May 08, 2006

Science Anxiety

Art Caplan writes in the Philadelphia Inquirer:
Many recent scientific advances in medicine and the life sciences involving genetic engineering leave many people concerned. Our new and increasing power to control heredity is based on a growing knowledge of our own genetic makeup as well as that of other living things. Scientists are also rapidly expanding their knowledge of how particular genes lead to the creation of different traits, characteristics and diseases.

The moral standoff that will quickly come to characterize the 21st century is becoming clear. It is not the teaching of intelligent design vs. evolution in American schools. Almost no one but biblical literalists takes the ID position with any seriousness as science. Nor will it be the heated squabble over embryonic stem-cell research. That scrum is actually over as well: Many nations around the world are doing this type of research, so the question is only where not whether.

The real battle - the battle that will come to occupy the moral center stage of American politics, morality, law, public policy, editorial pages, and water-cooler discussions - will be waged over where genetic engineering ought to take us and whether we are satisfied to leave it to scientists to guide us there.

Our present moment is seeing a host of scientific breakthroughs by which we are changing, modifying, inserting, altering or tweaking plant, animal and human genes.

Not everyone is thrilled.

Recently, a student from Temple University visited my office. We were talking about different courses and career options when he looked straight at me and said, "Aren't you worried about where science and medicine are taking us?" He did not mention any specific form of genetic engineering or a particular experiment, but he was clearly worried about all this genetic meddling.

He is hardly alone.

Polls in the United States, Brazil and other nations show that significant numbers of people, as many as 25 percent in some polls, are worried either about the speed of advances in science or the chance that scientists will lose control over their inventions. Even those in the highest places of moral leadership are worried. His comments went unnoticed amid the Good Friday and Easter celebrations at the Vatican, but Pope Benedict XVI recently issued some stern warnings about genetic engineering.

The pope condemned efforts to "modify the very grammar of life as planned and willed by God... a risky and dangerous venture." He did not stop there. He also inveighed against "insane, risky and dangerous" biomedical meddling that attempts "to take God's place without being God."

In reflecting on the pope's pronouncements, I could not help thinking of an experiment, in the scientific pipeline right now, which has not gotten much media attention: creating life itself. Scientific teams at universities here and overseas think they can create a living microbe. The idea is to assemble bits of DNA into an entirely new genetic message, build a crude sort of cell out of fat molecules and other ingredients, feed it the right chemicals and - voila! - a new, never-before-seen, living organism!

One of the scientists pursuing the creation of synthetic life is reported in a recent interview as saying: "For me, life is just like a machine - a machine with a computer program. There's no more to it than that. But not everyone shares this point of view." I suspect Pope Benedict, my visitor from Temple, and many of those worried about where biology and genetics are headed are in that latter camp. Worse still, this scientist sounds like the kind of materialistic, morally tone-deaf egghead that provoked the papal Easter condemnation.

So is there reason for extreme concern? Should we be shutting the genetic revolution down in its tracks? My own view is that the pope's position - that meddling with God's genetic creations is morally wrong and even insane - while genuine and sincerely held, is not the guidance to follow. His fear and the fear of many others about where genetics is leading us is based on the notion - a very false notion - that scientists lack values and moral character.

There are plenty of reasons to worry about the misapplication and misuse of genetics. The greatest mass murder in the Western world in the 20th century was undertaken by Nazi Germany against Jews, gypsies, Slavs, gays, and those of "mixed race" in the name of genetics. But it was the government of Germany - supported by its people, including scientists - that created the genetically inspired, scientifically supervised mass murder of the Holocaust.

Still it is a grave, grave mistake to argue that we must put all forms of genetic engineering off limits. Too much good will be lost. Our only hope of combating some of the worst pests and plagues that beset us and will torment our grandchildren is through genetic manipulation and engineering. The genetic revolution you and I are witnessing is humankind's last, best hope since it offers the prospect of more and safer food; the repair and elimination of genetic maladies like Tay-Sachs, juvenile diabetes, sickle cell disease, and hemophilia; the conquest of TB, malaria, avian flu, SARS, HIV, and many other plagues. And it will allow us to rebuild broken, worn out, or injured body parts.

Any of these alone would be enough reason to pursue genetic research. Together, they all but obligate us to do it. They are an all but unanswerable reply to those who say "No" to genetic research and engineering. Our society would be foolish and cruel to forbid or ban genetic research given the needs of the sick, starving, impaired and those of future generations for solutions and treatments. Will we really turn away from those who literally are dying before our eyes, or who will die before our children's eyes, simply out of fear of scientists guiding public policy?

That said, many people of deeply held moral principles worry about the abuse of genetic science. So where is the assurance, the guarantee against the tiniest of chances that genetic science will go off the ethical rails? I do not believe we have much to fear from the actions of any individual scientist. Few, contrary to the pope's concern, aspire to play God. Science has no tolerance for such fantasies.

Geneticists know how little they know individually and how hard it is to manipulate nature. Moreover, none of them, not even the best and brightest, is capable of transforming a discovery from the lab into the real world by himself or herself. That sort of power is reserved for the deity, governments or the market.

What the deity does is beyond our control. But what government or the market does or is allowed to do is very much a matter of politics, regulation and oversight. When theologians or members of the public point the finger of moral worry at scientists, they need to redirect it. It is governments and the marketplace that we need to shape and hold accountable for how genetic knowledge is or is not applied.

Still, there are some things scientists can and must do better. The scientific community, its leaders, and its brightest lights must make sure people know they are aware of popular concerns and doubts. Sometimes it seems scientists are trying to do shady stuff without caring what anybody thinks. It is easy to let the love of the laboratory blind one to the need to engage one's fellow citizens in the adventure and drama that is genetics. Few scientists do so. All ought to.

The traditional high standards of science - transparency, information-sharing, openness to falsification, strict adherence to the best methods, no tolerance of fraud and fabrication - must continue. They are not enough. Scientists also need to stay in touch with the rest of us: to strive to be good communicators, to be engaged citizens. In a nutshell, they need to show the world that they're human. Science is one of the most human of all our endeavors. Scientists need to remind all of us that this is so by eagerly participating in the democratic debate over where we're going and how we're getting there.

I realize many people believe that allowing the genetic revolution to proceed is risking our future at the hands of "atheist" science. This belief is the big driver of the current unease and the future culture war to come. Scientists are rarely openly religious. And many worry that those who are not God-fearing and avowedly guided by God's will cannot be permitted to use their power over heredity to take us places we should not go. It is true that there are many materialist nonbelievers among the ranks of genetic researchers. But this is not "godless science" at all.

The scientists I know are full of reverence for life, for people, and for our future possibilities together. They are in awe of nature. They are humble in the presence of the simplest cell, bacteria, virus or bit of mold in a lab dish. There is a spirituality about pursuing science as deep and as sincere as any to be found in religion. There are indeed important moral and ethical questions to be debated about the "humanness" of the genetic research being carried out in labs, behind closed corporate doors, and in distant lands whose cultures and traditions make us edgy.

That said, I do not know a single genetic scientist, not one, who thinks that moral, ethical and even public reflection about the morality of genetic engineering is silly, pointless or unnecessary. In the halls I am lucky enough to travel in universities, companies and research institutes, these subjects are debated and discussed as hotly and as with as much passion as they are at the Vatican; in your church, synagogue or mosque; or at your dinner table. Scientists do care, and they care deeply what their peers think and what you and I think.

What we need is what C.P. Snow once called for: a bridge between the two cultures. For him, the bridge was between the sciences and the humanities. Today we need a bridge between those who do science and those who do values. Scientists do "do values" - it is just that few outsiders get to see them do so. And many of us are fascinated by genetic science but quickly give up trying to follow it because there are so very few to teach us. What we need today is a dialogue, a conversation, some old-fashioned jawing. We do not need demagoguery, fear-mongering or stereotyping. We certainly do not need bans and fiats and Do Not Pass Go restrictions.

What scientists need to do - and quickly - is come out of their laboratory lairs and be seen in public. You need to know about their aspirations, dreams, hopes, and values. You need to know they stand shoulder to shoulder with all of us in wanting a better world. They see a better future and a way to get there.

Genetic research in the hands of those who practice is not aimed at power, fame, ambition, or transforming oneself into a god. If it is about anything, it is about love: the love of life, the love of people, the drive to make a better life for the sick and those at risk of becoming so.

To ensure the future of this century, we must ensure sufficient education, dialogue, oversight, accountability and control over the industrialization, commercialization and financing of genetic science. In the hands of its practitioners, that science is very, very unlikely to take us anywhere we do not want to go. But ignorance, inattention or indifference to what governments, business and the military do with genetics could land us in places no one wanted to reach.

The process starts with education. It is up to each one of us to know enough about genetics to understand the possibilities, risks, opportunities and dangers. It is also up to each of us to insist that our educators make genetics a central part of the curriculum in our secondary schools and Sunday schools including the ethical issues genetics raise. Really. Starting now.

Hold your politicians accountable. Ask them to explain how funding for genetics is allocated and accounted for. Insist that they ensure that commercial interests do not succeed in keeping private genetic applications and products that might offend the moral sense of the community or, worse, our health and well-being.

The genetic genie is out of the bottle. There is not much anyone can do to put it back nor, once we understand its potential for good, ought we to do so. This genie will, however, do the bidding of those who control it. To enjoy the benefits genetics offers, it will be up to you and me and our children to build a politics, media, marketplace and educational system strong enough to show the genie who is the boss. We must all - scientist and nonscientist alike - play god when it comes to genetics.

[source: Philly Inquirer]

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