A molecular biologist surveys the ethical and philosophical questions raised by biotechnology.
Silver (Biology/Princeton) states that much of the controversy surrounding biotechnology arises from the Judeo-Christian religious tradition, with its emphasis on God's creation of all life. In comparison, members of Asian cultures with non-monotheistic religions have few qualms about “playing god,” a phrase that recurs frequently in discussions of the subject. It isn't just conservative Christians who believe “there are things man was not meant to know.” Politically liberal believers in the modern Mother Earth or Gaia myths are often strongly opposed to genetically engineered foods. On both sides, anti-biotechnical beliefs arise from the premise that science alone cannot explain life. Silver spends a fair amount of time exploring such cases as conjoined twins and chimeras (the nearly complete absorption of one embryo by another) and human monsters with two heads—cases that disturbingly challenge the notion of individual souls. He also devotes considerable energy to tracing the origins of the organic-food lifestyle, of the vitamin industry, of homeopathic medicine and other movements that claim to be based in science but retain a hard core of “vitalism,” the belief that a profound gulf exists between the living and the non-living. Anti-biotechnology activists such as Jeremy Rifkin cloak their statements in scientific language, but at the core, they also reject the idea that biological phenomena can be explained in materialistic terms. The Christian conservatives opposing stem-cell research and other cutting-edge biotechnology as violations of “natural law” are, in comparison, much more consistent in their beliefs. In the end, Silver admits that biotechnology has a significant hurdle to clear, but he believes that current prejudices against science will in time erode.
Probing, controversial, well-documented and often persuasive.