The Social Impact of Modern Biology

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The Social Impact of Modern Biology

by Jon Beckwith

‘Science for the People’ Vol. 3, No. 2, May 1971, p. 5 – 8

The nightmare of genetic engineering and test-tube babies and other spectres of the misuse of science stimulated the British Society for Social Responsibility in Science (BSSRS) to call a meeting in London in late November of 1970. “The Social Impact of Modern Biology” summed up in the meeting title myriad concerns about the value of science, the misuse of science, the desirability of scientific advance, and other related social aspects of science. However the 18 speakers, reknowned academicians that they were, showed little appreciation of the problems with which the symposium was designed to deal. In fact the audience of students and post-docs showed considerably more sensitivity to the issues, thus providing a sounding board for the main presentations. The meetings were open to the public, but a daily entrance fee and the technical or abstract nature of most of the talks discouraged the lay public from attending.

The meeting was opened by its main organizer, Maurice Wilkins, Fellow of the Royal Society (FRS) and Nobel Laureate (NL). Wilkins’ greatest fear was not of the possible negative social impact of biology, but rather that discussions of it might lead to an increased anti-rationalism and “rock the boat of science”. To try to counteract these tendencies he first lectured the press rather condescendingly to be more responsible in their reporting and not to blow up things out of proportion. He also expressed the hope that the meeting would be held in a calm and rational atmosphere so that the press would not have the opportunity to distort it. 

Monod and the Concept of Objective Science

The first major talk of the meeting was given by Jacques Monod, NL, foreign member of the Royal Society, member of the College de France, etc. As it turned out, while Monod’s speech was anything but a radical critique, it was the most provocative of the first two days. Monod, who has recently published a philosophical treatise entitled “Le Hasard et la Necessite”, tackled the problem of the lack of religious or political ethics in today’s society. Since, according to Monod, the growth of scientific thought has robbed man of all his traditional beliefs, exposing everything from Buddhism to Marxism as having no logical basis, science has the responsibility to fiil the vacuum. Modern societies which live on science, but reject the values of science will collapse. Monod suggested that the pursuit of knowledge is an ethical value itself; that science is based on the moral code of objectivity which should provide a basis for a new ethic.

It was very important that this viewpoint of the objectivity of scientific endeavor was brought out early in the meeting. It is a hang-up of many scientists and leads many of them, among other things, to view themselves as priests in a new society. There are at least two objections to be made to this viewpoint. First, what it ignores is that science is always done in a particular social context. A small ruling elite who control our political-economic system determine which science will be funded and how that science will be used. The direction which science takes, therefore, is not determined by objective criteria. The political and social context can also lead to non-objectivity in the interpretation of data. Furthermore, the teaching of science from the earliest grades through graduate school is either overtly political (relating the usefulness of science to its use for a particular political system) or implicitly political when it ignores the uses of science or presents science as a purely progressive force. Considering the present state of scientific research and education, it hardly seems that science is ready to provide an objective basis for a new life ethic.

Secondly, even the science that is relatively free of political context, is often done in a less than objective manner. The interpretation of data may be determined by the psychological needs of the researcher. Personal psychological problems or the exigencies of a competitive publish-or-perish system may force a scientist to overinterpret his data or push a particular theory as though it were a product for sale. Furthermore, much of the best science done must still be a mixture of intuition and objectivity. Being familiar with the work of Monod and his colleagues, I would say that they operated in a much more intuitive than objective fashion. Experimental results were discarded when they were not easily fit into theory. But, because of the brilliant and correct intuitions, this approach worked. The dynamic of science is not that of pure objectivity! To illustrate this point for oneself more clearly, one need only observe the number of racists and male chauvinists among some of the most objectively objective scientists!

What we can hope is not that scientists can provide the people with an objective approach to build a better world, but that in the better world built by the people, scientists will be able to work in a more objective fashion, unfettered by elitism and the worst competitive aspects of present-day science.

The glorification of the “scientific approach” was further elaborated by Jacob Bronowski, who gave the final speech of the meeting. Bronowski maintained that this approach insures the “integrity” of scientists. However, the continuing support of our research by governments, all of which are corrupt, will rob us of our integrity. He, therefore, “made an extraordinary plea” as the Sunday Observer headlined it the next day, for scientists to disassociate themselves from all governments. Bronowski did not explain how scientists were going to support their research. Maybe he thought that institutions similar to the Salk Institute, which supports him, would spring up to meet the need. When questioned, he mumbled something about an international body of scientists, preferably NL’s, to which money could be given by governments. This body would decide, uncorrupted by governmental controls, how to use the money.

These attitudes, fortunately, were not allowed to pass unchallenged. A series of speakers from the floor criticized Monad’s assumption that science really stood for objectivity. Bronowski was accused of spouting “liberal claptrap.” The immediate response of the audience to what is a prevalent attitude among the scientific establishment was encouraging. The most elaborate challenge to this attitude was presented late in the meeting by Bob Young of Cambridge, who delivered an analysis, based on historical examples, showing the influence of ideology on scientific research.

What Social Impact?

After the spurt of controversy over Monad’s philosophical proposals there followed a series of technical talks designed to lay a foundation for understanding the implications of research in modern biology. These talks ranged from the fields of molecular genetics to immunology, agricultural botany and the cancer problem. Of the 18 talks at the meeting, 10 were in this category. These speakers for the most part either ignored the implications of research in their field or they emphasized only the beneficial aspects. Presentations in the area of molecular biology and genetics did not contain references to the use of research in those fields for developing biological weapons nor to the potential dangers of genetic manipulation in humans. More medically oriented talks did not include any discussion of what are the major health problems in the world. Many in the audience who had assumed from the title of the meeting that such questions and their political implications for scientists would be the main function of the meeting became very disheartened. Perhaps the most shocking example of this sort of talk was that of R.G. Edwards of Cambridge.

Edwards, Steptoe and coworkers received a good deal of publicity early in 1970 for their attempts to reimplant in a human female uterus an egg fertilized in the test tube and carried through many cell divisions outside the subject. Although the first such attempt failed, the same technique has been carried out successfully with mice and most knowledgeable workers in the general field think that success in the case of humans is close at hand. Edwards stated that “our work stems from a fundamentally humanitarian view,” and pointed out that the technique would have the following beneficial results: 1) curing of infertile women; 2) detection of many “genetic defects” before the fertilized egg is reimplanted in the uterus; and 3) predetermination of the sex of a child—i.e. fertilized eggs with X-X (female) chromosomes could be thrown away and only X-Y (male) ones used.

For those who are not familiar with the potential dangers of such genetic tampering, I will list some of those which Edwards completely ignored: 1) Wealthier mothers could pay surrogate mothers to go through their pregnancies, carrying their children. One can imagine a thriving business with black mammies being hired for this purpose. 2) The effects of the uncontrolled predetermination of the sex of children on a society could be disastrous. One can imagine, for example, the net result of individual decisions in a society in which boys are favored. 3) The elimination of fertilized eggs with genetic defects brings up the question of what is a genetic defect. For example, males with two Y chromosomes (XYY) have been claimed to be “overly aggressive”and to have ”criminal tendencies.” There has been discussion about trying to eliminate such “monsters” from the gene pool. But obviously, it is possible that these supposedly negative anti-social characteristics are defined as such only in the context of the corrupt societies in which we live. 4) In addition to negative screening-out possibilities with this technique, there is also the possibility for positive genetic engineering. Groups of individuals with identical genetic characteristics could be created with refinements of a combination of this and other techniques. A society might undertake to produce replicas of a particular individual with traits which are deemed to be beneficial to that society. In our own country, under present conditions, we can imagine what qualities would be considered desirable.

The point is not that these potentials in genetic manipulation are inherently evil. In a society where science is used to benefit the people rather than a ruling elite such techniques could be of great importance. However, even in a just society great care must be taken in foreseeing all possible consequences of such fundamental tampering with human characteristics.

Many of the ramifications of the Edwards-Steptoe technique are far enough off in the future so that we need not become hysterical. However, the fears of some of the immediate implications of this work have led even Dr. James Watson, whom we would not have expected to “rock the boat” to say” …we might have expected that many biologists, particularly those whose work impinges on this possibility, would seriously ponder its implications and begin a dialogue which would educate the world’s citizens.” Right on! Science for the People!

Although the questioning of Edwards by the audience was limited, some of the negative possibilities were brought up. When asked about the moral and social implications of his work, Edwards consistently replied that these problems were simply a matter of a private decision between doctor and patient! These extraordinary statements were barely challenged by the audience. Considering the title of the meeting and the probability that of all the speakers Edwards’ work had the most likelihood of social implications in the not too distant future, it was amazing to me that he was let by so easily. (One of the other speakers, when questioned in private about this session, said, “Well, we had to be polite.”) We will see in a moment for whom the moral indignation was reserved.

James Watson also delivered a talk at the meeting on approaches to the cancer problem. Although not explicit, he gave the impression that the cancer problem was the major health problem confronting the world today and once it was solved, the major goal of biological research would have been achieved. There was no discussion of the fact that the overwhelming majority of the world’s population do not reach the age where cancer is the major problem and that many more people suffer from other diseases such as parasites, etc. Despite this omission, Watson’s talk was entertainingly forthright, as usual, and included such surprising statements as “I don’t think we (as scientists) have an inherent right to society’s money.”

The Villain of the Piece

Finally, in the middle of the last day, came an event many people seem to have been waiting for—the appearance of a villain in the person of A.J. Hale, Director of Research of G.D. Searle and Co. and an apologist for the drug industry. THE MAN FROM INDUSTRY: Hale gave a detailed description of the systems of checks and balances, advisory councils, and government control which insures that every drug produced will be of the highest quality and effectiveness. Those instances where ineffective or even harmful drugs slip by onto the market are always the products of small fly-by-night firms. He even argued that too much government control was stifling some of the benefits to society which the drug companies had to offer. The audience came alive at the end of Hale’s talk and besieged him with sharp questions and statements of their moral revulsion at his performance. The “politeness” shown to previous speakers was discarded as the whipping-boy of the meeting had been found. Of course the attacks on the drug industry were all valid, but it seemed extraordinary to me that previous academic speakers who had been just as smooth in ignoring their responsibility to the people, were not subject to the same attacks.

The reaction to Hale and the lack of criticism in general of the academic speakers holds some important lessons for us. Hale presented a picture of an ideally functioning benevolent drug industry. Many of the other speakers talked of the progress is basic research and the benefits for mankind that await us. We all know how in fact the drug industry is run to exploit people, often at the expense of their health as well as their pocketbooks. We should also realize that much of our supposedly pure academic basic research is used directly by corporations and government for the exploitation and oppression of people. Researchers working in universities are just as much tools of the system as those working for government and industry. The Fellow of the Royal Society who talks about the wonderful benefits of genetic manipulations is just as irresponsible as the drug industry man.

And yet, the moral rectitude exhibited by many at this meeting reflected a conviction on the part of academic scientists that they are free from all complicity in a system which many of them recognize as being bad. This attitude and the general elitism of academic scientists also affects radicals in academia. It keeps them from allying with industrial scientists who also experience misuse of their science but who also experience the generally oppressive conditions of a worker at the workplace. There is also elitism in the relationship of the scientist to the engineer, the engineer to the technician, and the technician to the production worker. Thus all forms of elitism keep us from building a broad movement—one of our most important tasks.

After a barrage of angry questions from the floor following Hale’s speech, some of the above were finally brought out. The reaction to these attacks on the academic speakers was sharp and bitter. The chairman of the session, Dr. Max Perutz, NL, FRS, expressed astonishment that anyone could find something wrong with the fine presentations of his academic colleagues or could possibly compare them with that of Hale. Another one of the speakers complained that the comparison was “quite unfair.” However, it was clear that the audience responded to the critique and prodeeded to discuss more clearly the involvement of all of us.

The last three speakers preceding Bronowski’s talk, myself, Bob Young and Hilary Rose (new chairwoman of BSSRS), brought a more critical tone to the meeting with attacks on the elitist concepts expressed during the meeting and some more radical analysis of the way in which science is done and taught. The audience response to these speakers indicated that the majority of the people there were far more in sympathy with the radical critique than with the attitudes of the majority of the speakers.

Two sessions devoted entirely to open discussion were held, one at the end of the meeting. These meetings were well-attended and quite lively. Among the questions pursued were the following: 1) Is science really neutral? 2) Is it possible, recognizing the harmful potential of scientific research in its present context, for scientists as a group to control the applications or to prevent current research. Here, many of the established scientists expressed their support for a scientific elite taking greater responsibility for the control of science. 3) What is the value of science?


The meeting, in one sense, was a tremendous disappointment in that so little of the speakers’ time was devoted to the social impact of modern biology. However, the meeting as a whole was encouraging to the extent that a large number of younger people appeared to reject the elitist, naive or unconcerned positions of many of the elder statesmen of the field. One could view the meeting as almost a perfect dramatic piece for exposing the sorry state of science and its practitioners. The contrast of establishment speakers vs. a young audience sharpened the issues in a much more effective way than if there had been a roster of radical speakers. The obvious role reserved for THE MAN FROM INDUSTRY helped to illustrate the political backwardness and elitism of academic scientists.

Why was this meeting called? The conveners were aware of the growing criticism of the role of science in society. The organization of the meeting seemed designed to channel this concern into a “responsible” liberal critique. However, since a liberal critique cannot stand up to this sort of public exposure and debate, the meeting, in fact, served to expose the bankruptcy of this critique to many who had not had the chance to consider it in much depth.

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