In a recent conversation with my mother where we discussed several physical issues I am saddled with she remarked, “Boy, what a lousy set of genes we passed on to you.” I replied, “Mom, you gave me life! What could be better than that?” I suppose being physically perfect could be better, but it's not realistic.
Mankind has long desired and sought for ways to cure and prevent suffering that is part of our Telestial condition. Science has made some valiant efforts and has had some remarkable successes. The average lifespan continues to increase. Relatively few families in industrial nations grapple with the death of a child, while it was common a few generations ago for families to lose half of their children before adulthood. People used to regularly die from illnesses or injuries from which we now usually recover following proper treatment. I have often wondered when administering acetaminophen or ibuprofen to a sick child how people used to manage prior to the advent of these now ubiquitous remedies.
While we can be grateful to modern science for all of this, but most of us are aware that significant moral questions sometimes arise with regard to scientific developments. As a kid I watched old black and white horror movies about mad or misguided scientists: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the Fly, the Invisible Man, Frakenstein, etc. These works speak to the common understanding we have that science can sometimes run amok and must be kept in check.
Writing in the Weekly Standard, Wesley J. Smith alerts readers to the fact that some leading, well-funded scientists do not feel that they have to answer to society for any of their research. Smith quotes Stanford University's Irving Weissman, who has fabricated a mouse that has millions of human brain cells, as saying, “Anybody who puts their own moral guidance in the way of this biomedical science, where they want to impose their will . . . interfere with science that could save lives.” Smith’s says, “In other words, Weissman can impose his will on the rest of us because he believes an experiment is worth conducting, but society has no right to impose its collective will on him.” Smith then goes on to call for an immediate effort to formulate public policy to govern biomedical research and development; however, he admits that good public policy requires time and careful deliberation.
Writing in the National Review, Christine Rosen discusses scientific ethics from a different angle. She highlights the infatuation we had in the early 20th Century with eugenics, which advocated reducing problematic physical and mental defects through selective breeding. Eugenics was widely promoted by many elites and respected scientists. We don’t learn about this in history classes because it is an unfortunate and messy episode that resulted in forced sterilization in many “enlightened” nations including the Land of the Free. Ms. Rosen’s point is that the politics surrounding the current push for biogenic research and development strangely parallels the politics of the push for eugenics a century ago. She points out that we allowed scientific exuberance to override ethical concerns and societal mores with an ultimately horrific result that we find difficult to face to this day. She cautions that we are in danger of doing something just as awful if we continue to follow our current path on biogenic science.
We all appreciate useful scientific development. Nobody wants to return to the days when Galileo was branded a heretic for teaching his scientific observation that the earth was not the center of the universe. However, science does not exist in a vacuum. It has no more right to ignore societal concerns than does, say the banking industry. Science has a responsibility to answer to society and society has the right to temper science with ethical and moral guardrails and traffic signals.
The situation we face today is that the speed of scientific development outstrips the ability of public policy to keep up, and when ethical concerns are raised the scientific community responds with arrogant elitism designed to shut down public input. Our nation’s founding fathers, particularly Madison, believed that good government can only be achieved through “full process of expression, assembly and deliberation,” while tyranny results when this process is prevented. We urgently need to establish publicly accepted standards for scientific – especially biomedical – development through vigorous open public debate to prevent tyranny in this arena that will eventually lead to outcomes that are unacceptable to society.