Science is nothing if not controversial. From Galileo through Darwin to modern day researchers; certain scientists have always challenged the dogma of the era and often faced persecution because of it. These scientists usually kept up their ‘heretical’ beliefs because they were sure they were right and, in some famous examples, they were eventually vindicated.
But how does controversy affect modern-day science? We have now reached a stage where almost nothing seems impossible. We are able to do things that would have seemed outrageous a century ago: flying through the air on a regular basis, transplanting hands and faces and curing cancer, to name a few. A lot of scientific breakthroughs are made when people push the ethical boundaries of their time, but at what point must we say “that is enough, this has gone too far”? As each scientific taboo is broken and assimilated into modern day research, will there ever be a time where we push too far? Even if we do, will future generations use these once-controversial techniques as freely as we now accept that the earth revolves around the sun?
One problem faced when deciding whether or not a techniques morally acceptable is the notion that moral and ethical values vary significantly from person to person. For example, in October 2012, it was reported that scientists were able to create healthy baby mice from stem cells. This led to speculation that in the future infertile women may be able to give birth to healthy babies made from their own stem cells. When the article was reported in the Guardian, the comments below the report were divided. Some thought it was a great breakthrough which should be applauded for the sophistication of the science alone. Others were excited about the prospect of ending the misery of infertility. Some people, however, were more cautious. Arguments against the technique included the opinion that, in an already overpopulated world, should we really be celebrating something that could make that problem worse? Others feared the scientists were “playing God” and were scared at the thought of them having so much control over life itself. This research may have started as a simple question of determining whether such a technique was possible, or from a desire to help infertile women but has now entered a minefield of divided opinion and controversy.
One scientist who is no stranger to controversy is John Craig Venter. Venter, a genome specialist based in the USA, hit the headlines in 2010 when his team created the first synthetic organism. Venter and his colleagues created a bacterial genome entirely from synthetic DNA, they nicknamed the resulting organism Synthia. Synthia acted much like a normal bacterium, replicating and passing the synthetic DNA on to her offspring. Whilst Venter was praised in many scientific corners for this remarkable achievement, there were others who voiced concerns about his work. Venter defended his creation by pointing out a number of beneficial tasks it could accomplish: for example capturing and removing excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, or generating an alternative fuel source.
Interestingly, sometimes the amount of controversy generated around a discovery depends on the person who made it. Venter has previously made himself unpopular with the scientific community by turning the project to sequence the human genome into a race. He has also made moves into patenting (particularly of the synthetic genome he created), ensuring that in the future he will have full control over how Synthia may be used and will reap any financial rewards attached to this. This has angered many scientists who believe that discoveries should not be owned by any one individual and that they should also not be exploited for profit. Venter’s millionaire lifestyle and self-aggrandising quotes (for example apparently insinuating that he deserves a Nobel Prize) have also rubbed fellow scientists up the wrong way. This behaviour may mean that people are generally mistrustful of Venter’s motives and therefore make his discoveries controversial. Did he make Synthia because he truly wanted to help technology and the environment? Did he do it just because he could? Or because he knew it would get him publicity? Did he make it with the idea of patenting? Or is it a case of “all of the above”?
However, is Venter any different from controversial figures of the past, some of whom we now consider to be the greatest scientific minds of all time? Do we need these maverick scientists to push forward discoveries that others are too afraid to make? If Venter hadn’t turned it into a race, the human genome project would not have been finished earlier than planned. There’s certainly no denying that, whatever you think of his methods, Venter has made remarkable achievements in his career. On the other hand, do we need these boundaries pushed? How much should science interfere with nature? Is it this type of behaviour which makes scientists appear immoral or power-hungry in the minds of the public?
Unfortunately, there is no easy answer to this question. It would be nice to say that science can keep behind the moral horizon and still move forwards, but that’s not the way the world works. We need mavericks and controversial figures to push scientific discoveries into the next era and, as I stated before, what is controversial at first may become normal several years later.
For my part, I’m wary of scientists who do something which they know is controversial simply because it is possible for it to be done. I call this the “Jurassic Park mentality”: doing something for no better reason than ‘because you can’. Now, before you protest that Jurassic Park is fictional, remember that sometimes truth can be stranger than fiction. Take for example the Harvard Professor who wants a surrogate mother for a Neanderthal baby. I always like to think that research should have some greater purpose which will ultimately prove beneficial. However, I’m not sure how a Neanderthal baby would be even remotely beneficial to anything or anyone.
Although, it’s true that we can’t always tell how research will be used in the future. Sometimes little or less controversial discoveries can become part of something much bigger, and there’s no way of knowing how your research may be used by other people. Just ask Albert Einstein, whose work on atomic theory went on to aid development of the atom bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II.
Perhaps it’s best to think of it this way: when you start pushing at the boundaries of what will be considered controversial or even downright immoral, maybe that’s the time to step back and think “What will the point of this be? Will this be helpful to humanity or the planet or the universe or am I just doing for publicity, fame, glory or just because it is possible?” And if your answer comes into the latter part of that question, then maybe you should at least carefully assess the possibility of someone getting eaten by a rampaging dinosaur before you continue.
Post by: Louise Walker