We live in an important moment in the history of science and the humanities. Biology has reached a point where it has moved beyond the ability to describe life, and into the ability to manipulate it. We are looking forward to a time where new biological methods will offer untold possibilities for curing genetic diseases.
However, the possibility of genetic manipulations in human beings brings many ethical and religious issues to the forefront. Where do we draw the line between a human and a mass of cells? Is it right to harvest stem cells to carry out genetic manipulations? Is it right to clone human cells to cure diseases?
Our modern conception of the appropriate place for science has always argued that science should be considered in a separate realm from religious and ethical beliefs. But it is clear that when biology intersects the fundamental basis for human life, this barrier cannot stand. Biology is challenging our fundamental notions of what it is to be a human being, and in what respect we should treat human life. The greatest controversies of science have come at times in history when science challenges our ethical and religious conception of the world and our place as human beings in it.
Indeed, there is a clear recognition that biology has reached a place where it can no longer be considered autonomous from ethical and religious values. And there has been a clarion call to regulate science.
This can be seen in the prominence that bioethics has received in our university and worldwide. I believe this common solution to the problem of science’s new role is fundamentally flawed and promotes a deep level of misunderstanding about the role of science and its potential. This approach depicts science as a raging pitbull that must be checked by the leash of ethics.
I do not want to be misinterpreted. I believe that ethics must serve a critical role in the regulation of science. But a view that holds science as the sole transgressor into sacred ground is very dangerous. I am afraid that this is the common conception that is presented to the public by the misinformed politicians and media.
At a time when science has such prominence in the political sphere, we must have an understanding of the issues that are at the forefront in order to be good citizens. It does not make sense for a misinformed public to make decisions that will hamper the potential for biology to dramatically improve human life. Such misinformed reactions can be seen in the tremendous backlash against genetically modified foods and in the controversy that surrounds embryonic stem cells and human cloning.
I believe that this university has a responsibility as an educational institution to create good and well-informed citizens. Just as it is essential for students of science to have an understanding of ethics, I believe it is important for students of the humanities to have an understanding of science. The traditional divide between science and the humanities is breaking down.
For our society to make deliberate and enlightened decisions about the ethical role science should play, we must have knowledge not just of ethical and religious beliefs, but of the principles of science and its possibilities. I hope the science departments here will look for ways to make their disciplines more accessible to students of the humanities.
Alexander Rives is a sophomore in Trumbull College.