I am a faithful book buyer and an omnivorous reader, but one with a precocious streak—I like to look up authors and email them with questions about their books. Since penning a book about the CRISPR-Cas9 gene-modification system, readers are now writing to me with all sorts of middle-of-the-night thoughts. Many people think of science as a good thing—STEM has cachet, synonymous with our goodness—but the advance of the life sciences unnerves some people.
A teacher in New Hampshire suggested recombinant DNA research—including CRISPR—was dangerous enough in theory that he has proposed to move it all to the moon (he has not yet secured the funding or political will to do this). A therapist in the Netherlands has started a grassroots campaign to stop the application of CRISPR, a motivation which is linked to her views on the divinity of nature.
Science can discredit our speculations, folk science and illusions about how the world works and what to be afraid of; but the opposite, science as a positive script for what to value or believe has its limitations. Robert Oppenheimer was painfully aware of this when he concluded that “science is not all of the life of reason; it is a part of it.”
CRISPR may indeed be used to create bioweapons through the engineering of microbes, or create pathological strains through unscrupulous genetic manipulation. But the unleashing of dangerous microbes has been a concern at least since the 1970s when recombinant DNA first emerged, not to mention giving rise to films such as the Andromeda Strain and The Stand.
In fact, a temporary moratorium on gene engineering was tried in the 1970s, but many scientists already thought the risks of biohazard were overblown. British microbiologist Ephraim Anderson titled one paper Indiscriminant use of antibiotics has exerted more pressure on the bacterial population than could be wielded by all the research workers in the world put together. We cannot rule-out the prospect that a genetically modified microbe could cause a global threat to humans. But the risks are minute and simply worth enduring, most academics have concluded.
The argument that genes embody a sort of sacrosanct character that should not be interfered with is not too compelling, since artifacts of viruses are burrowed in our genomes, and genes undergo mutations with each passing generation. Even so, the principle that all life has inherent dignity is hardly a bad thought and provides a necessary counterbalance to the impulse to use in vitro techniques and CRISPR to alter any gene variant to reduce risk or enhance features, none of which are more or less perfect but variations in human evolution.
Indeed, the question of dignity is thornier than we might imagine, since science tends to challenge the belief in abstract or enduring concepts of value. How to uphold beliefs or a sense of dignity seems ever confusing and appears to throw us up against an age of radical nihilism as scientists today are using the gene editing tool CRISPR to do things such as tinker with the color of butterfly wings, genetically alter pigs, even humans. If science is a method of truth-seeking, technology its mode of power and CRISPR is a means to the commodification of life. It also raises the possibility this power can erode societal trust.
In 2008, the President's Council on Bioethics released a 555-page report, titled Human Dignity and Bioethics, which fielded essays by wide array of thinkers including the progressive philosopher Daniel Dennett and conservatives such as Leon Kass. As Dennett put the problem, “When we start treating living bodies as motherboards on which to assemble cyborgs, or as spare parts collections to be sold to the highest bidder, where will it all end?” The solution of rescuing human dignity from the commercial forces of science, Dennett noted, cannot involve resorting to “traditional myths” since this “will backfire” but instead concepts of human dignity should be based on our sovereign right to “belief in the belief that something matters.”
Dennett argues that faith is important in an everyday sense, such as most people have faith in democracy even as "we are often conflicted, eager to point to flaws that ought to be repaired, while just as eager to reassure people that the flaws are not that bad, that democracy can police itself, so their faith in it is not misplaced.” The point is also true about science, “since the belief in the integrity of scientific procedures is almost as important as the actual integrity.” In fact, we engage in a sort of "belief maintenance” insofar that “this idea that there are myths we live by, myths that must not be disturbed at any cost, is always in conflict with our ideal of truth-seeking” and even as we commit to ideas in public or just in our hearts, "a strange dynamic process is brought into being, in which the original commitment gets buried” in layers of internal dialog and counterargument. "Personal rules are a recursive mechanism; they continually take their own pulse, and if they feel it falter, that very fact will cause further faltering," the psychiatrist George Ainslie wrote in the Breakdown of Will. If science can challenge beliefs, dignity is more primal—it is the right to hold beliefs, make use of science, and exercise belief maintenance.
Dignity is tricky to defend against the explication and engineering of human life by means of chemical processes, and it is complicated by the reality that many people increasingly look to science to shape their view and moral direction, as we are living in a new age of resurgent scientism—an assumption that science encodes values. A century ago, scientism appeared to be all but dead. The modernist break caused rupture between the moral and cultural commitments and sheer existence—hence it led to existentialism and the struggle over defining our commitments.
Whatever it meant to life a good life, it couldn’t be predefined by culture or science. In Anton Chekhov’s 1889 short story, “A Boring Story,” Nikolai Stepanovich, an internationally recognized scientist and professor of medicine, slips into melancholy near the end of his life. Despite his incredible success, his life seems evermore ambiguous, as the modernist movement comes to displace his authority. Katja, a young girl, a representative of the new generation, comes to him asking for advice and guidance, but Nikolai knows he has no way to tell her how to live. The irony is that freedom invoked a melancholy. His physician friend Mikhail Fyodorovich confides in Nikolai, “Science, God knows, has become obsolete. Its song has sung. Yes… Humanity has already begun to feel the need of replacing it with something else.”
In fact, we may be in the midst of a rebound to this break, whereby a resurgent scientism defines the moral directive, and data science is used to shape the arc of our decisions. Scientists can appeal to a mythos of bringing us closer to reality, as if peering into neuroimagery or analyzing the genome gives us information that is more true that life as we experience it. To some extent we learn bits and pieces of what makes us who we are. But ironically, it can weaken our sense of reality due to the obsession with statistical signals, which are often taken out of context, algorithms which speciously shape societal decisions, dating decisions, or pick the next president—much of which fails us. More time and data is going to vastly improve the ability of science to regulate our lives, quite the opposite. This is because the life of the mind often involves the toggling between two opposing ideas, where there are no right decisions. As economist Thomas Sowell put it, “The march of science and technology does not imply growing intellectual complexity in the lives of most people. It often means the opposite.”
In his essay “The Virtue of Scientific Thinking” in the Boston Review, Harvard science historian Steven Shapin, who has also written on how much of our belief in science and the world is based on trust in the written word, has argued that trust in science has a critical role in morality, and that science, say climate science, can indeed be useful to shape values and direct policy decisions. But there are also obvious pitfalls to resurgent scientism. In recent decades, the free inquiry of science has been linked to technology, and thus to modes of institutional power, and monetization.
Therefore, scientific inquiry can be in jeopardy to the extent that it becomes put to the extreme uses of capitalization of the life sciences. Science, once a challenge to institutional authority, has increasingly been defined by status, finance and what look like hierarchical structures, which I think that people subconsciously like to see. But scientists, by close association with biotech, also risk a backlash that people make disengage with them, and begin to see credible facts as merely framing one more business venture. Importantly, we trust that what scientists say is probably true, but there is no guarantee of this trust or belief. In fact, trust is jeopardy as scientists connect their work to modes of technology as a means to personal power, half-million dollar cancer drugs, a billion-dollar CRISPR patent battle, and the like.
Science does not provide a positive script—but information to help build that script. For instance, a hypothesis is a proposition or belief that can be tested; but as Karl Popper once suggested, a hypothesis cannot be proven, only disproven (one black swan proves not all swans are white, but more white swans do not) since a given can never be completely proved—there is always the chance of a challenge by new data. Science offers no starting points, and there are questions of whether science is, in fact, leading us to any complete view of nature, which will be unchallenged, or, in some way, enlightened.
Increasingly, some scientists deny a Theory of Everything. Physical systems may be in a state of competition; in other words—there is no logic at the basis of reality. Therefore, while science is a useful tool, we have to at least entertain the prospect that it only leads to an abyss of time—an ongoing building and rebuilding of human histories. I suspect it will fail as a singular means to guide us to any conflict-free reality, and that we are far from done struggling with the consequences of the modernist break.