The Ethical Challenge; 1980's Challenge of the Science

When the prospects for genetic engineering burst upon public consciousness in the 1970s, critics charged the "new biologists" with aspiring to "play God." Now biological tinkerers have less exalted ambitions. They just want to make a buck.

Few other developments etch so sharply the ethical, moral, and social issues involved in the modern pursuit of scientific knowledge and its exploitation as does the fledging of the new industry of biotechnology.

It is not the purpose of this three-part series to focus on any one field. It aims, rather, to highlight some of the prospects for the sciences in the 1980 s. Future articles will deal with questions of how relevant the scientific enterprise now is to humanity's needs and what new insights it is yielding.

This article is concerned with the social and ethical challenges it is raising. And nowhere is this better illustrated than in biotechnology.

This awesome new industry is evolving with lightning speed. In the mid-1970s the commercial prospects for redesigning the genetic blueprints of living organisms were only a speculative vision for scientists and laymen wrangling over the pursuit of such research in academic laboratories. Now those prospects are analyzed on the TV series "Wall Street Week."

"Five years ago, even optimists would have predicted that it would be a decade before genetic engineering could be commercially exploited, but this is about to be disproved," says Brian Hartley of Imperial College, London, in a recent review in Nature magazine.

Now the questions of safety and public regulation are being raised again on a larger scale as the new biology moves out of the laboratory and into the factory. Indeed, how is this industry to be wisely regulated when the contents of the bacterial vats can neither be known with certainly nor guaranteed to remain what they are thought to be?

Even if outside contamination can positively be avoided in the rough and tumble of day-to-day operations, a mutant strain of organism (dangerous or otherwise) could arise and become established unbeknown to anyone. "If a contaminant arose which was able to maintain itself . . . then no guarantee concerning either the safety of the process or the culture could be given," warn K. Sargeant and C. G. T. Evans of Britain's Microbiological Research Establishment in a report to the European Economic Commission.

Beyond the ethical questions of how such a novel industry should be run and regulated, there are moral issues of what goals society as a whole is to pursue and what restraints it will put on such endeavors. Biotechnology raises basic questions about the concept of life governing society and the extent to which humans should seek to manipulate organic life at its fundamental level for their own purposes.

The debates of the '70s about doing this in the laboratory challenged philosphical concepts of life. the biotechnicians of the '80s challenge this concept in a practical way when they seek to patent their novel organisms, such as the General Electric Company's oil-eating bacteria. When the US Congress made the new seed lines of plant breeders patentable in 1930, it raised no such challenge. There was no implication of trying to patent organic life and the evolutionary process themselves -- redefining the life concept so that legally and commercially it had the same standing as other "industrial tools."

In granting two applications to patent microbes, the US Court of Customs and Patent Appeals commented, "We see no reason to refuse patent protection to the microorganisms themselves, or to the pure microorganism cultures -- the tools used by chemical manufacturers in the same way as they use chemical elements, compounds, and compositions -- when they are new and unobvious." "Life," the court noted, "is largely chemistry."

This opens up a debate that promises to be profound, protracted, and emotional.

"To justify patenting living organisms, those who seek such patents must argue that life has no 'vital' or sacred property; that all of life's properties can ultimately be reduced to the 'physico-chemical,'" says a Washington-based research organization, the People's Business Commission, in supporting the solicitor general's appeal of the patent decision to the US Supreme Court. The solicitor general argues that living organisms are not covered by existing patent law and that so wide-ranging a social and moral issue should be decided by Congress.

Even the question of what exactly is being patented, to say nothing of the legal precedents being set, is unclear. "To patent a living organism that is to be used only in a very specific way is notm equivalent to patenting the particular use one may wish to put it to. Thus, the classifical justification for patenting an invention or even a composition of matter breaks down when applied to a living organism," observes Burke Zimmerman of the National Institutes of Health. And, outlining one of the main concerns of the debate, the People's Business Commission says, "If patents are granted on microorganisms , there is no scientific or legally viable definition of 'life' that will preclude extending patents to higher forms of life."

There are no simplistic resolutions for such issues. Patentable or not, industry will continue to develop biotechnology with explosive speed; for beyond the moral-ethical issues loom a host of benefits.

Bacteria can be bred to make valuable chemicals -- and with genetic engineering techniques, given specific genetic instructions for such manufacture. These chemicals include pharmaceuticals but are by no means limited to them. A very important class of chemicals is represented by the enzymes -- proteins that act as catalysts to promote various chemical processes. Biological enzymes are one of the key chemicals of organic life processes and can play equally important roles in industrial chemistry.

Genetic engineers can induce bacteria to "superproduce" enzymes and secrete the product. Or, in what promises to become a major technology, the bacteria themselves, or biochemical-producing subunits within them, can be immobilized on a substrate to become just another part of the machinery.

Already, for example, enzyme technology is used to synthesize sugar syrups in a process that competes with sugar beets.

Perhaps one of the most alluring prospects a little farther down the road is that of re-engineering the cereals to fix their own nitrogen fertilizer as legumes now do.

With such payoffs in the offing, some of which are already being realized, nobody is going to halt the rapid development of biotechnology, let alone turn back the clock to "simpler days."

You can say as much for telematics -- that remarkable melding of computers and communications that promises to make the '80s as monumental an epoch in technology-driven social change as was the Industrial Revolution.

As Harvard University socialist Daniel Bell explains it: "By enlarging the scale of communications, it [telematics] is speeding a new international division of labor in which capital transfers, market information, and sale and purchase orders can be transacted on a worldwide scale, in real time. By the development of terminals, time-sharing, digital networks, and the like, we can, if we choose, decentralize economic activities and reshape lifestyles and work patterns.

"Given the new 'horizontal' communications networks that now are possible, the political system of a country may confront a radically new type of social structure," he continues. "Even culture is stridently affected, from the increasing use of standardized 'processed languages,' replacing idiom and colloquial speech, to the way in which the blend of picture, sound, and information retrival can provide new cultural models."

Professor Bell says this in introducing that provocative book, "The Computerization of Society: A Report to the President of France." Ordered by Valery Giscard d'Estaing, it is a perceptive study of the implications of telematics whose relevance is universal. It was prepared by Simon Nora, inspector-general in the French Ministry of Finance, and Alain Minc, an inspector of finances. A best-seller in France, it now is being published in Great Britain and the United States by the M.I.T. Press.

The authors state their vision simply: "As the Sumerians were writing the first hieroglyphs on wax tablets, they were living, probably without realizing it, through a decisive change for mankind: the appearance of writing. And yet it was going to change the world. At the present time, data processing is perhaps introducing a comparable phenomenon."

Several factors are driving this development -- especially the proliferation of high-speed, high-capacity communications, including satellite relays, and the rapid evolution of computers. At the heart of this technological revolution is the "chip" -- the complex bit of silicon that electronic engineers have learned to manipulate so that a wafer no bigger then a fingernail can hold an entire small computer.

The complexity of the "intelligent" information-handling capability that now can be packed into a desktop computer would have required a room full of equipment a little over a decade ago; while the cost per unit of that capability has fallen faster than the resale price of a used slide rule. As Messrs. Nora and Minc put it: "Their [the computters'] inconceivable miniaturization and ridiculously low cost are practically equivalent to an alteration in nature. . . . If the price of a Rolls-Royce had evolved in comparable fashion, the most luxurious model would cost one franc today."

The prospects for telematics are a dazzling vision. Yet, like those of biotechnology, they raise stark and socially basic questions. How is the new technology to be used? Who is to control it; and for whose benefit? Will the capacity of individuals be enlarged? Will individual dignity, freedom, and privacy be enhanced? Or will people be suppressed and manipulated by the controllers of information even more "Efficiently" than they now are in many parts of the world?

Messrs. Nora and Minc put the challenge this way: ". . . no technology, however innovative it may be, has long-term fatal consequences. The development of society determines its effects rather than being controlled by them. It so happens that in the years to come the primary challenge will no longer involve the ability of the more advanced human societies to control nature. this has already been acquired. The challenge instead lies in the difficulty of building the system of connections that will allow information and social organization to progress together."

Biotechnology and telematics are two dramatic developments that raise profound moral and social issues as they begin to burgeon in the '80s. But such provocative issues arise in other scientific/technological areas as well.

Resolving the energy shortage also challenges industrial societies to rethink their goals, their lifestyles, and their relations to the rest of mankind. And, in the broad sense, so does the whole scientific/technological enterprise. Is this to be pursued mainly for the benefit of industrial nations, with little regard for the welfare of less-developed countries and of the planetary environment? Or does there have to be a wider sharing of benefits from, and responsibilities for, scientific research, its goals, and its applications?

The confusion of scientific advances and new technologies is enough to make one's head spin. But as Messrs. Nora and Minc note, ". . . the headspinning . . . is beside the point, not because it is ephemeral, but because it is being transformed into the question of the future of society itself."

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to The Ethical Challenge; 1980's Challenge of the Science
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today