Biochemical Ethics

I do not know if we will get to this, but it seems like an important thing to think about. Throughout the history of mankind, we have always believed that to make life easier and longer is a good thing. Medical and agricultural advances are two things that everyone considers a good use of science. But, like all major events in technology advancement, there are serious questions about what we should do with our knowledge. I do not know the answers, of course, to any of these questions, but we have to deal with them one way or another. The last one is still not here yet (but may not be so far off). The others are reality today.

1) We can now make many of our crops and food animals resistant to disease and pests genetically. We can kill insects that harbor disease by releasing man-made pathogens of those organisms into the environment (or putting parts of them in the natural food that the insects eat). Some of these engineered organisms are now being released. Is this a good thing or a bad thing? If good, is there a limit?

2) I saw an add the other day saying that you could have you pet cloned so that when it died, you would have another just like it. What do you think of this?

3) In principle it is technically feasible at this point to perform selection procedures on eggs and sperm. For example, it should be possible to dictate to within some level of accuracy whether you will have a boy or a girl by doing sperm selection and artificial insemination. Is this a good thing?

4) We can now clone ourselves. Better yet, we can make improvements. Should we? This is not science fiction anymore. We can do this now (the man on the street does not yet understand this).

5) Biological warfare is a reality. Worse yet, the technology is neither particularly expensive nor does it any longer take technically very advanced labs to do it (basically you can now buy kits to do almost all molecular biological procedures and do much of it in your garage). How are we going to deal with this? Do we start to limit the distribution of basic science knowledge? With the nuclear bomb, we could limit the availability of starting materials. Here we cannot. If you have the knowledge, and a relatively small amount of money, you can do it. You have done the basics steps in your lab. Should I stop teaching biochemistry lab? Should this knowledge be censored?

6) Is increasing human life span by a factor of two a practical and ethical thing to do? How will the ethical norms of society have to change to accommodate this? Can they change fast enough?

What I find most frightening about this is not that it is happening, which is probably natural and inevitable, but that it is being guided almost entirely by monetary issues, and the decisions are almost completely being made by people who have absolutely no idea what the technology involves or where it is leading us. As a scientific community, we have done a great deal to discover, but way too little to inform. This coupled to the fact that the public does not generally want to be informed (we have all become too specialized to deal with the problems from other fields), means that decisions are and will continue to be made on an almost purely emotional basis. The public hasn't a clue what is happening and less so what is going to happen in the next quarter of a century. How can society make these decisions that rely so heavily on specialized knowledge? How can we, as scientists, prepare society to adapt?