Ethics & Public Policy Center

Biotech Loses Its Innocence

Published in The Weekly Standard on June 24, 2002



IN A RECENT REPORT for investors in the biotech industry, the relationship between biotechnology and terrorism is described as follows: “Ugly as bioterrorism is, bringing biotech back into the headlines in the capacity of a savior has done much to stimulate the sector since its mid-September 2001 lows on Wall Street.”

In other words, terrorism is useful for the reputation and prospects of the biotech industry. Biotechnology is necessary for survival in war–since biological weapons require biological remedies. And biotechnology is a “savior,” a redeemer from the troubles of the world.

How this savior operates–what it promises and what it endangers, why we need it and why we might want to resist it–is a difficult moral and political question. It requires thinking clearly about the limitations and waywardness of American civilization, and the much greater catastrophes that might be inflicted on us by those who hate life and worship death, and are aided in carrying out this fundamentalist-nihilist program by (our own) modern technology.

George Poste, a leading figure in the biotechnology industry and chairman of the Pentagon’s Task Force on Bioterrorism, described this dilemma in a speech last October: “Biotechnology is about to lose its innocence. We are going to be playing in a very different world. We will have to seriously contemplate that some of our discoveries will, in fact, be classified. It is this dilemma, which has always been the dilemma of advanced technology throughout history, of dual use application.”

Such realism about biotechnology is much needed after September 11. But it is only part of the story. For the fact is, biotechnology has never really been “innocent”–not in its origins, and not recently. In Francis Bacon’s “New Atlantis,” the creation story of the modern biological republic, the scientists meet to decide which of their inventions to make public and which to keep secret. The purpose of this discretion is in part to protect society from the dark side of science, and in part to protect science from the dogmatic or skeptical backlash of society. Even as they saw themselves as man’s benefactors, the first modern scientists had no illusions that all their inventions would be beneficial, or that the beneficiaries would always be enlightened enough to embrace them.

Moreover, the reason for bringing this “new” society into existence was precisely man’s lack of innocence. Biological science was conceived as an answer to war, suffering, death, and religious violence. It sought to moderate man’s passions by making men more comfortable. It may have always been (or may have become) utopian, but it was not, and still is not, innocent.

The last 18 months of debate over human cloning and embryonic stem cells make this lack of innocence quite clear. Most contemporary biologists might believe, in their heart of hearts, that they are not “political animals.” They believe they are scientists. They trade in scientific truths, not political ideology; in facts, not metaphysical speculation or subjective values.

But the political skill of biology in protecting its interests–including (but not exclusively) its vision of the good life for scientists and citizen-patients alike–has been impressive. Not facts but pragmatism has been the order of the day. And so we are told that science should not be judged on moral or social grounds, but according to scientific criteria alone. Then we are told that science is a moral crusade to improve the human condition. We are told by the biotech lobby that the biological powers we desire (stem cell therapies) are imminent. Then we are told that the biological powers we fear (cloning and eugenics) are so far away that we need not worry about them. We are told that placing moral limits on science would infringe on the separation of church and state. But then we are told that it is God’s will that we should use our intelligence to heal the sick. We are told that opponents of research cloning are scientifically ignorant of the facts that only the microscope can reveal. But then advocates of research cloning make moralistic claims such as “an embryo is simply the size of the period at the end of this sentence” and therefore not worth protecting. Of course, it is precisely the microscope that reveals how little size has to do with the worth, beauty, and power of living things. (Not to mention, it is these tiny entities–human embryos–for which scientists claim extravagant healing properties; and it is the emerging area of nanotechnology that scientists see as leading to the next great revolution in the life sciences.)

Such political tactics are justified, in the scientific mind, by the twin goods that scientists believe they are defending: the relief of suffering and the freedom of the scientist to push the boundaries of his research. No one can deny that these are indeed goods. The problem is that this most pragmatic of human undertakings–mastering nature to relieve man’s estate–is in fact an unrealistic (or incomplete) way of seeing the world. It inspires dreams of health and longevity which it can never perfectly deliver. It does not educate human beings for finitude. It does not prepare them morally for living well with the dangers that science itself produces. Instead, the vision of a salvific biotechnology often harbors the following illusion: If the world is simply “natural”–and can be understood solely in naturalistic terms–then the problems of sin and evil can be solved. Once we understand how the brain malfunctions, science can give us the tools (or the drugs) to correct it.

This leads us to another interesting implication of Poste’s insight about biotechnology’s loss of innocence: namely, that the souls suited to waging and enduring war, on the one hand, and those destined for the bourgeois-utopian consumption of biotechnology, on the other, may be in important respects deeply at odds. Biotechnology, more than simply the pursuit of less physical suffering, has become the pursuit of increased psychic well-being. Unhappiness is increasingly treated as a disease; anxiety as a disorder. On the Health and Human Services website, you can find in a “fact sheet” dated February 13, 2001 (i.e., before September 11), that 56 million Americans annually “experience diagnosable mental disorders.” A few clicks away, you can find endless material on the “mental health aspects of terrorism.” There is advice, such as “things may never be the same, but they will get better, and you will feel better.” There is a list of reactions that are “typical” after terrorist attacks (“fear of loud noises,” “confusion,” etc.) and that may require professional attention.

And what most mental-health professionals do for those in need of attention is write prescriptions. As the Wall Street Journal reported last week, “demand for antidepressants is huge and growing–they are now the second-most prescribed drugs after anti-infectives.” Biotechnology’s greatest crusade (and most lucrative business) seems to be chemically reconciling us to our mortality, not overcoming it. The problem, however, is that national service and national therapy are not easily reconciled. The Prozac-spirit and the warrior-spirit are rivals, not allies.

There is, of course, another way to look at this: Perhaps the cold-blooded, dispassionate ethos of experimental science, which is willing to destroy (nascent) human life for what it sees as a greater good, is precisely what war demands. Just as generals might see enemy soldiers (and sometimes civilians) as mere objects on a strategic chessboard, biologists might treat embryos as “collateral damage” in the war against disease. And perhaps, alternatively, if large segments of the Arab world were on Prozac, there would be no need for the war-making spirit. Our enemies would be cheerful nihilists instead of violent ones. The end of history would be here. And it would look–as it must–like the Brave New World that Aldous Huxley imagined between this century’s two great wars.

The final dilemma Poste raises is that a clear-eyed assessment of biological science–as both a tool of perfection and a tool of destruction–might lead to two opposing conclusions: On the one hand, we might conclude that some avenues of scientific investigation should not be pursued (or disseminated) at all, even if those who seek to pursue them have only the best and most innocent motives and even if very real good would likely come from them. Alternatively, we might conclude that some avenues of biotechnology, however dangerous and harmful, must be pursued, because we need them to deter and defend ourselves against our enemies. Both conclusions, of course, are antithetical to the bourgeois-utopian spirit, which believes that well-meaning science is never guilty, and that dangerous science is always unnecessary.

In contrast, one must admire the metaphysical realism of the pro-life opponents of embryo research (that is, when they are not promising that “all” the same therapies promised by embryo research can be achieved using adult stem cells). These pro-lifers are realistic about both human suffering and human evil. Their supposedly irrational love of the human embryo–“smaller than the period at the end of this sentence”–is in fact a redemptive answer to the mystery, harshness, and uncertainty of life in this world. They love something that seems lesser and smaller than us–even at a great potential cost to their own well-being–in the belief that God loves them the way they love the unborn. They seek to do good in the face of great temptation, and to uphold the inviolability of life even at the cost of suffering to themselves. One might believe this answer to the harshness and disorder of human life to be wrong. But only those fully incapable of awe, wonder, or the capacity for sacrifice would not admire it.

But finally, such an “ethic of ultimate ends,” as Max Weber would have called it, is not by itself sufficient for thinking about the moral and political dilemmas of biotechnology. In a footnote to his classic 1979 essay on embryo research, Leon Kass wonders the following: “Faced with the prospect of the end of the race, might we not condone the deliberate institution of pregnancies to provide fetuses for research, in the hope of finding a diagnosis and remedy for this catastrophic blight?”

In making our own moral and political judgment about embryo research, we face no such plague or necessity. We face no threat to the race. And so, rejecting this research–by legally banning it–would mark a serious achievement in our capacity to set moral limits on science, and in our capacity to face up to the guilty (though well-meaning) nature of this particular form of humanitarian biology.

But as we contemplate the dilemmas of war and medicine in the future–and the central place biotechnology holds in each of these endeavors–we will require new political thinking. We will need to grapple with our dependence on modernity (e.g., new industries of “biodefense”), the failings of modernity (e.g., harvesting embryos and mass consumption of Prozac), and the superiority of modernity to backward-looking fundamentalism (e.g., al Qaeda). This is, indeed, the political and philosophic challenge of our time. The bourgeois-utopian age, on the brink of its greatest humanitarian triumphs, is over.

Eric Cohen is a resident scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and co-editor of “The Future is Now: America Confronts the New Genetics.”

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