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Science, as one of the most potent and reliable sources of knowledge, which to meet moral, ethical and political questions and challenges every now and then. Scientific advances, especially those with clinical applications, conflict with such questions from all walks of life. Thus, a need arises to examine the intent and applications of science as we confront in day to day life issues like genetic alteration of food, environmental effects of pesticides and herbicides, possibilities of stem cells, assisted reproductive technologies, cloning, pharmaceuticals, prenatal diagnosis and genetically modified foods. Times of Triumph, Times of Doubt is written by the eminent geneticist and historian Elof Carlson, who explores the moral foundations of science and their role in these issues. The theme of this book is the scientific development and its issues of conflict with religion and politics. He is of the view that science does not exist in moral vacuum. The intent and uses of science should be questioned and examined as it is directly associated with the question of human welfare.
Carlson chooses a variety of case histories and describes their scientific background and the part played by scientists in the application of their work, including their motivations and reactions to bad outcomes, both real and alleged. He examines why ethical lapses have occurred in these areas, why bad things happen when, for the most part, those who worked on the science had only good intentions in mind, and how such lapses can be prevented from occurring in the future. He also indicates how scientists can be more effective in preventing undesirable consequences of their work. He argues that such unintended outcomes can be prevented if scientists consult a range of opinions, including critical voices. He ends with a discussion of science and social responsibility.
The author has not failed to discuss two burning issue as regards the necessity of regulation to protect the environment. One is the use of pesticides and the other is the use of genetically modified food, that is, the direct insertion of genes (natural and synthetic) from one species into another species. There are two opposing views about interpretation of nature. The first interprets nature as ours to use. According to this view nature is a preserve for us to live in, to exploit, as a resource for us. The other view is that nature should be respected and conserved and its natural beauty should be preserved. Some major harmful effects of pesticides include imbalance of the ecosystem, its storage in the food we eat, its continuation to enter the food chain long after a spraying has been discontinued, inducing mutation, cancers and interfering with human or animal metabolism. The author discusses Rachel Carson's contribution towards the conservation of the environment. He also mentions some major impediments in accepting a policy which immediately stops use of such pesticides. One is that meeting environmental standards leads to higher prices and these industries fear that foreign producers will drive them out of business. The author's suggestion is that both, the industries and the conservation movements should try to co-exist, through effective use of, non-political and government based regulatory agencies. There are some legitimate fears as far use of genetically modified food is concerned. Such products might cause some allergies; they could be toxic to species such as butterflies or bees that use the pollen of these plants and they might have disastrous effect on the practice of agriculture. Those who hold a romantic view of nature are against the use of sterile seeds on the grounds that they are unnatural. But as the author rightly points out, there are already many artificially produced products which have become a part of our daily life like vaccinations, anti-biotic, thyroxin, hearing aids, pacemakers and so on. Modified grains have higher content of iron and vitamins. Therefore, they are gradually gaining universal acceptance.
The other important issue discussed in the book is basic and applied research in medicine. The author touches upon issues like medical deception and syphilis, prenatal diagnosis, cloning and stem cell research and assisted reproduction. These issues are seen in the light of religious beliefs therefore have become controversial. The author aptly remarks that in general, scientists prefer to ignore religion as they consider it a different domain altogether, but, the author reminds, that when some 80% of humanity has strong religious beliefs, their voice cannot be ignored. He at the same time advocates that the scientists should confront such religious beliefs with reasoning. In the context of prenatal diagnosis, for example, he rightly points out that, "as we invest more of our expectations in a pregnancy the further along it goes, the psychological burden of loss increases."
The author suggests that we should not be unnecessarily skeptical about scientific experiments as cloning. He is of the view that cloning about 0.0000001 percent of humanity is not likely to cause a serious change in the world's gene pool. He argues that each new scientific in our basic understanding of living processes will lead to applications to human health and commercial usage. For the most part, those good intentions will have good outcomes. We should learn from history that it is difficult to predict whether the original intentions of a new field or product will turn out as planned. It is also difficult to predict the effects of government regulations and industrial policies in interaction with social pressures and unforeseen events. Scientists do have their own ethical standards, and they need to speak out and discuss issues and test their doubts. Nothing should deter them from new research. They should launch new experiments while at the same time seeking lessons from our past errors.
The book gives a very good overview of the major issues facing scientists now and in the past. The explorations of the moral foundations of the book are so careful and simply written that it will compel the reader to reflect on her own values and beliefs. Times of Triumph, Times of Doubt will be beneficial not only for those working in medical research and ethics, but also for the general public who will find it very interesting and informative.
© 2007 Richa Yadav
Richa Yadav recently completed her PhD in philosophy of mind from IIT, Kanpur, India. Her dissertation is on individuation of mental states, with especial reference to the individualist and the non-individualist debate. Her research interest lies in philosophical issues in cognitive science, philosophy of language, epistemology, ethics, translation studies and metaphors. She is also a creative writer.
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