October 22, 2017

Questioning scientific progress

Review of The Double-Edged Helix: Science and the Real World, Liebe F Cavalieri, Columbia University Press, New York, 1981

This book is part of the ‘Convergence’ series, edited by Ruth Nanda Anshen. 193 pages including index

In the introduction to The Double-Edged Helix, Ruth Nanda Anshen tells us why she created the ‘Convergence’ series of which this title is a part. She realised how serious are the problems confronting our society today. “We are living”, she writes,

“in a period of extreme darkness. There is moral atrophy, destructive radiation within us, as we watch the collapse of values hitherto cherished—but now betrayed. We seem to be face to face with an apocalyptic destiny. Science now begins to question its premises and tells us not only what is, but what ought to be.”

Anshen sees science and technology as being particularly implicated in the destructiveness of modern society—the division between science and ethics being clearly intolerable. Science must tell us “not only what is but what ought to be”. The reductionist method is particularly at fault:

“The scientific method, the technique of analysing, explaining and classifying, has demonstrated its inherent limitations. They arise because, by its intervention, science presumes to alter and fashion the object of its investigation. In reality, method and object can no longer be separated. The outworn Cartesian, scientific world view has ceased to be scientific in the most profound sense of the word, for a common bond links us all—man, animal, plant, and galaxy—in the unitary principle of all reality. For the self without the universe is empty.”

The presumed objectivity of science which leads it to create “an unreconcilable dichotomy between the observer and the participant” is also intolerable. “For in the end we would know everything but understand nothing, not being motivated by concern for any question.”

Cavalieri’s book, the second in this series, very much reflects this philosophy. In its preface, Cavalieri notes the high social price that often has to be paid for scientific innovation.

“We must ask ourselves whether a continuing process of scientific discoveries and technological applications is what we need for the advancement of mankind. We already have an abundance of goods (whether or not they are equitably distributed), yet evidence abounds that we are experiencing a generalised malaise throughout the industrialised nations of the world, which strongly suggests that we do not need more hardware but that we should utilise more humanely what is already at hand.”

One of the problems of course is that science is the hand-maiden of government.

“Science is, however, of necessity committed to its sources of support: government (including the military) and industry. They themselves are inextricably intertwined to form what some call the corporate state, the single most important determinant of modern industrialised society, characterised by a primary drive for self-perpetuation and expansion. The corporate state controls the economy, and in so doing it mandates, directly or indirectly, the direction and growth of science and technology. Economic necessity thus presses the public to accept indiscriminately the technological system as a whole, in spite of its antisocial tendencies.”

As a result science has become “an affair of state, and the pursuit of science has become a political and ethically charged activity.” It is for this reason that Jacob Bronowski proposed that science be ‘disestablished’. This is unlikely to occur, however, since the public has been brainwashed into believing that science is benign.

“Mass advertising has been used to submerge and camouflage the negative aspects of technology and create the illusion that we can have it both ways—endless benefits with negligible cost or risk. The technological dilemmas have been masked.”

Cavalieri stresses this ethical aspect of science and shows just how the principle of neutrality of science which is insisted on by most scientists—is quite untenable today. In particular, the development of recombinant DNA technology “presents scientists with a new and uniquely powerful means for altering living cells according to their design.” The megalomaniac euphoria (Cavalieri doesn’t use this term) of scientists involved in this field is reflected in a statement by the Nobel Laureat David Baltimore who supposedly once remarked, “We can outdo evolution”. Cavalieri warns of a forthcoming backlash.

“Someday, as the nuclear, ecological, and now genetic hazards and threats grow larger, this unease is likely to erupt with destructive force as a full-scale anti-scientific and anti-intellectual movement.”

The Risks of Genetic Engineering

In the last decade anti-science movements have already been of concern to scientists and discussed at scientific meetings. Recombinant DNA technology can only lead to disasters. Of course scientists involved will always insist there is an infinitesimal chance that such a disaster will occur. This is the view, for instance, of Dr Holliday of the National Institute of Medical Research in London. According to his calculations,

“the probability of one individual dying of cancer from recombinant DNA is one in 100 billion: the probability of a second individual dying is one in 10 trillion; and the probability of a cancer epidemic is one in 100 trillion.”

Such calculations are meaningless. Incidents in other fields of high technology have occurred even though the possibility of their occurence is considered to be miniscule. In that respect, it is worth quoting at length from Cavalieri:

“The case of the Oak Ridge Research Reactor accident is one example of how misleading probability calculations can be. In this accident there were seven sequential failures, each involving redundance of three parallel elements, for a total of twenty-one failures, the absence of any one of which would have prevented the incident. Three of the seven were personnel failures: an experienced operator threw wrong switches in three separate rooms; another operator failed to report finding any of these errors; and so forth. The others were design or installation errors in a reactor with an outstanding performance record. The probability of the event was calculated to be 10-20 (that is, one in 100 billion billion). The event ‘was almost unbelievable,’ but it happened. Again, in the complex nuclear reactor accident that occurred in 1970 at Dresden II, the most generous assessment of the probabilities of the separate events could not raise the overall probability above something like 10-18 (one in a billion billion). Yet, here again, it happened . . .”

“. . . Dr Holliday’s calculation that the probability of occurrence of a cancer epidemic is one in 100 trillion (10-14) seems reassuring. He also calculated that ‘If 10 scientists in each of 100 laboratories carried out 100 experiments, the least serious accident would occur on the average once in a million years.’ This also seems reasonable in terms of acceptable risks, yet I hasten to add that the probabilities of the nuclear accidents were far, far smaller, and far more accurately determined; nevertheless, they occurred. And that is not reassuring.”

Back to top

Hooked to Technology: the problems off control

One of the reasons why accidents are bound to occur is that “familiarity breeds contempt from precautions.” One researcher who spent 95 days in a laboratory engaged in recombinant DNA research reported all sorts of transgressions of good laboratory practice. But the major problem is that once a technology has been adopted it becomes very difficult to control for the economy becomes dependent on it. Today, it would be difficult, for instance, to get rid of the motor car or even to abolish the use of nitrogen fertiliser or synthetic organic pesticides. To do so would mean transforming our lifestyles and completely reorganising our society. We can no longer examine critically the technology on which we have become dependent; it is taken for granted, and we seek to rationalise its continued use no matter how strong the evidence as to its undesirability. “Herein,” Cavalieri writes,

“lies the most serious danger of recombinant DNA technology. Eventualities that seem too outrageous at the moment even to warrant discussion are liable to become accepted, as necessary evils, after the new technique has become an integral part of the system and thus an economic necessity. This danger cannot be avoided unless we are willing to recognise the fundamental syndrome and anticipate, as best we can, the potential hazards and abuses of recombinant DNA. Only then can we hope to prevent this powerful new discovery from slipping out of our control.”

Back to top

The Road to Disaster

Cavalieri is concerned too with the minute fraction of the total budget for recombinant DNA research that has been devoted to an assessment of hazards and the development of safer procedures.

“The implicit assumption has always been that recombinant DNA technology will proceed, using whatever methods are available, regardless of the outcome of any risk-assessment experiments.”

He also describes the way in which the recombinant DNA lobby within the scientific community has been able to water down—and finally kill-any legislation proposed to control its activities. In the long run, says Cavalieri, this lobby will have the effect of discrediting the scientific community. The lobby has pleaded ‘freedom of inquiry’ but what is really at stake is “the freedom-of technology.”

Already all sorts of projects are underway and many of them could lead to disasters. The point is well made by Cavalieri:

“Let us consider one imminent application of genetic engineering. There is a strong impetus to design a bacterium capable of consuming oil inadvertently spilled by faulty oil tankers on the oceans of the world; on the bacterium under way at General Electric. When an appropriate organism has been developed and high oil interests are clamoring for it, who will decide whether it is safe to pour carloads of these bacteria into the oceans? Is there sufficient knowledge to be able to predict all the consequences? Will the oil companies or General Electric be strongly motivated to preserve the ecology of the oceans, which belong to all of us? “When released, the oil-eating bacteria will no doubt perform their task as designed, with great success. Any incentive to take precautions against oil spills will decline. Meanwhile, the release of vast quantities of one organism, and its petroleum and other breakdown products, will constitute an assault on ocean ecology. One need not know details about specific chemicals; the sheer mass of material, repeatedly applied, will be enough to disturb the equilibrium of aquatic life. The oil pollution problem will not be eliminated; it will simply be transmitted into another kind of pollution, the consequences of which cannot be fully tested in advance because we do not know enough about the complex interrelationships of life in the ocean to set up an adequate test system. But the unique aspect of the problem is this: if the newly-designed bacteria should find an unforeseen ecological niche, there could be long-range and almost certainly irreversible consequences, which might not become evident immediately. Thus the success of the oil-eating enterprise is inseparable from a number of monumental risks. In fact this is a fundamental characteristic of many modern technologies: their very success spawns new problems—the hazards of success. While this and other revolutionary new projects are gestating, we should be preparing a mechanism for independent review and assessment of proposed applications of recombinant DNA technology, particularly with respect to their future impact on human beings and their environment.”

Back to top

Accommodating Destruction

Cavalieri knows, however, that these arguments will not prevail.

“Even if it could be proved in advance that the use of oil-eating or drug producing bacteria would have catastrophic consequences, this would very likely not prevent them from becoming a commercial reality—as long as the disaster was not expected to be instantaneous and massive.”

Most depressing is the fact that dangerous high technology is largely required to provide technological fixes to the problems created by the irresponsible use of other technologies which we are unwilling to forego:

“Thus we try to find a technique for curing lung cancer while we continue to manufacture and advertise cigarettes, and we develop oil-eating bacteria to clean up oil spills instead of redesigning oil tankers or re-examining our energy-intensive and wasteful economy or making a serious effort to shift to renewable and ubiquitous energy sources. Many of the benefits expected from recombinant DNA technology are similar to this. Technological fixes have become such a familiar class of activities, such an integral part of everyday life, that they are hard to distinguish from solutions to problems arising from real human needs. The cancer problem is a stark case in point. The 1.2 billion dollars spent on cancer research in 1977 represents in large part a search for some means to patch up the damage caused by environmental factors, including industrial carcinogens and agents such as food additives. Members of Congress and the National Institute of Health feel justified in this approach; they think they are giving the taxpayer his due. The real solution—to eliminate or reduce environmental factors that cause cancer—is largely neglected. A leading cancer expert, Sir Richard Doll, has said that ‘most if not all cancers have environmental causes and can in principle be prevented.’ But it seems to be taboo even to think about such a rational approach, because it implies an attack on our way of life. Because of the insidious assumption that environmentally caused cancer is an immutable fact of life, the search for a cancer cure is not recognised by most people as a technological fix but as a humanistic activity.”

Cavalieri considers that if the lack of responsibility shown by the chemical industry in other fields is anything to go by then the outlook is indeed grim. He provides a number of very convincing illustrations, especially in the field of pesticides. In one chapter, he describes in detail the way the recombinant DNA lobby actually succeeded in eroding proposed controls on its activities.

“The Guidelines now exist in name only. It is an open secret that the demise of the Guidelines was engineered by several influential members of the Recombinant DNA Advisory Committee, in spite of the new experimental evidence showing that several types of risk are considerably greater than had been supposed when the Guidelines were first drawn up. For example it has been shown that bacteria containing recombinant DNA remain alive in humans 500 times longer than had previously been estimated, and that a recombinant containing cancer virus DNA can produce tumors in mice. The British journal Nature published a commentary on the serious implications of these experiments, which should have lead to an intensification of risk-assessment studies rather than a weakening of the Guidelines.”

Back to top

DNA and Eugenics

Another worrying aspect of recombinant DNA is its potential in the field of eugenics. Its use for what may be apparently beneficial genetic procedures, as Cavalieri points out, “creates an atmosphere in which genetic procedures in general become an accepted solution to many sorts of problems”—problems which are basically social and political. To deal with them at a genetic level enables us to accommodate the social and political trends that give rise to the problems—but not to overcome them. Cavalieri provides an interesting case in point:

“In the United States over the last few years, approximately one million school children per year have been given drugs, usually amphetamines, by the school systems, in order to curb what is deemed disruptive behaviour in the classroom. It is claimed that these children are all suffering from a medical syndrome, minimal brain dysfunction, which has no basis in fact—no organic correlate. Now clearly there are some cases of children with organic problems where this treatment may well be important. But in the overwhelming majority of cases the problems are a reflection of the current state of our crowded schools, overburdened teachers and families, and other social problems rather than something wrong with the kids. Imagine, as biochemical psychiatry is providing more and more information on the biochemical basis of mental states, the construction of a gene that will help to produce a substance in human cells which will change the mental state of individuals. Then, instead of feeding the kids a drug every day, we just do some genetic surgery and it’s over.”

Worse still is the use of recombinant DNA procedures for breeding people who can tolerate specific pollutants. This means seeking to accommodate industrial pollution rather than suppress it. It is apparently already argued in the scientific literature and elsewhere,

“that occupational diseases, caused by pollutants in the workplace can be ascribed not to the pollutants themselves, but to the fact that some individuals are genetically more susceptible to the pollutants then other individuals.”

It is then argued that the solution to the problem lies not in getting rid of the pollutants but, rather, in “simply not hiring those individuals who are thought to carry genetic susceptibility.” Already, a Dow Chemical plant in Texas has begun a large-scale genetic screening programme of its workers, whilst women of child-bearing age are required to be sterilised if they wish to be employed in General Motors plants.

“It is a genetic cop-out to allow industries to blame the disease on the genetically different individual rather than on their massive pollution of the workplace and the atmosphere” . . . “This is the epitome of ‘blaming the victim.’”

Apparently in the petro-chemical industry, genetic screening is on the increase and likely to become a standard means of detecting “defective genes in workers who are then labelled hyper-susceptible.” It is this hyper susceptibility which is then blamed for diseases generated by the pollutants they are exposed to in the workplace. Presumably it will be practiced to employ only those who “have less defective genes”, which confer on them some sort of immunity to the pollutants in question.

Human ‘in vitro’ fertilisation, which produced the test tube baby in Britain, seems to be the first step in the direction of developing genetic engineering procedures which will permit the breeding of workmen with genetic resistance to industrial pollutants. “Who knows what new and useful human characteristics could be developed by research in this area?” asks Cavalieri. Perhaps that is a question it would be better not to ask.


  • Twitter
  • Facebook
  • Digg
  • Reddit
  • StumbleUpon
  • Diaspora
  • Identi.ca
  • email
  • Add to favorites
Back to top