Squaring Off

Toward a New Ethical Science

Jonathan Moreno on What Makes Us Human in the Biological Age


In Squaring Off, Zócalo invites authors into the public square to answer five questions about the essence of their books. For this round, we pose questions to University of Pennsylvania bioethicist Jonathan D. Moreno, author of The Body Politic: The Battle Over Science in America.

Science and ethics have come into conflict for centuries; the tension has only increased with the technological leaps of the last few decades. Drawing on current controversies and history, Moreno suggests that science and politics will become increasingly entwined into what he calls “biopolitics”-our fight to define our ethics and values in the wake of advances in biological science.

1) You argue that despite recent advancements, no one can take away from us what makes us human. But can you define exactly what that is?

Over the eons many definitions of “being human” have fallen by the wayside: the featherless biped; the being with an eternal soul; the one that has a sense of morality and a sense of obligation to make moral choices; or the only animal with language or culture. Each has seemed somehow inadequate or simply wrong. In the era of experimental biology it seems harder to define the human because our ability to understand and manipulate the basics of life are growing with astonishing speed, including well-publicized cloning and stem cell experiments. At the ancient extreme even the human genome turns out to be partly Neanderthal, and we are being turned into cyber creatures with implantable electronic parts and pieces of laboratory-constructed tissues and cells? What’s left to define us as human? The quest for the definition itself. That is the ultimate human project.

2) Given the history of science being abused (the atomic bomb, Nazi medical experiments), and in a world where information can easily get into the wrong hands, why should we trust scientists’ good intentions?

I argue that mistrust of scientists can be traced back to the very beginning of the word “science” in its modern sense, classically in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, in which the creature is an innocent and the moral monster is Dr. Frankenstein himself. We can see that pattern of skepticism about arrogant scientists in a long line of products of the literary and popular imagination, from H.G. Wells’ Island of Dr. Moreau to Splice. In fact, I’ve written a lot about the abuses you mention in my other books. But the fact remains that science is the best way human beings have found to understand the world around them in a predictable and controllable way, and scientists are the experts (many of us don’t much trust “experts” either), who are suspect precisely because we have this implicit appreciation of the actual and symbolic power they represent, while we both resent and admire the fact that we will never come to as deep an understanding of their field of knowledge as they have. This is the tragic paradox of our attitude toward scientists in the modern world: can’t live with ’em, can’t live without ’em.

3) How can we increase the public’s trust of science, within and beyond our education system?

I’m really not a big champion of the notion that trust in scientists is a matter of education, though I think that will help with some folks. As someone who considers himself a progressive in matters of science I believe we need to recognize, first, that not all who mistrust science do so out of some general principle of ignorance. The fact is that scientists do create problems of trust mainly because of the nature of science itself, which is a self-correcting mechanism that can be hard to keep up with. Yet, as John Maynard Keynes said when he was asked why he changed his mind, “When the facts change, I change my mind-what do you do, sir?” As the technologies of science advance rapidly, their practitioners are inevitably going to come up with modifications that many will find disconcerting. Second, religious belief does not lead to wholesale rejection of science. Rather, as the sociologist John Evans has found, religious traditionalists worry about the moral compass of scientists and the implications of specific questions, like the age of the earth or the nature of species. But we do need to reconcile ourselves enough to the challenges that scientists present to our prejudices to enable the institution of science to remain strong. If the United States is to remain a powerful country, leadership in science in the 21st century is not optional.

4) Some bioprogressives argue that parents who wish to genetically modify their children aren’t so different from parents who give their children advantages through SAT tutoring and other accepted child-rearing practices. However, many will agree with the idea that genetically altering a human is going too far and over-stepping boundaries. Where do you draw the line between what’s acceptable and what isn’t when it comes to genetic modification?

It’s true that some bioethicists have called into question the notion that genetic
modification in a lab is all that different from the “enhancements” affluent parents
can provide their children, like music lessons. These people argue that we shouldn’t fall for the “mystification” of genes that has come with the fascination about the science. But other bioethicists argue that this misses the potential depth of control over our biology, that for the eons of human existence children have had an “open future” that shouldn’t be determined by high-tech biological interventions before they are even born. I find this a very difficult issue. We do, after all, think it’s ethical to screen embryos for lethal genetic disorders. The line between “therapy” and “enhancement” is hard to draw and might even be a less than useful distinction. In the end I don’t see an easy solution. This will be a lengthy and complicated social conversation that will test our comfort level, often on a case-by-case basis.

5) Is there a way we can continue to push forward in science without escalating tensions between progress, ethics, and control over our bodies-or to mitigate in some way the escalation of tensions?

One place to start is to recognize that anxieties about where biology is taking us are widely shared, and that they’re not only typical of those who place themselves on a particular place in the usual political spectrum. The commodification of the body and the alienation that can happen when we turn body parts into products are common themes of modernity. In fact, those concerns are about as old as the modern conception of science itself. So criticism and doubt are fair game. At the same time, there’s no better way to understand the world around us and in us than science. It has allowed us to vastly improve the material conditions of life in only a couple of hundred years, and has given many of us the leisure and comfort that allows us to delve more deeply into the spiritual side of life as well. I’m one who believes that, for the most part, science and the values associated with it have advanced human dignity. At least we should all commit ourselves to that goal, even as we disagree about how exactly to attain it.

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*Photo courtesy of mars_discovery_district.