Yesterday I attended a public symposium on religion, science, technology, and law that was held at ASU' s Tempe campus. It was sponsored by ASU's Center for the Study of Religion & Conflict.
The discussion revolved around the question: Are humans changing human nature; if so, should they?
By my estimation, approximately 500 people attended. The average age of the audience was considerably higher than I would have expected, but there was a good cross section of the community represented in the audience nevertheless.
Ronald Green and Larry Arnhart touched on some of the ethical issues raised in the field of genetic research and their implications for our culture.
Philip Clayton and Carl Mitcham then discussed the ethical and practical concerns of the religion/science divide from a technological perspective.
These professors for the most part all shared the view that the traditional chasm between religion and science can be bridged. They agree that technology and the aquisition of knowledge in general is inherently a good thing (with the exception of Dr Mitcham, who described himself jokingly as the "luddite of the bunch" several times during his segment) but they point out that our accelerated rate of progress is now such that it's remarkably easy for some to envisage images like those in Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World", in which the genetic and pharmacological and pedagogic sciences are used as malevolent controling forces in society. An evil technocracy awaits us, they warn. "Not if we can help it", our lecturers boldly claim. They agree that this fear and apprehension that some feel at what they see as an attempt by Science (with a big S) to "play God" are not really rationally defensible (doomsday scenarios never are), but while it is true that we should not ignore the difficult ethical issues raised in these matters, it is unwise (I agree) to hastily adopt an overly pessimistic attitude toward progress. To paraphrase the best line in Dr Green's lecture, we should not be imagining nightmares when we should be cultivating dreams.
But . . .
A dream can be painted too rosily too.
The panelists all seem to trust that "human nature" (a phrase that was not adequately defined) is enough to safeguard us against the very things which we fear. In other words, they trust that people won't abuse the new technologies, simply because we all deep-down just want what's good for our children and for our societies.
This point seemed to me somewhat naïve and needs to be addressed more fully and directly. It completely disregards the lessons of history. Human nature may make us benevolent, but seldom to the point of eliminating our basic selfish tendencies. Our vanities.
While it's true that everyone wants the best for their children . . . . . . the best intentions do not guarantee that we will make the right decisions, particularly as it pertains to favoring our own. It may be cynical on my part, but I DO believe people will be tempted and will have a tendency to abuse the technology just so their darlings will be taller, stronger, faster, prettier, smarter . . . whatever . . . . anything that will give them an advantage in their athletic, artistic, academic, or even merely aesthetic aspirations. While I agree that we should be generally optimistic about our role in history and about the continuing advances in the science of information transfer and of biology, when it comes to cases involving eugenics or cloning or genetic engineering, we must be extremely cautious. We have to vigilantly and critically examine the legislations we enact today, precisely to ensure that their abuses will be rare and few tomorrow.
Another related topic discussed by the panel was the subject of embryonic stem cell research and the obstacles being erected in our nation to impede its progress. This year, as we celebrate sixty years since Dr Jonas Salk's research gave us the vaccine which all but eradicated polio from our human experience, I doubt anyone would dare say that his work was anything but a marvelous gift to mankind. It's a little known fact, though, that the tissue which the good doctor used for his specimens was, in fact, mostly fetal tissue. Ironically, in our current climate of reactionary political divisions, it is sad to think that, today, Dr Salk's research would not only not be funded, but might even be outlawed outright.