Don’t shoot the scientist!

This essay was written by Dimitris Kioussis and was first published in the 2001 Mill Hill Essays.

In the year 2000 the Whitbread Prize was awarded to a first novel by Zadie Smith entitled “White Teeth”. This remarkable book is basically about a multiracial society and the complex morals that such a society harbours within it. The characters are the products of various backgrounds from around the world: Jamaica, India and the United Kingdom, who come together in north London in the late nineties. The conditions and the problems they face are entirely different from those faced by the societies that have informed and shaped their ideologies. They are presented with the formidable task of responding to our society’s demands in a way that is constructive, according to them, and at the same time does not exclude them from it. Sometimes their views are narrow, sometimes they are heart-warmingly embracing.

Amongst the concerns that the novel’s characters have is their relationship to scientific advancement. Public attitudes towards the scientific pursuit of knowledge which aims to improve human health are exemplified in the book by the responses of the different people to the generation of an experimental animal. A molecular biologist has “created” a mouse which artificially bears one of the genes that are responsible for the formation of cancerous cells. This additional gene, known as an oncogene, was inserted in the genome of the mouse by a technological advance of recent years which allows the injection of genetic material, DNA, into the nucleus of a mouse egg. The extra DNA becomes incorporated into the DNA of the egg and if the egg is allowed to develop into a new mouse, this mouse will carry the extra genetic information. Such mice are called transgenic and have been invaluable in our understanding of basic biological processes as well as in generating animal models of human diseases. Such models not only help us to understand the mechanisms that lead to the disease but also allow us to develop therapies. Understandably, they provoke debate about the amount of suffering that such processes may cause to the experimental animals weighed against the benefits to society and the alleviation of suffering of millions of people afflicted by diseases of a genetic nature. More particularly, in White Teeth the transgenic mouse generated by the scientist aims to mimic in an experimental animal, and under controlled experimental conditions, the processes that lead to cancer. Such a strategy can determine how the cells are transformed from healthy and regulated units into an uncontrollably proliferating mass of cells that may eventually kill the diseased animal. This ability of science to interfere with nature and the harm it may cause in the process versus the future benefits to human health is at the centre of the following discussion.

Science and its practice has acquired a prominent profile in the public consciousness during recent years. Perhaps one of the reasons is that science has somehow left the undefined and nebulous regions within which only scientists operated and has entered the world of newspaper reports and television programs. As a result the public’s attention has been turned towards the increasing possibilities opened up by recent scientific discoveries. This meant that science has become a subject for dinner party conversations at best, or a reason for certain groups in society to take militant action against its practitioners at worst.

Quantum leaps in both scientific knowledge and its applications have taken place several times in the history of civilisation: anything from Newton to Darwin to Freud and in more recent times Einstein to Heisenberg, to Watson and Crick to name a few. However, with the exception of nuclear power and its direct effects on society, the public did not consider themselves “in the know” enough to form an opinion, even less, to mount a response to the inevitability of the changes that these discoveries were bringing to the world. Until, that is, Watson, Crick and Wilkins discovered the structure of DNA. Already by that time Mendel’s formulation of the theory of inheritance genetics had prepared the scientific world for the importance of genetic information and it was only natural that the subsequent deciphering of the genetic code would lead to an explosion in research activities centred around DNA biochemistry. As a result of the identification of DNA as the heritable unit there was a plethora of technological inventions of ways to manipulate this genetic material. These “technologies” had actually been developed by nature itself long before the scientists applied them. Examples are the ability of bacteria to produce large amounts of DNA or their ability to cut and splice together pieces of DNA under evolutionary pressure. What human intelligence did, was to couple these biological processes with technological advances in the laboratory and thus harness their potential. Employing these processes in experimental conditions has helped to advance our knowledge of how living organisms manage to set up those factories of energy, information and function that constitute life as we know it. It is important that our definition of life should include anything that has found a way to reproduce itself, from the lowest forms such as viruses and bacteria to higher organisms such as plants and animals.

It was inevitable that once we knew that the genetic information is stored in DNA, we would want to know how this information is passed on through inheritance and what are the fundamental processes that translate that information into energy, movement, physiology and in the case of humans, thought. It was the gradual accumulation of knowledge and technical advance that finally led to the ability to modify the genetic store, and this was what eventually caught the public’s imagination. Particularly provoking was the prospect of modifying genetic information in a way that could serve a purpose. It is to this issue that the public has responded. Processes that took nature and evolution millions of years to develop by natural selection could now be done, in a laboratory, within a few months. It became possible to introduce new genetic information into the genome and to mutate or delete any part of the genome with a particular function. Scientists have mostly used this ability to ask questions that would reveal how genes work but, given the commercial ethos of our times, it was not long before these questions acquired the characteristic that I mentioned earlier: the serving of a practical purpose. Examples include: the introduction of a normally functioning gene to replace a faulty one that is causing a disease; or the production of biological material that can be used for pharmaceutical or industrial purposes; or changing of the genetic make up of a plant to make it resistant to diseases. But public imagination, creative as it is, fast forwarded the field to areas way beyond the real scientific capability: if you can modify the genome with a purpose in mind, then you could find what makes eyes blue and thus be able to choose the colour of the eyes of your child. But then you could also find out what makes an animal male or female and therefore be able to decide the gender of your own child. One can only imagine what this latter opportunity could do to the balance of the human population given the overwhelmingly male dominated ideology of human society.

This need not be the limit. One only has to think of the brave new world as “prophetically” described by Aldous Huxley: societies made up of wilfully-created, genetically-determined master/slave creatures. At this point imagination can really take flight, but progress in science is far slower than the galloping public imagination. New discoveries take time to find applications, and a lot of them fail, indicating the limitations of what in fact is possible. Yes, it is possible to manipulate individual packages of genetic information. Yes, you can generate lower organisms or even animals containing new genetic elements. But it is important to realise that the characteristics of a living organism are rarely the product of the activity of a single gene. In addition the impact of the environment on such characteristics may also be considerable. In fact, it is this complexity that leaves scientists in awe as to what they actually can do and mildly irritated by the misinformed suggestion that you can in the end produce intelligent or dumb people at will. This is an argument that may be rather poorly presented to the public by scientists, along with the degree of technological difficulty involved in all these manipulations in order for them to be effective.

Frankenstein scenarios make it easy for the public to find a new monster to fear and fight against. Following the end of the cold war, the nuclear bomb is no longer so menacing and people have turned their attention to new forms of “threat”. Despite the advantages offered by advances in science in the field of genetic engineering and the health benefits that humans would gain, the public seems to have reverted to old traditional fears: in other words the intolerability of the alien; monsters, clones of repulsive individuals, freaks and so on. Scientists need to acknowledge that this is not unreasonable mistrust, considering the experience we had with the atom bomb and the eugenics adopted by quite a few governments in Europe in the interwar period. History has taught us that scientific discoveries can be misused, so of course the cause of these fears should be addressed. On the other hand, let us not forget that research in eugenics has helped to create most of the flowers that people are growing in their gardens and most of the livestock bred around the world.

This sets the scene of the current conflict between scientists wishing to promote knowledge of the world around us, clashing with the public’s fear of what this knowledge could bring. Biological scientists are most of the time motivated by their quest to decipher the mechanisms that make a living being a living being. More often than not scientists feel that this is sufficient justification in itself. There is a marked lack of interest amongst the scientific community in explaining to the public why one should seek advancement of scientific knowledge and, even more worrying, to face the full range of consequences if such knowledge falls into the wrong hands. At times there is not enough effort from the scientists involved to explain or vouchsafe the useful and credible applicability of what they discover. In their defence however, how could this be achieved? Should bans be introduced for research in certain areas? Society, thankfully, has developed in ways that do not allow draconian banning measures. It has to be recognised that the beneficial may carry within it the seeds of evil, but only as a potential, not as a certainty. It should be left to society to decide how knowledge will be applied, but this should not stop knowledge from advancing.

The public, on the other hand, would benefit by searching for actual information about the benefits and the potential risks of such scientific endeavours. Ignorance of the real facts leads to misinterpretation of both the motives behind the science of genetic manipulation and to concerns about the damage that such science may cause to nature. If you change the genome of a mouse by introducing a new gene to make it transgenic, do you negate its mouseness? Do you really go against nature? Is the alternative to ban such research? How would such restrictive measures make the world different from the nightmare described in George Orwell’s novel “1984”? The public has to acquire the ability to distinguish where real science stops and science fiction starts. That would help dispel many of the fears generated by genetic research.

Furthermore, an unassailable argument has developed behind all this fear and mistrust: Life, following its divine creation, is not to be meddled with. How does one confront the opinion that life is sacred, that one should respect it, that one should not play God? This stance has led recently to a militancy that has resulted in violent actions against scientists by people who take it upon themselves to be the representatives and protectors of life in our society; who deem that the human race is abusing its intellect and power to promote its own status in nature by taking advantage of animals. However, very often in this argument the definition of life is rather clouded. If the definition of life includes all organisms that can reproduce themselves, are we allowed to kill disease-causing bacteria by taking antibiotics? Don’t we destroy life then? If we eat bread and vegetables, don’t we destroy life then? Of course we do, but then this is one of the unchangeable laws of nature. The whole ecosystem has evolved on the basis of the “destruction” of one form of life to ensure the sustenance of another. But therein lies the difference between humans and the rest of the natural world. As humans, we know that this destruction is happening and we have the intellect to redirect the process. Animals and plants do not. Good or bad, sentience is the gulf that separates humans from animals and that’s that. Does this give us the right to exploit them? Our brain says no, our biology says yes. The answer is probably somewhere in between.

Within this debate, as a rule, literature has adopted the general public’s opinion about science and its “evil” effects on nature and society. There are notable exceptions to this, A S Byatt and Ian McEwan cross my mind at this point, where authors have employed a reasonable and measured attitude towards science and its practioners. But nowhere in recent literature have I found the debate about science versus the public more graphically described than in Zadie Smith’s book. For the first time in a fictional account the arguments for or against science are presented in parallel with a flawless description of the scientific background and its potential.

he various moral codes endorsed by the different racial groups in our modern day complex society become the real force behind the beliefs and motives of the characters within the novel. The debate about science may not be its central theme, but the author uses this debate to examine the cultural moral interactions within our multiracial society. Having chosen science and its effects as the stage-set, Zadie Smith has researched her subject and transferred it to paper without misinterpretations and with a remarkable accuracy and clarity for those who are not involved in or have not been taught science. Remarkably, her informed knowledge about the science involved does not lead her to take an extreme stand on the subject. The arguments for or against science are presented in an exquisitely balanced fashion. She builds the extreme arguments through the mouths and brains of the novel’s characters and in a spectacular display of literary ingenuity, undermines them by assigning these individuals to minority groups that are marginalised or discredited. The opponents are either religious or political extremists while the proponents have a shady association with a eugenics scientist who survived the second world war. When all these different interests come to clash at the climax of the novel, one realises that there is really no easy solution to the debate. The various opinions need to be aired more frequently and more openly. Humans possess intellect and therefore reason. We should make use of it and reach those conditions which will guarantee progress and minimise the cost to the rest of the natural world. That is why both scientists and members of the public should read this novel. Not only because it is one of the more illuminated and illuminating accounts on the debate that this essay has focussed on, but also because it is one of the most enjoyable books I have read in recent years.

Leave a comment

name*

email* (not published)

website