It has been suggested that the growth of all science, like that of human gross anatomy, inevitably will come to a halt because all the important questions will have been answered. But I am sure that such asymptotic leveling of knowledge is far out of sight for biology as a whole, not only because the material is extraordinarily complex (extending to the biological roots of individual and social behavior), but also because it is highly diverse. I shall be concerned particularly with human diversity.
To be sure, earlier studies in biology could observe only the visible features of organisms, and so they focused on the rich diversity of form and of function in the living world. But as biology progressed from the descriptive to the analytical and from the level of whole organisms and organs to that of cells, subcellular organelles, and molecules, an underlying unity emerged and received increasing attention. Indeed, at the molecular level we find that in all cells, from the simplest bacterium to our own brain cells, the genes are composed of DNA, and the working machinery is composed of RNA and proteins. Moreover, all cells employ very similar sequences of chemical reactions in deriving energy from food and in synthesizing the compounds needed for cell maintenance, function, and growth. Exploration of these universal molecular properties of cells obviously will map the whole territory sooner or later. However, we still will have a virtually endless frontier in the study of biological diversity—whether the origin and the nature of the molecular differences between cell types or the behavioral differences between human beings. …
Bernard D. Davis is Adele Lehman Professor of Bacterial Physiology, Harvard University.
Reflections on Some Social Implications of Modern Biology by Robert S. Morison
I would like to begin with a brief, overall look at the relation between science, especially biological science, and ethical decision making. By what sort of right or with what qualification may a scientist talk about things which scientists previously were supposed to know nothing about and probably still actually know nothing about?
Let us begin by asking why scientists worry about questions of ethics at all and then proceed to what science may have to offer. There are various levels, of which some are pretty obvious and some a little bit esoteric and controversial. After this introduction I shall propose three general statements that I think science can make about man and that seem to be significantly related to questions of value. I will explore the last of those statements in some detail since it underlies and conditions the theme of this conference. Specifically, I will discuss the biological advantages and disadvantages of human variation and how these bear in turn on some questions of social importance. I will close with a few remarks on the technical possibilities for correcting or preventing the appearance of some of the more extreme variations from which human beings now suffer. …
Robert S. Morison is Class of 1949 Visiting Professor, Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Genetics, Justice, and Respect for Human Life by Daniel R. DeNicola
The question is before us: Shall we control our genetic legacy? We who are the only known centers of consciousness and responsible action yet to emerge from the evolutionary process now have achieved the possibility of taking the controls of evolution into our own hands and making ourselves a self-modifying system. The prospect both excites and frightens us, as well it should, for it is quite literally a fateful decision.
Not only is genetic control a pressing issue of social policy; it is fundamentally an ethical issue. But let us be clear what sort of ethical issue it is. It is not the kind of moral dilemma used as a paradigm in textbooks on moral philosophy: It is not the question of whether a particular person should, under certain circumstances, perform action A or B. It is a question as to whether people collectively should permit or prohibit certain practices. As John Rawls has pointed out, justifying a practice is different from justifying a particular action falling under a practice.¹ (E.g., the justification of punishment as a social practice is procedurally different from the justification of the punishment of a particular felon for a specific offense.) The ethical issue of interest concerns the justification of a practice. The question is whether the human community should engage in the application of genetic knowledge to human reproduction, using, if so, what general procedures and techniques. …
¹ John Rawls, Two Concepts of Rules, Philosophical Review 64 (1955): 3-32. Rawls says that by a practice he means any form of activity specified by a system of rules which defines offices, roles, moves, penalties, defenses, and so on, and which gives the activity its structure, adding that as examples one may think of games and rituals, trials and parliaments.
Daniel R. DeNicola is associate professor of philosophy and dean of education, Rollins College, Winter Park, Florida.
Science, Values, and Human Evolution by Arnold W. Ravin
The role of science in society is often described today in extreme terms. For some, science is the exclusive vehicle by which the lot of humanity can be perfected; for others, it is the relentless mechanism by which all we hold dear in human civilization will be destroyed. Neither of these polarized attitudes regarding the place of science strikes me as valid. To appreciate both its potentialities and limitations, science must be viewed, it seems to me, as an inextricable part of those human cultures in which it has emerged or into which it has diffused from other cultures. This view, I hope to show, warrants an attitude neither of incautious optimism nor of apocalyptic gloom. …
Arnold W. Ravin is professor of biology and microbiology, University of Chicago.