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IMPACT OF ADVANCES IN SCIENCE AND NEW TECHNOLOGIES ON SOCIETY

Paper submitted under topic "Ethical and Moral Implications of New Technologies Including Genetic Engineering"

 

M.G.K. Menon
Professor, President, International Council of Scientific Research, New Delhi, India
 

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The advancement of science and technology is surely one of the greatest organised creative activities of humankind today. The material world that we see around us, and the way society functions today are direct manifestations of these advances.

The origin of science lies in the evolution of the human brain, and the intrinsic sense of curiosity in human beings to explore, to know, and to understand nature and the world around. Historically, the origins of science go back to the beginning of civilised existence. From its earliest days, science has been embedded in society, there has been a continuous learning process in society as a whole, based on day to day experiences and this can become the body of the knowledge from which applications and understanding have grown.

Sir Francis Bacon wrote: "Human knowledge and human power are coextensive, for ignorance of causes prevents us from producing effects. Nature can only be ruled by being obeyed; for the causes which theory discovers give the rules which practice applies". Bacon’s words bring out the purpose of scientific activity. It is to discover the laws of nature so as to widen humankind’s perspective and understanding of the world we live in, to increase the basis of our material existence, and to help us fight the physical and biological calamities that beset us in our progress through life.

With the advancement of knowledge there was a corresponding increase in the powers available to humanity. These powers can clearly be used for good of for evil. The decision as to how these powers are used, have to be based on ethical and moral values and principle. These lie outside the domain of science.

For a long time through history scientific advancements were related largely to felt needs. There were of course, some visible scientific accomplishments not related to felt needs; these were motivated by a desire to know and understand nature. Sometimes, this led to conflicts with the Establishments constituted by those who wielded religious or State power. These are exemplified by the prosecution of Galileo, the conflicts that arose relating to the acceptance of the helio-centric theory of Copernicus and disagreements that still continue concerning the Darwinian theory of evolution. Often these conflicts involved individual scientists, and related to conceptual developments.

There is one aspect of science which has always been of great concern to individual scientists, and more recently to the scientific community as a whole; this relates to the connection between science and weapons of destruction. The interest of scientists and inventors of machines of war, and in fact as consultants for the military, is not something new. It has had a long and honourable history. For example, Leonardo da Vinci, who is generally known for his genius in the creative arts, was also a great scientist. In his letter to the Duke of Milan, to whom he offered his services, he dwelt extensively on his skills in the art of invention of the apparatus of war, indeed it is only at the end of his letter that he mentioned the skills he possessed as an architect, sculptor and painter which might be of use in time of peace. Leonardo recognised that there could be circumstances that might make it necessary to become involved in military work. He said: "besieged by ambitious tyrants, I find a means of offence and defence, in order to preserve the chief gift of nature, which is liberty". But equally, he was also aware that inventions could be used in ways neither as originally conceived, nor to the liking of their originator. In commenting on his ideas for a submarine, he said: "Now by an appliance many are able to remain for some time under water for a long time… and this I do not publish or divulge, on account of the evil nature of men, who would practice assassinations at the bottom of the seas by breaking the ships in their lowest parts and sinking them together with the crews who are in them". He was thus opposed to the indiscriminate development of weapons of horror to be used purely for conquest and exploitation.

Leonardo’s concerns are applicable significantly to the situation today faced not only by individual scientists but by the scientific community as a whole. There is often the felt need to develop weapons of war to keep the peace; but with it the fears of their misuse.

We must remember that many weapons systems today are based on step function development in technology. These are not initially conceived by the politicians or the military. They result from research efforts of scientists and technologists. Once it is known that the feasibility exists, political, military and industrial decision-makers proceed further. It is difficult to blame an individual scientist, who acting purely as a professional, functions in an establishment which happens to be concerned with defence rather than a civilian enterprise. Professionally, the jobs would not be significantly different as far as the individual scientist is concerned. It is at the higher levels of designing and system integration, that the real differences lie. Thus there is a great commonality between space launcher systems and defence missile systems but also difference.

It is clear from what has been said that whereas science and technology have provided enormous capabilities to create horrendous instruments of the arms race, the ultimate responsibility for the overall situation lies with society as a whole. These issues came to the fore in a major way with the Manhattan Project on the development of the atom bomb and its subsequent use over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This led to the awakening of the social conscience of science in a collective manner. The prophetic statements in the Franck-Report of June 1945 and the Russel-Einstein-Manifesto of 1954 exemplifies this social conscience.

As scientific advances take place at an increasingly rapid pace, there are many who feel that a large number of the ills that affect human society are due to these developments. They point out to the possibilities of nuclear war which could wipe out very large parts of humanity; of human expectations that have been aroused leading to large scale consequences; depletion, environmental degradation, climate change, ozone layer changes; consumerism with wide ranging consequences such as resources and possible unknown risks as we move into new areas of biology where humanity now has extraordinary powers but cannot necessarily predict and understand the consequences, or make risk assessments.

It is important that these issues are discussed in society. But it must be remembered that what is called for is not putting limits on scientific enquiry, but taking steps to ensure that the applications are such as to benefit human society as a whole. Such a perspective has to be taken by society on the basis of common, shared moral and ethical value systems. That is the need of the hour; not indeterminate philosophical analysis but proactive promotion of common shared ideal.

As we move into the immediate future, quite clearly, Nuclear Science, Environment, Information Technology and Biotechnology are the areas where humanity is faced with fundamental moral and ethical questions.

In the area of nuclear science one has deep concerns about the development and stockpiling of nuclear weapon system with all their implications for large scale The environment is an area which has sprung into prominence over the last quarter of a century. From the obvious tangible problems of a local nature, one has seen the evolution of problems of a regional nature, and then of a global nature. Ozone depletion, increase in atmospheric concentration of green house gases with possibilities of climate change and consequent hazards, destruction of bio-diversity are all examples of enormous global problems that are looming before us. The origin of these problems are anthropogenic. They relate to the increase of population to its present very large dimensions, and still rising, posing questions concerning the carrying capacity of the globe; and the rising tide of expectations and consumerism, particularly energy related. Whilst advances in science and technology certainly have enabled humanity to get much more from much less, it must be accepted that these very advances have been the precursors to the problems being encountered. The potential for conflict on environmental issues is enormous. This is an area where one has to re-evaluate priorities for humankind; this in turn implies a choice of values.

Environmental ethics demands many fundamental values: equity within this generation as also inter-generational equity; harmony with nature and an understanding that humanity cannot be regarded as something separate from the rest of the earth system. Indeed advances in modern biology show us that human beings share the same functional characteristics with animals, plants and all living systems, based on the fundamental element, DNA.

Issues facing us in the areas of environment are not philosophical, theological or religious as normally understood. They relate to values that are applicable to situations in real life: that everything on earth has to function in harmony as a system, and it is only in such a system that humanity can flourish. Whilst these values and concepts lie outside the domain of science and technology, once they are accepted, then the great capabilities available through science and technology can be directed to the fulfilment of life, based of these values.

In the area of information technology, one is moving to the possibility of connecting every human being on earth with every other. From times not so long ago when human beings developed as individuals, families, small tribes and communities, they have now rapidly moved to a global connectivity. The consequences of this on the individual human psyche are not yet understood. In material ways, it would certainly be highly productive. In terms of thought processes, and especially those that relate to the inner core of the human being, there could be enormous advantages through this connection; bringing about a feeling of the true oneness of the human race. However, nature has not progressed along the pathways of evolution on the basis of such connectivity; and we will have to ask ourselves whether the natural system that we have inherited can adopt itself to such a step-function change. The development of modern biology represents not only revolutionary scientific advances but also applications with wide-spread societal implications. It holds great promise in diverse fields such as food production, health, energy and industry. But there are also concerns and fears.

Today food production globally is adequate for the present population of around 6 billion.. However, in 20 years, there will be two billion more people to feed. There is no more significant arable land available. Biotechnology holds the promise of higher yields and disease free crops. In crop protection, genetic engineering would enable transfer, across crops, of genes that provide protection; this is not possible in classical crop breeding:

In the area of health, two of the great promises are immuno-diagnosis and immuno-prophylaxis. The first would enable detection of many diseases very early, making treatment specific and less expensive. The eradication of smallpox, reduction in polio, and protection against many childhood diseases are examples of the power of immuno-prophylaxis. However, there is so much more that can be done

In agriculture, improvements have been effected so far on a gradual basis. For example, in animal husbandry, one has gone from selection and crossing, to artificial insemination, and embryo transplant technologies None of these have given rise to fears. But genetic engineering arouses fears because one moves across species boundaries. Multiplications and mutations can develop and progress rapidly in biological systems. Risk assessment is much more difficult and uncertain, compared to physical engineering systems. In biology, one also deals with systems interactions, such as in ecology, that are complex. It is, therefore, important to continuously monitor what is happening in the field, using the very same powerful techniques of biotechnology.

Applications of advances in genetic engineering and cell biology arouse fears relating to eugenics and human cloning. While few would have objections to preventing children being born who will gave Huntington’s disease, there are fears of "designer babies", whose will be the prejudices that prevail? It is important to recognise, that there is no place for complacency.

UNESCO took a major initiative in preparing and adopting, in 1997, the Universal Declaration on the Human Genome and Human Rights. The Human Genome Project has a special allocation to look into the ethical, legal and social implications (ELSI). As we move into the future, there will be increasing stress on these aspects. If we constantly keep in mind the moral and ethical aspects that relate to human rights and human dignity, while working out the wide range of applications, we would be able to look upon biotechnology with serenity, as a revolution to be harnessed in the service of humanity.

Much more needs to be gone into in regard to bio-ethics. The extraordinarily good initiative of UNESCO in this area needs to be pursued, on a more wide ranging basis. In the case of developing countries many issues arise. What is ‘consent’ in the case of genetic testing and screening? What is ‘informed’? ‘Consent’? How ‘informed’ is an illiterate woman whose blood will be used to look for rare genes? Whose property are those genes? What will they be used for? Will they serve medical purposes? What about ‘Community knowledge’?

What is important is to ensure that patenting in this field does not lead to a monopolistic, exploitative domination of the world. On these issues, there is need for wider, informed debate, not only involving governments, commercial interests and scientists, but also involving philosophers, lawyers, civil society at large, both in developed and developing countries.

 

In Conclusion

Science and Technology will continue to advance rapidly as we move into the next millennium. What is important is to ensure that these advances benefit humanity as a whole. Parochial considerations of narrow commercial interests, nationalism, fundamentalist religious aspects and inflexible ideological divides have to give way to the basic ethics of human dignity and human rights, and harmony with nature: value systems that are outside the realm of science but have to guide its applications.

Even in the area of peaceful uses of nuclear energy, there are great concerns about nuclear accidents, damage from nuclear radiation and the question of safe disposal of radioactive wastes.

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