SCIENCE AND BIOTECHNOLOGY:  THE DARK SIDE

 

Ronald McCoy

 

 

Introduction

Every great civilisation selectively writes its own history and proclaims its own greatness. The dominant civilisation of our times, the West, has also defined its version of cultural and intellectual history, wherein the development of science is traced from Greco-Roman times to the European Renaissance period. It is only over the last few decades that historians of science have shown that the roots of science are to be found in other major civilisations, particularly the Islamic, Chinese and Hindu civilisations. But the historical fact is that modern science began in the West.

 

Science had its early beginnings in the Islamic civilisation between the 9th and 13th centuries, a time when Christian popes were burning 'witches' in the gloom of the Dark Ages. About seven hundred years ago, Islamic civilisation suffered a severe regression in its ability to acquire science and there have been no significant efforts at recovery since. Most Islamic traditionalists feel no regret and welcome the regression, believing that it helps preserve Islam from the corrupting and secular influences of Western civilisation where the validation of scientific truths depends on observation, experimentation and logic and not on any form of spiritual authority. Historically, Islamic civilisation has paid a heavy price for this failure which has contributed to the retreat of Islamic civilisation and the ascendancy of the West.

 

About five hundred years ago, learning in Christian Europe was deeply rooted in the pre-scientific philosophy of Aristotle and strongly influenced by divine authority. Then came the cultural upheavals of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, which swept away the medieval world order, shattered the temporal authority of the Church and rejected feudalism, sowed the seeds of humanism and capitalism, and gave birth to modern science in Europe. Although humanism has been given a number of different meanings, its core is a desire to place human beings at the centre of philosophical debate, to exalt human knowledge and abilities, and to view human reason as a tool for understanding nature.

 

This glorification of humanity and human reason was at the heart of the Scientific Revolution of the seventeenth century, which built upon the earlier scientific advances of the printing press,

the telescope, the microscope and the vacuum pump, and transformed the intellectual and religious landscape. The Scientific Revolution also received a boost from Copernicus and                                                   

subsequently Galileo who espoused a heliocentric universe (in which the Earth revolved around the sun and not the other way round), undermining the ancient Aristotelian view of nature and promoting a new vision of Man's place in the cosmos. This view of nature, as an autonomous entity with its own laws, created a growing awareness of natural order, as opposed to divine intervention, and the first stirrings of the concept of natural law which later in the nineteenth century developed into the Darwinian view of the world.

 

The crystallisation of the scientific method left in its wake a world transformed both intellectually and physically. Experimentation, quantification, prediction and control became the paradigm of a new culture. Once thinking was liberated from the strait-jacket of dogmatic Christian theology, the old notion of a mysterious universe gave way to an understanding of a mechanical and orderly universe sustained by the laws of physics.

 

In the last six hundred years, since the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, humanism was seen as a particular way of cultivating human intellect and expressing the belief that truth should be founded not on revelation, tradition or authority but on observation and reason. Although the Renaissance was a deeply religious age, there was a new emphasis on worldly accomplishments and human abilities. The aphorism of the Greek philosopher, Protagoras, became the motif of the Renaissance: Man is the measure of all things.

 

The history of the 20th century, however, makes it difficult to view Man as the measure of all things without a sense of self-mockery and cynicism. Today, we see Man as a much baser being, whose actions have despoiled the twentieth century by two World Wars, the Holocaust, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, gulags and concentration camps, ethnic cleansing, environmental degradation and climate change. Asked to sum up the twentieth century, Yehudi Menuhin said: "It raised the greatest hopes, ever conceived by humanity, and destroyed all illusions and ideals."

 

As we begin the 21st century, we would not be far off the mark if we think of Man as weak, barbarous, savage, inhuman, greedy, selfish, arrogant, self-destructive, but perhaps never again as dignified and noble, or the measure of all things.

 

Nevertheless, the common optimistic view is that human beings, while an integral part of nature and subject to its laws, occupy a unique place in nature because of their ability to reason and transform themselves and the world they inhabit. At the heart of humanism, therefore, there is a belief that humankind can achieve freedom and progress through its own efforts, from both the binding laws of nature and the tyranny of Man's baser inclinations, reinforcing the writings of Karl Marx which were based on his belief that human beings have the capacity to determine their own destiny. The question is: for better or for worse?

 

The Nature of Science

Four centuries ago, Francis Bacon's vision of knowledge described the translation of knowledge to power and man's dominion over nature. In the intervening centuries, that vision matured, producing technologies that none of the early architects of modern science ever anticipated  -  a time when man would acquire the kind of control over nature that would enable him, should he choose, to destroy the human species or at least radically shape his future through his power over life and death, contained in the promise of modern physics and modern biology.

 

Today, science and the future of humankind are inextricably linked. Science has liberated human beings from mindless superstition, has helped to offset the ravages of the elements and disease, and has become a major factor in the development of technology needed to sustain modern society. Thus, science has been legitimised, as we acknowledge the enormous good it can achieve in eliminating poverty and disease. But recently its legitimacy has been questioned, as we confront the grave dangers unleashed by modern technologies that threaten the continuation of life as it exists today on earth.

 

The development of molecular biology over the last few decades reflects its foundation in the reductionist nature of modern science and the critical shifts in twentieth-century biology, such as the shift in the relocation of the basis of life from the physical-chemical interactions and structures of the organism itself to the physical-chemical structure of one particular component of the cell, namely, the gene; the redefinition of life from the complex of characteristics of living organisms (such as growth, development and reproduction) to 'instructions encoded in the genes', making life a cryptogram or code that can be broken or a working model that sooner or later can be made; the recasting of the goals of biological science from an observational science to an experimental science, from description to intervention or control which promises effective mastery over the processes of making and remaking life. The undeniable conclusion is that science and technology need to be guided by universal moral principles.

 

In the course of history, science has always come under scrutiny and criticism, but today there is growing disillusionment with science. Many of the promises science and technology have made for a better world remain unfulfilled. On the contrary, we now live in a dangerously polluted world whose fragile, delicately balanced ecosystems are being irreversibly degraded by the wastes of an industrialised civilisation. The unholy alliance of scientists, industrialists and militarists has generated inhumane weapons of destruction which threaten human survival.

 

Many of humanity's outstanding problems have been attributed to science. Much debate has revolved around whether they are engendered by humankind's misuse of science or whether they are intrinsic to the scientific enterprise. It is generally agreed that certain applications of science have created perilous, if not fatal, problems for humankind. Other detractors of science argue that the very nature of scientific knowledge and its mode of enquiry are fatally flawed and that it is time to break free from the chains of a stifling ideology and create an environment for transparency and accountability.

 

There is a view that advances in science and technology occur partly in response to economic incentives and not because of some innate compulsion by scientists, although it is clear from the examples of Newton and Einstein that science does possess its own inherent dynamics that propel it from discovery to discovery. In the contemporary world of consumerism where altruism is a neglected quality, the growth of technology is often stimulated when there is a tangible need and when it leads to economic benefits.

 

The Scientist in Society

Although the term scientist was invented in 1840, the practitioners of science were few in number until the 20th century when science became an institution and a large community of scientists emerged. Today, the prodigious advances of 20th century science have had a profound impact on human lives and have radically changed the relationship between science and society, as well as international relations. 

 

The goals of scientists include the pursuit of knowledge, the eradication of ignorance, and the solution of practical problems. Science has dispelled many unfounded traditional beliefs and spawned new technologies that drove the industrial revolution. These new technologies have brought about profound changes in social organisation, political processes, and the environment.

 

Science has improved the quality of life. It has also created great perils that threaten our very existence today. Scientists can no longer look the other way, shrug their shoulders, and claim that their work is neutral and has nothing to do with the well-being of planet Earth.

 

Science goes hand in hand with technology. Technologies are extensions of our bodies and functions, representing tools with which to increase our power over the forces of nature and fellow human beings. The exercise of that power is never neutral, for in the act some one or something in the environment is compromised, diminished or exploited to enhance or secure our own well-being. The question that should be asked of any technology is whether the power being exercised is appropriate and not overwhelming, whether the unleashing of that power will result in greater diminution than enhancement and do more harm than good. Nuclear power is a good example of a technology whose inherent power is so inappropriate and overwhelming that it inflicts more harm than good. The constant danger of nuclear accidents, like the one in Chernobyl, and the long-term threat of accumulating radioactive wastes greatly diminish any short-term market gains.

 

The distinction between science and technology becomes increasingly blurred as one gets closer to the very frontiers of technology. Genetic engineering, robotics, nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, computers, nuclear fusion, and space travel were all the result of sophisticated theoretical science, but it would be a mistake to think that science and technology are synonymous or interchangeable terms. Technology is the implementation of scientific knowledge in order to satisfy human needs. Science and technology are therefore directed towards different goals, and the demands they make at the philosophical and conceptual levels are quite different.  

 

The Ethics of Science

As ethics are standards of conduct or social norms that define behaviour in human society, scientists like any other profession must also be bound by an ethical code to ensure that their professional conduct and their activities contribute to the well-being of society. Surveys of the global impact of science and technology have raised a wide range of ethical concerns and have led to the conclusion that scientists must re-examine the mythical concept perpetuated by the scientific establishment that science is purely objective, neutral and value-free.

 

Documented evidence of ethical misconduct in scientific research has created the perception that science often suffers from a lack of ethics, threatening the stability and integrity of research. These include the secret experiments on human beings during the Second World War and the Cold War, allegations of plagiarism, fraud and the mismanagement of funds, discrimination, and conflicts of interest.

 

It is also becoming clear that structural aspects of scientific research contribute to the unethical conduct of scientists, whose careers depend on research grants, research appointments, number of publications, tenure and awards. As government funding for research is limited, scientists are often beholden to the private sector for research grants and are increasingly seduced by big business. In place of impartiality, research results are sometimes discreetly managed , or locked away if they do not serve the right interests. It would seem that self-regulation through peer review does not always succeed in detecting fraud or error.

 

There is also increasing concern that the growing interdependence and interface between

science, business and industry have generated ethical conflicts between scientific values and business values. These tensions have raised concerns about the funding of science, peer review, scientific transparency, the ownership of knowledge, and the sharing of resources.                                             

 

Despite these concerns, some scientists do not take ethics very seriously. Many believe that misconduct is uncommon and that ethical issues do not arise because they view science as "objective". Many hold that scientists do not need formal instruction in ethics, believing that ethics is learnt at a much earlier age by example, osmosis and practice. Such views tend to hinder the serious study of the ethics of science.

 

Scientists should emulate the ethos of physicians who honour the Hippocratic Oath: First do no harm. It is encouraging to note that the Student Pugwash Group in the United States of America has initiated a timely pledge that has been signed by thousands of students worldwide: "I promise to work for a better world, where science and technology are used in socially responsible ways. I will not use my education for any purpose intended to harm human beings or the environment. Throughout my career, I will consider the ethical implications of my work before I take action. While the demands placed upon me may be great, I sign this declaration because I recognise that individual responsibility is the first step on the path to peace."

 

Biotechnology

We are in the midst of rapid technological change and it is likely that science and technology and their commercial applications will determine the kind of civilisation we fashion for ourselves in the 21st century, as we move from the industrial age into the age of biotechnology and information technology, with genes and silicon microchips as the new raw materials of a new era. The industrial revolution spawned many competing claims and points of view about how best to harness and develop new resources and technologies and distribute the proceeds of industrialisation. So too will the new revolutions in biotechnology and information.

 

Our way of life and our relationship with the natural world are likely to be fundamentally transformed in the 21st century as we grapple with changes in our definitions of nature and life itself. Our sense of self and society will probably change as well, as it did when the Renaissance swept over medieval Europe more than seven hundred years ago. Central to these changes will be genetic science, as geneticists begin to produce the new tools of molecular biology  and create opportunities for refashioning life at the genetic level in laboratories in universities,  government agencies and corporations around the world. In the next few decades, we could face radical changes in our way of life and experience what now passes for science fiction.

 

The potential of modern biotechnology to serve the interests and needs of humankind exceeds the imagination, but it cannot be evaluated separate from the social, cultural and ecological environments in which it is an integral part. For example, biotechnological research by multinational corporations towards increasing the output and nutritional value of grain, is negligibly small, compared with the substantial development of genetically engineered seed stocks that are herbicide-tolerant and pest-resistant. This policy enables the industry to profit from the sale of their seed stocks, fertiliser, herbicides and pesticides as integrated package solutions to farmers. As a result, farmers and people in the South are becoming economically more dependent on the North and ecologically more vulnerable, while countries in the North are becoming economically independent and more prosperous. It is therefore relevant to view biotechnology in the context of North-South relations, a globalised market economy, cultural diversity, economic asymmetry, and the value of all living things.

 

The benefits and perils are both exciting to behold and chilling to contemplate, given the enormous potential and ominous nature of this new technological frontier, especially when it merges with the power of computers and information technology to create a new economic era. Modern biotechnology is often promoted as an ecologically sound technology, necessary for the realisation of  sustainable development and a common future, as well as a morally necessary solution for the eradication of poverty, hunger and disease. However, reliance on technology alone tends to marginalise alternative approaches, that address social, economic and environmental causes of malnutrition and ill-health, and to undermine the implementation of a sustainable agricultural policy that would help to alleviate poverty, guarantee long-term food security, regenerate the environment and conserve indigenous biodiversity.

 

It is clear that modern science and technology are becoming increasingly involved and integrated within political structures, financial institutions and multinational corporations, influencing change in modern life-styles, promoting unsustainable and wasteful consumerism, and causing environmental damage. Although these negative social and environmental impacts have been known from the early years of industrialisation, when they were often dismissed as secondary effects or passing phenomena, acute and chronic environmental and developmental crises in recent years are now generating public awareness and concern.

 

In addressing these issues and challenging the authority, credibility and legitimacy of science and technology, it is necessary to understand the role of biotechnology, evaluate its possibilities and limitations, and examine its ethics and politics.

 

Genetic engineering  -  its benefits and its hazards

Every plant, animal or human being is different because each has a unique blueprint of genetic material called deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) that is inherited from its parents. DNA represents a complete set of information and instructions that the organism needs for growth, development and reproduction. Such information is coded in genes located along segments of the DNA. Genes are the units of inheritance which determine the characteristics of a living organism.

 

Genetic engineering is a set of laboratory techniques used to isolate, identify, manipulate and recombine genes from unrelated species of organisms. This transgenic recombinant technology enables geneticists to alter the DNA of living organisms, either by cutting and joining the strands of DNA or by cutting out specific genes and inserting them into the DNA of another completely unrelated species. By transferring genes horizontally between unrelated species across species barriers, as opposed to the vertical transfer of genes between related species through natural reproduction, genetic engineering now makes it possible to transfer a fish gene into a tomato, a human gene into a sheep or a bacterium, and spider silk genes into a goat.

 

Recombinant DNA technology is reshaping virtually every field of industry. Genetically engineered (GE) organisms are being developed for a variety of processes  -  the extraction of metals from ores and biofuels from sugar and grain, the production of plastics from plants, the harvesting of silk and new fibres from bacteria, cleaning up pollutants and hazardous waste, increasing the cellulose content of trees, growing food crops capable of absorbing nitrogen directly from the air as a substitute for petrochemical fertilisers, improving the nutritional value and shelf-life of food crops and their capacity to tolerate herbicides and resist attacks from pests, viruses and fungi. 

 

Genetic engineers use a large variety of artificial vectors or carriers derived from viruses and bacteria, which may have the ability to cause tumours, cancers and other diseases. Generally the vectors have had their disease-causing functions removed or disabled before being spliced with the chosen genes, but there is already overwhelming evidence that horizontal gene transfer and recombination have been responsible for creating new viral and bacterial pathogens. Some scientists link genetic engineering with the appearance of new diseases that have jumped the barriers between unrelated species, such as a neurological wasting disease in humans that was  reported to have been caused by a gene of the fruit fly.

 

It is acknowledged that horizontal gene transfer is an established natural phenomenon that has taken place over thousands of years in our evolutionary past and is continuing today. But this natural gene transfer is a regulated process, limited by species barriers and by mechanisms that break down and inactivate foreign genetic material. However, modern genetic engineering has created a large variety of artificial gene-constructs over a short period of time, designed to cross all species barriers and to invade essentially all genomes. Some of the most dangerous gene-constructs may be coming from the waste disposal of transgenic organisms, including cancer genes from laboratories researching and developing cancer drugs. In other words, the biosphere is being exposed to and populated by all kinds of new gene combinations, that did not exist previously in nature and may never have come into existence but for genetic engineering.

 

The release of GE organisms into the environment will in effect amount to a re-seeding of the biosphere, a veritable second Genesis. Imagine the global impact of thousands of new life forms, created in a brief moment of evolutionary time by the sweeping transfer of genes between totally unrelated species across all biological boundaries  -  plant, animal and human. Then envision clonal propagation and the release of mass-produced replicas into the environment where they would mutate, proliferate, migrate and colonise land, water and air. It is difficult to predict the consequences but they could be catastrophic.

 

Whenever a GE organism is artificially released, there is always a risk that it could run riot and pollute the biosphere. It is tantamount to playing ecological roulette. Gene pollution of the biosphere is already happening and it is likely to spread, destroying habitats, destabilising ecosystems, diminishing reservoirs of biological diversity, and creating serious and potentially catastrophic health risks. Indeed, gene pollution is likely to pose as significant a threat to the biosphere in the 21st century as petrochemicals have in the 20th century.

 

Global life-sciences companies, like Monsanto, are expected to introduce thousands of GE organisms into the environment this century, just as industrial companies released thousands of petrochemical products into the environment during the past two centuries. While many of the new generation of transgenic crops, with new genetic traits from other plants, viruses, bacteria and animals, will probably be benign, sheer statistical probability suggests that at least a small percentage of GE organisms will prove to be dangerous and highly destructive to the environment.

 

 

The genetic transformation of agriculture

Genetic engineering is revolutionising agriculture and transforming the production of food crops, as geneticists try to "improve" or "perfect" the quality of food we consume. Many of the decisions to tamper with natural foods through genetic engineering are made behind closed doors with little public debate. For many crops, like soya beans and corn, genetic engineering is already a fait accompli.

 

One major problem is that the methods of inserting genes are hit-or-miss, with a tendency for artificial gene-constructs to fracture and join up incorrectly, resulting in unpredictable combinations and inherent instability which render organisms malformed or sickly.

 

Another problem relates to the use of antibiotic-resistant genes as "marker" genes in GE crops. Many studies have shown that marker genes and DNA from GE food can pass intact to the animals and humans that cosume the food. Therefore, people who consume GE food containing antibiotic-resistant marker genes could become immune to specific antibiotics and not respond to treatment.

 

It is also known that genes and DNA are readily exchanged between bacteria and other simple organism. Therefore, the passage of antibiotic-resistant genes to pathogenic (disease-causing) bacteria or viruses could make them resistant to antibiotics and cause the spread of antibiotic-resistant diseases. Worse still, as pathogenic microbes become resistant to antibiotics, they could also create new, virulent, antibiotic-resistant strains through the process of horizontal gene transfer.

 

At present, agricultural biotechnology is largely centred on the creation of herbicide-tolerant, pest-resistant and virus-resistant GE crops, such as corn, soya bean, cotton, canola and potatoes. Biotech companies claim that such GE crops will reduce the use of toxic herbicides. On the contrary, as the GE crops are herbicide-tolerant, farmers spray higher levels of the poisonous herbicide, knowing that their crops will not be harmed. The result is higher levels of toxic residues on the crops we consume and higher sales of herbicides. Needless to say, the same biotech companies that manufacture the herbicides also genetically engineer the crops. A good example is the 'Roundup Ready' technology of  Monsanto Company, which increased its sales of Roundup herbicide after genetically engineering Roundup-tolerant crops. . 

 

Many crops are also genetically engineered to resist pests. By secreting their own pesticides in every cell, they kill off pests that attack them. Those pests that survive will in time acquire resistance and become "super bugs". This will create new problems for farmers and encourage greater use of pesticides. Biotech companies claim that their GE crops with built-in toxins are harmless to consume, and yet they have not persisted in carrying out long-term animal or human trials to prove their claims. In 1998, a study of rats, fed on pest-resistant potatoes, showed that they developed all kinds of biological problems. Scientists have also shown that GE crops with built-in toxins can harm and kill not only pests but also other wildlife, such as butterflies, bees and other insect pollinators. 

                                                                  

There are ecological concerns that herbicide-tolerant, pest-resistant and virus-resistant transgenic plants may lead to the growth of new resistant strains of "super-weeds". The globalisation of commerce and increasing international travel virtually guarantee global gene pollution.

                                            

 

Another concern relates to the so-called 'terminator' technology which is responsible for making harvested seeds sterile, so that biotech companies can enforce their patent rights on GE seeds. Terminator crops have been field-tested in Europe and the United States since 1990 and have already been released commercially. This technology is calculated to prevent farmers from saving, replanting and exchanging seeds, a farming practice essential for food security that goes back thousands of years. The greatest danger here is the spread of terminator genes to related and unrelated species and the threat to biodiversity.

 

The fingerprints of commerce are to be found everywhere in genetic engineering. Instead of choosing genes that would increase yield or improve growth efficiency, geneticists usually inject only one gene that confers an aesthetic change or makes the plant tolerant to a proprietary chemical. Any increase in yield or nutritional value is usually incidental to a more readily achieved economic advantage. In fact, some studies of Roundup Ready crops have shown reduced yields for some strains of GE crops when compared with non-genetically modified crop lines. In other words, the claim that GE crops will solve the world's food problems is false.

 

Only a few giant multinational corporations dominate a market estimated in 1999 to be worth about US$ 2,000 billion, through their controlling interests in such industries as biotechnology, food and additives, pharmaceuticals, chemicals and seeds. Their monopolies and patents for GE products, although developed at great cost, never fail to generate huge profits for their shareholders. In their commitment to secure markets ahead of competitors, they pressure governments to relax safety standards and environmental regulations, and avoid long-term animal and human trials, and the segregation and labelling of GE products. To our detriment, governments and international regulatory bodies, like the Food and Agricultural Organisation and the World Health Organisation, have succumbed to corporate pressure.

 

The biotech industry has always insisted that the genetic engineering of plants and animals is a "variation" of "natural" or conventional breeding that has gone on in farms for thousands of years. It insists on the idea of "substantial equivalence", arguing that GE products are "pure" and "just like" natural foods. As a result, GE products are only tested for a few known criteria  -  nutrients, allergens and natural toxins. No tests are carried out on the probable presence of new, unknown substances which could be toxic or harmful.

 

In 1989, an epidemic of a strange new disease hit the United States. Five thousand people were hospitalised with symptoms that included severe muscle pains, high white blood cell counts, weakness and paralysis. Thirty-seven people died and about 1,500 were permanently disabled. Later, the cause was traced to a genetically engineered amino-acid, called L-tryptophan, which was sold as a food supplement.

 

Biotechnology is about 30 years old and even a company like Monsanto concedes that the long-term effects of GE food are unknown and that it has never tested its products on humans for food safety. There is considerable concern that no studies have been done on possible health hazards from the ingestion of untested GE food, although it has already been commercially released to the public without adequate labelling or segregation. The problem is that there is no completely reliable method of detecting any potentially dangerous substance. The present tests for the safety of drugs used by the pharmaceutical industry are very costly and time-consuming, involving vigorous, long-term animal and human trials. Yet, they too fail to detect harmful effects in about 13 percent of new drugs released into the market. 

 

                                                                 

After the disaster of the 'Green Revolution' from overuse of DDT, the environmental movement is wholly justified in its opposition to genetic engineering and its scepticism of pronouncements from governments and corporations that tout GE crops as a panacea for the world's food shortage. It is not surprising that genetic engineering is widely perceived as an extension of corporate dominance and a means to short-term gains for shareholders.

 

Yet another disaster related to bad science has been the ill-advised feeding of cattle with bone-meal for the intensification of livestock production and the serious health consequences of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE). Indeed, mad cow disease is a stark reminder of the pitfalls of over-reliance on untested innovations in farming practices.

 

There is concern that the vast scope and scale of the new genetic revolution in agriculture threatens to be similarly disruptive. There is also concern about the stewardship of the planet and whether the risks being taken will be commensurate with the benefits being claimed. At the core of the problem is the folly of massively substituting GE crops for those already selected by natural methods, without first carrying out objective and independent experiments and trials to determine and assess the negative health and environmental implications of GE food crops. Critics of genetic engineering do not reject all genetic engineering as being intrinsically wrong because it alters nature, but they do question blind assurances that the new wave of GE crops promises unlimited returns at virtually no environmental or health costs.

 

Animal and human genetics

It must be said that there is great value in some of the extraordinary advances achieved in genetic science, but it must also be recognised that there is great danger in reprogramming the genetic codes of life and risking a potentially fatal disruption of millions of years of evolutionary development.

 

The cutting edge in genetic science is occurring in the pharmaceutical industry, where geneticists are transforming herds of animals into "chemical factories" for the production of drugs, medicines and nutrients. Millions of people are already using genetically engineered drugs and medicines to treat heart disease, cancer, AIDS and strokes. In 1995, more than 280 new genetically engineered drugs were tested, a 20 percent increase over the previous year, offering new hope of cures for diseases that have long been untreatable.

                                                                  

Revolutionary developments are also taking place in animal husbandry, where researchers are developing genetically engineered "super-animals" with enhanced characteristics for food production.

 

On the 23rd of February 1997, scientists at the Roslin Institute in Scotland announced that they had succeeded in cloning a sheep from a cell taken from the mammary gland of an adult sheep. The birth of Dolly, which heralded the cloning of the first mammal in history, promises many new developments in medicine, such as gene therapy for fatal genetic diseases. It will also  permit scientists to both customise and mass produce cloned animals for the supply of a range of drugs and organs for human transplantation. The ability to mass produce exact replicas will assure quality control necessary to make xenotransplants a major commercial enterprise. It is estimated that more than 450,000 people worldwide will take advantage of xenotransplants with a market value of US$ 6 billion by the year 2010.

 

There are two aspects to consider in the farming of genetically engineered animals. First, the ethical concerns about cruelty to animals and their welfare. Second, the question of human safety and whether the risks are worthwhile. It has been shown that human donor transplantation programmes in advanced countries add 0.003 percent to life expectancy, which averages out to about one day. It is estimated that xenotransplantation will only increase life expectancy by 0.02 percent.

 

At present, the hazards of xenotransplantation far outweigh any potential benefits. There is now a moratorium in Britain on clinical trials of xenotransplants because of the recognised possibility that pig viruses can cross over into human beings. The mere act of transferring genes horizontally between unrelated species is sufficient to facilitate the creation of new pathogenic viruses by recombination. We know that recombination between exogenous and endogenous viruses is strongly implicated in cancer pathogenesis in many mammalian species. In practical terms, it is impossible to ensure that donor animals are free of protein contaminants like the prion, which is responsible for bovine spongiform encephalopathy in cattle and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in humans.

 

Moreover, despite reassurances by Dolly's creators that human cloning would be technically difficult and ethically unacceptable, the spectre of human cloning looms ahead of us and raises serious ethical questions about the possible use of this technology to clone human embryos for therapeutic purposes. In other words, human embryos could be similarly farmed as Dolly was and then sacrificed to provide tissues and organs for replacement. It is more than probable that the pharmaceutical industry and life sciences companies would be willing to provide research funds for profitable, new reproductive technologies.

 

The neutral stance of Dolly's creators, that they are following a natural obligation for the advancement of science, reveals the scientist's unspoken assumption that he can do no wrong and that there can be no question of personal responsibility for his experimental work. In January 1998, Richard Seed, an 'independent' scientist in Chicago, announced that he would begin work on cloning human beings.

 

In January 2001, against the advice of the European Group of Ethics in Science and New Technologies, the British government approved a new law to allow the creation of human embryos up to fourteen days to provide embryonic stem cells for therapeutic purposes. Stem cells have the ability to divide and differentiate into many types of cells that could lead to the growth of tissue and organs in the laboratory for the replacement of defective or diseased body

parts. Many quarters have opposed such attempts at human 'therapeutic' cloning on the grounds that it is morally unacceptable to create human embryos for the production of embryonic stem cells and human 'spare-parts', and because it is a slippery slope to human reproduction cloning.

                                                                  

In expressing concern for the unforeseeable consequences of the new technologies, critics of the new technologies should not be maligned as Luddites, the 19th century group who opposed the introduction of machinery into England. The cloning of human beings is quite another matter. It would represent the substitution of Science for the Laws of Nature, the descent of humankind into a state of moral relativism, and a disavowal of those who believe in a Creator.

 

                                                                 

The recently completed Human Genome Project has succeeded in mapping and sequencing the entire human genome of approximately 30,000 genes, which will in time redefine our concepts of disease and our approaches to health care, particularly towards the numerous genetic diseases that afflict human beings. In the next few years, the new technologies could customise genetic changes in ova or sperm before conception, or in embryonic cells just after conception or during fetal development. 

 

As a result of the many advances in genetic science, we could soon be in possession of all the genetic instructions and technology necessary for the creation of a human being. This will profoundly change our concept of human nature and the way we view ourselves and nature. We are on our way to remaking ourselves as well as the rest of nature, with little preparation and even less discussion about the travails of this journey and where it might end.

 

Humankind's technological manipulation of the natural world began in the age of pyro-technology when our ancestors experimented with fire for the first time and turned clay into pots. Then came the transformation of the industrial age. Now humanity is taking its first steps on a new unfathomable journey into the unknown. This hazardous biotechnological journey is forcing a significant philosophical transformation, as humanity begins to rethink and reshape its concept of life and existence.

 

Genetic manipulation would enable the creation of "imitations" that are superior to the originals being copied. The final goal would be to engineer the perfect organism, as nature is seen as an imperfect hierarchical order of living systems. The geneticist will be the ultimate engineer, whose task will be to modify or accelerate the natural evolutionary process by programming new perfect creations.

 

There could be several positive advances in biotechnology, and the scientific community, industry and governments are quick to advertise the benefits in store for society. The short-term advantages are obvious and persuasive, but history has taught us that every new technological revolution also comes with a price. The more powerful the technology is at disrupting the forces of nature, the greater the price we will be forced to pay in terms of damage to the ecosystems and social systems. Our experience with nuclear energy and petrochemicals bears this out.

 

Proponents of the new genetic science are embarking on the most daring and risky experiment ever undertaken in their quest to remake the biological world, with very little valid data on potential impacts of gene pollution on the global commons and health. Re-seeding the biosphere carries grave risks. To ignore warnings of environmental damage, pestilence and  famine is to place civilisation in harm's way. The truth is that we do not really know the end results of these experiments. There is obviously an urgent need to establish effective regulatory control to prevent the escape and release of these dangerous elements into the environment and to consider whether some of these experiments should be allowed to continue. Until then, a moratorium on genetic engineering should be in place. Genetic engineering originated in the 1970s. Even in those early days, molecular biologists were aware of the dangers of recombinant DNA technology and adopted the Asilomar Declaration in 1975, calling for a moratorium on genetic engineering until appropriate guidelines were in place.

 

But now in the 1990s, the risks from genetic manipulation are far greater, as techniques are ten times faster and more powerful, and the new breed of GE organisms are designed to be ecologically more vigorous and therefore potentially much more hazardous than those produced in the 1970s. Although an increasing number of scientists are critical of genetic engineering, there has been no equivalent of the Asilomar Declaration in the 1990s, calling for a moratorium. This is not surprising as the commercialisation of science and technology has corrupted and compromised the integrity of scientists. Many of the current top molecular biologists either own biotech companies or are collaborating with or working for such companies.

 

The 'patenting of life'

In the 21st century, genes will represent the economic equivalent of fossil fuels and the valuable metals of the industrial age. Therefore, those who control the genetic resources of the planet will exercise tremendous power over the future world economy. A struggle for control has already developed between the rich high-technology nations of the North and the poor developing nations of the South, who contend that the developed nations are attempting to seize the biological commons which is mostly found in the biologically-rich tropical regions of the South.

 

Multinational corporations, research institutions and some governments are already scouring the planet to locate and modify bacteria, viruses, plants, animals and human beings with rare genetic traits that might have future market potential. Having modified them, biotech companies then claim them as "inventions" and seek patent protection. Consequently, they could hold patents on virtually all the 30,000 genes discovered in the Human Genome Project, as well as the cells, tissues and organs that make up the human body. They may also succeed in patenting thousands of microorganisms, plants and animals, which will give multinational corporations unprecedented power to decide how future generations will live their lives.

 

The enclosure and privatisation of the planet's genetic commons began in 1971 when the US Supreme Court granted an Indian microbiologist a patent on a genetically engineered microorganism designed to consume oil spills polluting the oceans. The profound commercial implication of this legal decision was that, for purposes of commerce, there was no longer any

need to make a distinction between living things and inanimate objects. The question is whether engineered genes, cells, tissues, organs, or even whole organisms are truly human inventions, like invented machinery, or merely discoveries of nature that have been skillfully modified by human beings. Once the boundaries between the sacred and the profane are removed, any form of life could be reduced to the status of an inanimate object. The significance of this ruling was not lost on American chemical, pharmaceutical, agribusiness and biotech companies, which have now been granted such wide-ranging life patents that individual companies have a virtual monopoly over the use of the genes of whole species of organisms.

 

This struggle between Northern multinational corporations and Southern countries for control over the global genetic commons is not new. The history of the colonial struggle has been one of continual usurpation and exploitation of indigenous biological, agricultural and mineral riches by colonising nations for the advantage of their home markets. Today, rubber planters are giving way to gene prospectors, as multinational corporations finance expeditions across the southern hemisphere. The stakes are high. Nearly three-quarters of all plant-based prescription drugs in use today were derived from plants used in indigenous medicine.

 

The commercialisation of genetic engineering has been growing steadily since the formation of the first corporation, Genentech, in 1976 and the ruling of the US Supreme Court in 1980 that

genetically engineered microorganisms can be patented. In 1998, the US National Institute of Health established the Human Genome Initiative with a government grant of US$ 3 billion. This opened the floodgates of patenting and since then numerous 'patents on life' have been granted, and many more are pending.

 

Anxious to defuse opposition to life patents and facilitate patenting for commercial exploitation, multinational corporations are now actively seeking to impose a uniform intellectual property rights regime, which will be binding on every country and will give multinationals free access to genetic material from around the world. Through the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), predecessor of the World Trade Organisation (WTO), the Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) agreement was introduced. By defining inventions and innovations solely as those activities carried out within the framework of Western science only, the TRIPS agreement has effectively excluded all kinds of knowledge, ideas and innovations that originated from indigenous Third World communities centuries ago. This enables biotech companies to help themselves to chunks of genetic treasure in the Third World and then sell back the same in a slightly engineered and patented form at a considerable profit.

 

Despite their differences, both parties are willing to commercially enclose the global gene pool and transform it into a commodity with a market price. However, a number of non-governmental organisations and some countries argue that the gene pool should not be for sale at any price, but that it should remain an open commons to be used freely by present and future generations. The issue of life patents has given rise to a crucial debate, as important as the debate over the abolition of slavery. The abolitionists of slavery argued that every human being has intrinsic value and cannot be made the personal commercial property of another human being. That same forceful argument applies equally to life patents. 

 

It is clear that modern science is being subverted and used to sanction and legitimise Western biotech companies in their piracy of Third World genetic resources. Genetic engineering is viewed by many as an unholy alliance between 'bad science' and big business, an alliance in which multinational corporations in the future will be able to determine every aspect of human life, from designer crops to designer food, from designer babies to designer slaves, from designer soldiers to designer dictators. A Brave New World or a Crazed New World?  It's not that science is 'bad', but there can be 'bad science' when it ignores scientific evidence and betrays humanity by professing to be neutral and amoral in the face of serious health, social and environmental consequences.

 

Since the early 1990s, scientific research in the industrialised countries has been oriented towards products of genetic engineering, at the cost of many areas of basic science that have been starved of research funds. The ideals of open enquiry are being replaced by a system that judges excellence by the number of patents owned instead of advances in science. It would appear that the market is in the process of reducing the life sciences to a monolithic intellectual wasteland while corporate monopoly undermines social justice and subjugates civil society. 

 

The subservience of science and technology to commercial interests represents another loss in our value system, now under siege by market forces, as they facilitate the consolidation of economic and political power in the board rooms of multinational corporations through mergers, acquisitions and strategic alliances, as they bid to control agricultural, pharmaceutical and medical biotechnology through exclusive, unethical patent rights.

 

Biological weapons

If you subscribe to the 5th century saying, "If you want peace, prepare for war", you will agree that science and technology have made the greatest contributions to peace through their great devotion to the production of all types of weapons for the preparation and waging of war.

 

Biological weapons were introduced for the first time when anthrax was used in the First World War. Biological warfare, using plague, cholera and typhoid bacilli, was also practised by Japan against China during the Second World War. The United States and Britain responded by developing botulism and anthrax weapons for biological warfare, but never used them.                                                            

 

During the Cold War, both sides developed extensive biological weapons programmes but soon realised that biological weapons had intrinsic limitations and political liabilities in war. In 1972, a Biological Weapons Convention was signed and all known stockpiles of biological and toxin weapons were destroyed by 1980. The Convention prohibited the development or acquisition of biological agents or toxins but left a loophole which allowed research into biological agents necessary for defensive measures.

 

By the end of the 1970s, new developments in genetic engineering and the mass-production of viruses renewed military interest in biological weapons. Unproved allegations of new biological weapons programmes in other countries gave the United States an opportunity to exploit the loophole in the Convention and initiate "defensive" research in biological weapons. By the end of the 1980s, biological warfare research programmes had expanded globally in tandem with US activities and in 1993 it was estimated that eleven countries either possessed or could develop biological weapons.

 

The question is whether genetic weapons have become a practical possibility. Work on the Human Genome Project has described the existence of normal variants in different populations. If it provides sufficient data on ethnic genetic differences between population groups, it may be possible to use such data to target suitable microorganisms to attack known receptor sites with such differences or even to target DNA sequences inside cells by viral vectors. It needs to be pointed out that techniques to selectively kill targeted cells, inactivate specific DNA sequences, insert new sequences at selected points and the like are rapidly being developed for several medical therapies, including gene therapy.

 

In short, if there are distinguishing DNA sequences between groups, and these can be targeted in a way that is known to produce a harmful outcome, a genetic weapon then becomes possible. In other words, it cannot be ruled out that information from genetic research could be considered for the design of weapons targeted against specific ethnic or racial groups. Imagine how this would have been used by Hitler in his solution of the 'Jewish problem'.

 

The Jekyll and Hyde nature of science often creates a human dilemma. Current research in biotechnology reflects earlier research in nuclear physics in the 1940s and 1950s. The database for nuclear technology was used for dual purposes  -  military and industrial. Similarly, the database for commercial genetic engineering is freely convertible to a wide range of biological weapons.           

 

The new technologies can also be used to genetically programme infectious microorganisms to increase their virulence, antibiotic resistance and environmental stability. They can also be used to insert genes into harmless microorganisms and make them pathogenic. Genetic engineering may also produce organisms that affect mood, behaviour and body temperature, as well as clone selective toxins that could destroy specific strains or species of agricultural plants or domestic animals, with the intention of crippling the economy of a country.

 

Experimentation with designer genes and genetic weapons in laboratories across the world will also increase the likelihood of accidental releases into the environment. In the 20th century, modern science reached a high point with the splitting of the atom, followed later by the discovery of the DNA double helix. Atomic physics led immediately to the development of the

atomic bomb and the prospect of human annihilation. We now contemplate the possibility that genetic science could be moving in the same direction.

 

This pinpoints the inherent difficulties in monitoring research effectively and the need for laboratories to be strictly regulated and controlled by peer groups to ensure that researchers are not persuaded or coerced into carrying out work for malign purposes. It is widely acknowledged that it is virtually impossible to distinguish between defensive and offensive research, between peaceful uses of deadly toxins and military uses. It is unlikely that genetic engineering can be

kept beyond the reach of the military establishment as genetic weaponry will probably have greater military usefulness than nuclear weapons.

 

The spectre of eugenics

The new sociology of the gene is helping create the cultural climate for a eugenics society. The never-ending debate of nature versus nurture is now being influenced by the new genetic science which postulates that human behaviour is more closely determined by one's biological inheritance than by one's environment and that genes are at the root of our social problems.

Researchers are already linking some mental diseases to genetic disorders and even beginning to suggest that there is a genetic basis for mood, misanthropy and criminality. In other words, we are our genes.

 

The new breakthroughs in biotechnology raise social concerns about the spectre of a new eugenics movement. The mapping of the human genome, the increasing ability to screen for genetic disorders and diseases, the new reproductive technologies, and the new techniques for genetic manipulation may well be the basis of a eugenics civilisation. For the first time in history, we might be able to rearrange the genetic make-up of the human species and change the future course of our biological evolution, with the prospect of creating a new man or woman.

 

Let us not forget that not long ago the politics of eugenics played a prominent role in the history of the 20th century. It was used to justify the devastation of indigenous populations in the southern hemisphere by colonising Europeans. In the first quarter of the 20th century, immigration laws in the United States were based on eugenic standards. By 1931, thirty states in the US had passed sterilisation laws and tens of thousands of American citizens, classified as criminals or feeble-minded, were sterilised. In 1933, Nazi Germany decreed a eugenics law which was to be the first step in a mass eugenics programme that would later claim the lives of six million Jews. From 1948 onwards, racial discrimination and segregation were enforced in  South Africa with the apartheid system, until it was dismantled in the late 1980s.  In 1996, China legislated for the compulsory termination of pregnancies diagnosed positive for genetic diseases.

 

The new genetic engineering tools are in effect eugenic instruments, for whenever genes are manipulated to "improve" an organism, a eugenic decision is made. This is what eugenics is all about. Of course, the new eugenics movement bears no resemblance to the Nazi experience which ended in the Holocaust. In place of the ideology of racial purity, the new ideology of commercial eugenics refers to increased economic efficiency and better performance standards. The old eugenics was steeped in political ideology and hate. The new eugenics is propelled more by market forces and consumerism than politics. Research and debate continue in parallel, but it is important to maintain a balanced view of genetic science, if we are to avoid the risk of a potentially dangerous eugenics-based political agenda.  

                                                                  

Genetic apartheid

Apartheid is an idea as old as civilisation. Throughout history, societies have been divided by caste and class, race and nationality, religion and secularism. Now, with genetic screening and genetic engineering, society probably faces a new and more serious form of segregation, based on genotype  -  genetic apartheid. A 1996 survey in the United States showed that genetic discrimination is already being practised by employers, insurance companies, health care providers, government agencies, adoption agencies and schools. Segregating individuals by their genetic make-up represents a fundamental shift in the exercise of power and could spawn a "genetic underclass" and a "genetocracy".

 

With the completion of the Human Genome Project, geneticists will now be able to identify  genetic 'predispositions' for numerous conditions, including cancer, diabetes, schizophrenia, alcoholism, homosexuality and criminality. While these new discoveries will have important implications for health, it is possible that such genetic information could be used to stigmatise individuals through arbitrary categories of 'normal' versus 'abnormal.' Although the new genetic engineering technologies hold great promise for future generations, they also pose one of the most troubling dilemmas faced by humankind. To whom do we entrust the authority to decide what is a good gene that should be added to the gene pool and what is a bad gene that should be eliminated?

 

While control of the new genetic technologies is being concentrated in the hands of scientists, multinational companies, government agencies and other institutions, a Faustian bargain is being struck between the providers and the consumers. This exercise of power and control over fundamental biological life processes and the future lives of unborn generations, conferred by science, calls for protracted soul-searching and debate by all members of society. Biotechnology has a distinct beginning but no clear ending. If we willingly surrender or exchange our personhood in the market-place, gene by gene, cell by cell, tissue by tissue, organ by organ, we will eventually reach a point where there will be little or nothing left to barter away. At that  point, we will have lost our humanity.

 

A new concept of life and nature

Every revolutionary movement has had its own concept of the creation of life and the workings of nature. In the industrial age, the influence of Charles Darwin's theory of the origin and development of species was exploited to justify various political and economic imperatives, such as the survival of the fittest in the market-place. It could be said that Darwin's thesis amounted to little more than "the application of economics to biology." Social Darwinism has exalted competition and power over convention, ethics and religion. It has become a vessel for nationalism, imperialism, militarism and dictatorship, as well as the cult of the hero, the superman and the master race.

 

Today, Darwin's theory is being challenged by the new genetic science, which is likely to reshape our beliefs, values and culture as significantly as Darwin's theory of evolution did more than a century ago. The new ideas about evolution and the laws of nature must be scrutinised and debated carefully and thoroughly, as a matter of great importance and urgency. This must be done before we are assailed by the acceptance of an insidious mindset  -  that genetic engineering technologies, practices and products are simply an extension of nature's own functioning principles, and therefore logical, justifiable and inevitable. With it could come the projection of humanity's age-old desire for earthly immortality, as yet unfulfilled, which modern  biotechnology promises in its unique vision of genetic immortality.

 

With the advent of Dolly, human cloning has become a very real possibility. By replicating one's genes endlessly into the future, modern biotechnology hints at the creation of a kind of pseudo-immortality and the fulfillment of the ambitions of a growing number of scientists, who view themselves as the architects of the next stage in the evolution of the human species. The new genetic science is perhaps the ultimate expression of human power over life, with  human beings assuming the role of creative designers, continually transforming evolution and designing new forms of life. In its almost limitless range to excise blemishes, reconstruct and reinvent the human body, erase the genetic past and pre-programme the genetic future, genetic science gives humankind the god-like power to select the biological futures and features of  succeeding generations and scientists the ability to usurp the random process of natural selection and assume the role of Creator.

 

 

Uncertainties in science

Although beset by the many uncertainties of science, genetic engineering lays claim to many benefits. Reinforced by the mindset of genetic determinism, it flourishes with the idea that organisms are an expression of their genetic make-up and that the major problems of the world  can be solved simply by identifying and manipulating genes.

 

It is likely that genetic engineering will come across barriers and generate new problems, as it is a technology that is untried and inherently hazardous to health and biodiversity. Recent reports of the World Health Organisation warn about the emergence of at least thirty new diseases and the resurgence of antibiotic-resistant old infectious diseases. To compound the problem, the early assumptions of safety, on which geneticists and regulatory bodies based their assessments, have been found to be erroneous.

 

The present situation is reminiscent of the initial development of nuclear energy which was widely claimed to be cheap, clean and safe. We now know that nuclear energy contributes to nuclear weapons production, generates expensive electricity, and produces long-lasting, dangerous radioactive nuclear waste, which we are unable to dispose of safely. It is possible that the large-scale release of transgenic organisms may well prove to be far more hazardous than nuclear weapons and nuclear waste, as genes can replicate indefinitely, recombine and be disseminated throughout the planet.

 

The precautionary principle

From a historical perspective, we know that science is fallible about its conclusions and ignorant about long-term consequences. In science as well as in other spheres of human activity, we need a fundamental change in thinking, starting with a simple idea: it is wise to avoid unnecessary risk, especially if the consequences could be serious. This is the core concept of the 'precautionary principle', which advocates that, in the face of scientific uncertainty, it is prudent to restrict or even prohibit an activity that may cause long-term or irreversible harm.

 

The precautionary principle was introduced as an ethical road sign and is now established in international declarations and agreements. The principle implies that responsibility for the safety of future generations and the environment should be weighed against the human needs of the present. It is a principle that must be applied to the new technologies, for it reverses the usual burden of proof by shifting it from the community to scientists and technologists, by asking them to prove that the risks of the new technologies are not unreasonable. In effect, the precautionary principle is a kind of insurance policy against our own ignorance, even our arrogance, because we rarely understand or are aware of the risks until after the damage has been done to the environment or our health.

 

Learning from the past and securing the future

The past is strewn with numerous calamities as a result of unforeseeable and unpredictable

technological blunders. The impact of science and technology as the driving force behind the Great Development is often so strong that costly experiences with technology are often hushed up, sometimes rewritten and sanitised, and occasionally dispatched to the dustbin of collective oblivion. But protest movements and critical traditions of civil society do help to keep alive the lessons of the past, such as Rachel Carson's book, Silent Spring, which in 1962 exposed the harmful effects of using the pesticide DDT and accused the chemical industry of waging a war against nature. Such early revelations discredited the pretensions of science and technology and their claims to safety, objectivity, development and progress, and challenged scientists to take responsibility for  their actions.

 

The internal dynamics of science and technology  -  academic freedom, logic, ethical neutrality, the experimental method, rational argument, and a tendency towards consensus  -  often transcend social and cultural concerns by declaring that science is objective, universal and superior to all other forms of knowledge. The truth is that the arrogance of science has yet to give way to a culture of social responsibility and humility.

 

The women's movement has developed a critique of science and technology within an overarching critique of patriarchy as the determining power structure in society. The environment movement concurs with this critique, for it perceives science and technology as a modern, patriarchal and colonial enterprise aimed at controlling people and natural resources, with the dominant idea of development and progress conceived as freedom from and control over nature. The focus of these critiques is on the destructive developments that followed the transfer of Western science and technology to other cultures and ecologies, best illustrated by the disastrous Green Revolution, which not only failed to solve the famine problem, but also introduced foreign and vulnerable monocultures at the cost of local diversity.

 

 

It has become clear that the demarcation between science and technology is blurred; that science and technology are fundamentally tangled and mutually dependent forms of knowledge; that advances within science enable advances within technology, and vice versa.; that science and technology are social, cultural and economic constructions, existing within power structures and influenced by the dominant values of the societies in which they occur. The knowledge-producing institutions in modern societies can no longer be looked upon as isolated ivory towers or cocoons for detached reflection, disengaged from everyday problems, conflicts and sufferings under which we live.

 

With our knowledge of the past and our uncertainties of the future, can we continue to raise our hopes and uncritically invest our trust and resources in science and technology as they stand today, unfettered by ethical principles and beholden to commercial and political interests? Attempts have been made to sensitise and mobilise governments and industry through discourses on nature's survival in the face of the developmental aims of modern technology and industry. These include the 1987 World Commission on Environment and Development and the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. These open discourses have critically scrutinised the roles of science and technology and the responsibilities of industry and governments. The impression one gets of these discourses is one of self-denial and technical optimism, based on the premise that risk or calamity can be overcome with the help of more science and technology, that more science and technology can monitor and extend boundaries for greater production and consumption levels without serious side-effects. There appears to be a na´ve belief that science will always triumph and that technology is infinitely resourceful.

 

So much human capital and cultural trust have been invested in science and technology that, each time science and technology appear to be involved in crises, we tend to look for solutions by advocating greater intellectual freedom and support for research rather than accepting responsibility and acknowledging the faults of science and technology and human frailty. We become defensive and do not seem to know or have the political will to face the truth and work to change the direction in which science and technology are moving.

 

Genetic engineering represents the ultimate tool, almost a weapon, that threatens to extend humanity's reach over the forces of nature, assume sovereignty and control over the nature of life itself, and transform the world beyond recognition. The exercise of such unprecedented power carries substantial risk. But time is running out. The question is whether we can afford not to confront the use or misuse of science and technology which threaten to undermine the basis of life itself. Although science and technology are viewed as legitimate and independent undertakings, the challenge is to develop ways of making researchers responsible for their production of knowledge. Governments, the scientific community, the lay public and the media need to ask serious questions about the risks of the new life sciences and their commercial applications.

 

The ongoing controversies and problems stemming from biotechnological developments demand the urgent attention of scientists and technologists, science critics and activists in civil society, politicians and bureaucrats, the media and committed people everywhere. Until recently, science and technology have been unchallenged in their demands for freedom from control. The same freedom is demanded by industry and markets. But biotechnology is not, and cannot be, merely the business enterprise of scientists. By no means should decisions on research and development in biotechnology be left only to the narrow interests of markets and industries that provide the funds for research. As communities experience increasingly the critical effects of unfettered biotechnological developments, there is a growing urgency for governments and civil society to intervene and confront these new challenges and for society to take responsibility for the decisions made by science and technology.

 

It is for governments and civil society to promote a science that is honest, open, pluralistic, free of government control, and independent of commercial and other special interests. Science and technology must have a sound ethical foundation, adhere to the precautionary principle, and be transparent by providing accurate and unbiased information. A spirit of partnership and cooperation is essential to ensure public participation in decision-making and a sustainable, equitable and life-affirming environment for all human beings.  

 

 

FURTHER READING

Anderson, Luke (1999). Genetic Engineering, Food and Our Environment, Green Books Ltd.,

    United Kingdom.

Appleyard, Bryan (2000). Brave New Worlds: Genetics and the Human Experience, Harper  

    Collins Publishers, London.

British Medical Association (1999). Biotechnology, Weapons and Humanity, Harwood

    Academic Publishers, United Kingdom.

Ho, Mae-Wan (1998). Genetic Engineering: Dream or Nightmare?, Third World Network,

    Penang.

Ho, Mae-Wan and Mathew, Jonathan (2000). 'The New Thought Police - Suppression of Dissent

    in Science', Institute of Science, website www.i-sis.org

Hoodbhoy, Pervez (1992). Islam and Science, S Abdul Majeed & Co, Kuala Lumpur.

Lappe, Marc and Bailey, Britt (1999). Against the Grain, Earthscan Publications Ltd., London

Mangold, Tom (1999). Plague Wars, Pan Books, London.

McGinn, Ann Platt (2000). Why Poison Ourselves? Worldwide Watch Institute, Washington.

Resnik, David B. (1998). The Ethics of Science, Routledge, New York.

Ridley, Matt (1999). Genome, Fourth Estate Ltd., London.

Rifkin, Jeremy (19998). The Biotech Century, The Guernsey Press, Guernsey.

Rotblat, Sir Joseph (1999). 'A Hippocratic Oath for Scientists', Science, 1475.

Russell, Bertrand (1952). The Impact of Science on Society, Unwin Hyman Ltd., London.

Shiva, Vandana and Moser, Ingunn ed. (1995). Biopolitics, Zed Books Ltd., London.   

 

(Sandosham Memorial Lecture, 37th Annual Scientific Seminar, Malaysian Society of Parasitology & Tropical Medicine, 24 February 2001)

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