March 9, 2012 | Posted By David Lemberg, M.S., D.C.

"Subjectivism is still rampant in the philosophy of science." — Karl Popper, Conjectures and Refutations

"It is through our theories that we learn to observe, that is to say, to ask questions which lead to new observations and to new interpretations."— Karl Popper, Conjectures and Refutations

"The new order of human action requires a commensurate ethics of foresight and responsibility." — Hans Jonas, Technology and Responsibility: Reflection on the New Task of Ethics

For 500 years science has built an ever-increasing knowledge base, proceeding in fits and starts and yet moving inexorably toward improved explanations of the universe in which we live. But science has reached a crossroads. Thus society, too, is similarly positioned.

We could pinpoint the beginnings of a critical shift in the impact of science on global welfare at about the time of the Manhattan Project in the early 1940s. Other crucial markers of a potentially exponentially burgeoning capability were the discovery of the structure of DNA in 1953 and the unraveling of the genetic code less than 10 years later.

But these are easy targets. We need to go farther back, to the Industrial Revolution and the development of the steam engine and large-scale manufacturing, most of which was powered by coal. Although the deleterious effects of coal burning could be observed locally and immediately, these were not national and certainly not international problems. Nature as such was vast and apparently infinitely replenishable. It was inconceivable that harm was being done to the environment on a large scale.

But as Inigo Montoya remarks to Vizzini in The Princess Bride, "You keep using that word [inconceivable]. I do not think it means what you think it means."

What was inconceivable then is now, appallingly, very conceivable. The outcomes of many scientific fields of inquiry have the potential to destroy the biosphere. One example is genetically modified (GM) organisms. The genetic sequences of corn, tomatoes, soybeans, and rice have been developing for more than 10,000 years. Evolutionary processes are complex and, therefore, nonlinear. It is the overweening height of hubris to believe that tinkering with a plant's genetic code could be a good thing to do. It is both self-serving and delusional to assert that the results of such manipulation could be contained, that "genetic drift", for instance, would not ultimately impact naturally occurring crops. In the case of GM crops, science was not an objective, observational process, focused on conjecture and refutation. In stark contrast, science was purposefully utilized to fulfill a subjective function, that of increasing shareholder value and plumping up quarterly earnings reports. In other words, in the case of GMO research, science was being done in the service of greed.

An inherent profit motive does not accompany recent research involving genetic modification of H5N1, the avian influenza virus. Rather, such research is directed toward preventing and combating future outbreaks of deadly infectious disease. But these are not benign investigations. Such work involves dangerous inquiries into the deep design of particles against which we may have no defenses. Viruses mutate naturally in the wild. Such processes are spontaneous and nonlinear. No one can predict the near- or long-term mutability of a laboratory-manipulated viral genome. The potential for disaster should be very clear to all parties. But such is not the case.

Recently an international group of influenza virologists agreed to a 60-day moratorium on any research involving H5N1 that might lead to facilitated mammal-to-mammal transmission of the virus. Of course, the great risk is that such a potentiated genome could further mutate to one that was capable of human-to-human transmission. With a greater than 50% kill rate, an unprecedented pandemic would loom. Billions could die.

Should such investigations cease? No ethical guidelines or research protocols exist for these new circumstances. The circumstances are new owing to the unlimited power represented by the ability to, in this case, manipulate an organism's genome at the most basic level. A crossroads has been reached. As Hans Jonas reminds us, these questions "show most vividly how far our powers to act are pushing us beyond the terms of all former ethics".

One glance at the Los Angeles or Beijing smog-blighted skylines should be sufficient to let us know that humankind has not historically played well with nature. We've never exercised caution before. But now that we have the tools of evolution in our hands, our lack of foresight and failure of responsibility may not only bring us up short. These failings may well end humanity's sojourn on earth.

We need to begin thinking clearly. We may not get another chance.

The Alden March Bioethics Institute offers graduate online masters in bioethics programs. For more information on the AMBI master of bioethics online program, please visit the AMBI site.

0 comments | Topics: Bioethics and Public Policy , Bioethics in the Media , Drug Safety , Environmental Conservation , Ethics and Morality , Research Methods

Add A Comment
(it will not be displayed)

BIOETHICS TODAY is the blog of the Alden March Bioethics Institute, presenting topical and timely commentary on issues, trends, and breaking news in the broad arena of bioethics. BIOETHICS TODAY presents interviews, opinion pieces, and ongoing articles on health care policy, end-of-life decision making, emerging issues in genetics and genomics, procreative liberty and reproductive health, ethics in clinical trials, medicine and the media, distributive justice and health care delivery in developing nations, and the intersection of environmental conservation and bioethics.