Autodidakt

Published

James Foley

Paperback science fiction, religious hysteria, and Stalin’s botched attempt to crossbreed a human-ape Red Army in the 1930s have combined to make people suspicious of genetic research. Some students proclaim themselves mortified that lank-haired boffins are investigating stem cell technology right under our noses at Glasgow University.

Now and again, the hysteria boils over and some frothing at the mouth Christian will be rolled out to proclaim the evils of modern science. One poster at the GUU warned of the dangers of a human-bovine hybrid. Udder infections? No, nothing that specific. Just the “dangers” of “abominations”.

The denizens of the Beer Bar are not alone in their scepticism. It seems that hardly anyone likes the biological sciences these days. Only 25% of Britons believe that Darwin’s theory of evolution is “definitely true”. Around 10% believe that the “Young Earth” theory (i.e. the notion that the Earth was created by God less than 10,000 years ago) is superior to Evolution. That presumably means that 1 in 10 people you meet believes that the inhabitants of Ancient Egypt built pyramids to defend themselves against roving T-Rex attacks.

I find all this scepticism rather odd. Biological science has vastly improved the quality of human life and has been responsible for few fatalities. War, by contrast, destroys millions of lives every year in the name of profit.

Until June last year, Glasgow University was home to a grouping called Aerodynamics, Defence, and Security Markets who “intended to support companies interested in participating in collaborative research [and] development projects that will help realise opportunities in aerospace, defence, security and related markets“. In other words, those companies who wished to make a profit out of the military, the biggest cash-bovine hybrid in the UK research industry.

Glasgow University still has extensive corporate links to BAE Systems. BAE sold weapons to Suharto’s regime in Indonesia as he was organising a genocide against the people of East Timor, in which a third of the population was killed.  BAE bribed the murderous dictatorship of General Pinochet to secure arms contracts.  BAE have previously sold weapons to Mugabe, and they now sell – via an American subsidiary – components for the F-16s that Israel used to massacre civilians in Gaza.

I would say there is a strong ethical case not to participate in military research with BAE. The arguments against stem cell research, by contrast, are moralistic, outdated, and based on a limited grasp of current scientific developments.

As research progresses, the notion of embryo gulags running out of Glasgow University biology departments is increasingly redundant. Induced Pluripotent Cell technology allows non-Pluripotent cells (such as skin cells) to be reprogrammed into stem cells. The technology is in its early stages, but if we directed funding away from “Homeland Security” into research that actually improves our grasp of our own biology its benefits could be fully explored.

Most scientific developments are, in themselves, ethically neutral.  The real issue is: who funds them, and who benefits? Genetically modified foods have the potential to feed millions of starving people in Africa, if the technology was subject to democratic scrutiny and scientists were rewarded for enhancing human welfare.

Unfortunately, the best paid scientists are those who enhance corporate profits. “Terminator technology”, which causes the second generation of GM seeds to be infertile, has the potential to destroy the social fabric of third world countries and make farmers dependent on corporations.
We should push to make sure the potential of stem cell research is exploited for human need, not corporate profit.

Whereas weapons technology is inherently destructive — and “Homeland Security” inherently a euphemism for state repression — new technologies in biology can make the world a more equitable place, as long as we push for their correct implementation.