rise to a series of discussions and meetings of experts, culminating in the Asilomar conference of 1975. The medical and scientific community concluded in 1977 that the risks were not as dramatic as originally feared and that this research could proceed, provided strict precautions were taken. The Asilomar conference was characterized by a good deal of soul-searching. June Goodfield, in her account of this debate, "Playing God," commented that:*
    "It seems that a total extension of cold logic and objective rationality into anything we do is in danger of removing the humaneness from our lives... We have minimized the validity and appeal of emotion, aesthetics and feelings. For I did find that, though many scientists were prepared to appreciate concerns about the effects of their work, both in the short and the long term, they were rarely prepared to weigh feelings, emotions aesthetics or any spiritual considerations in the balance with sheer rational arguments."
This spirit is not heard often enough, but even if it were a constant chorus it may have no effect, since scientists do not generally give formal credence to spiritual considerations. Surely though, any conscientious scientist must be aware that science is flawed. To these the challenge should be: Why is science flawed? Can the causes of these flaws be determined? Can the potential harm, no matter how well-intentioned, be minimized or removed? These are questions that defy science's conventional view of itself as inherently good and progressive. It is imperative for humanity's future security that science take stock of itself. Complicating the issue is the fact that one of the permanent features of western science is its discomfort with paradoxes. A scientific inquiry into concepts alien to science—such as scientific criticism of science—would be a paradoxical venture. Now, it is not impossible that there are non-scientific cultures, quite comfortable with the paradoxical, which would eventually and inevitably do the job of conducting critical analysis, and possibly take control, of science. An extreme reactionary government might do this, as would a disgruntled popular movement, or any force whose power base is not sympathetic to science. Conventional science may need to let go of its Baconian and Cartesian apron strings if it is to avoid obsolescence. Robert L. Sinsheimer is eloquent in his description of science as being caught in a kind of spiral from which it cannot escape:
    ...we seem to be discovering that the application of one technological fix seems to lead us into another technological fix.**
He mentions how antibiotics have led to overpopulation and how this in turn has led to the need for pesticides, herbicides and other environmental carcinogens. Daniel Callahan expresses the same idea:***
    We solve old problems only to create new ones in the process, becoming ever more deeply entangled in dangerous paradoxes of our own making.
Callahan recognizes that scientific research is an inevitable form of human activity, terminable however, where risk is evident. These aspects of science again beg the question: Can it be determined—scientifically—why science is flawed?

* June Goodfield, Playing God. New York, NY: Random House, 1977. p.73.
** Robert L. Sinsheimer, "The Presumptions of Science," Limits of Scientific Inquiry, G. Holton, G., and R.S. Morison, eds., 1979, p. 30.
*** D. Callahan, "Ethical responsibility in Science in the face of uncertain consequences," Annals of N.Y. Academy of Sciences, 1976, 265: 112.

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