Science under Siege

Three centuries after the Enlightenment first linked human freedom with the progress of science and technology, both are under growing attack--despite their spectacular triumphs. Fundamental discoveries about nature expanded our creative power over the structure and transformations of the inanimate and living world. Breakthroughs in physics and chemistry enabled the extraordinary development of electronics and materials that dramatically shortened time and distance, ushering in an information age of fast, secure communication and transport. Advances in biological sciences and technologies, meanwhile, are increasing our ability to control disease and aging, boost food production, and manage pollution.

In short, scientific research--and its implementation through new technologies--made possible new freedoms, new ways of life, and new means of practical human action. But more and more we hear that our ability and willingness to manipulate natural processes is itself unnatural --an indictment that reflects our ambivalent relationship with nature. We are, as the French writer Jean Bruller-Vercors put it, animaux dénaturés , or "denatured animals," living in nature but simultaneously able to observe, investigate, and question it from a distance, conscious of our separateness.

This ambivalence gives rise to a diffuse anxiety: there are certain things that should not be touched, basic mysteries in nature that we tamper with at the risk of unleashing uncontrollable forces. The birth of electricity and automotive power was accompanied by this apprehension, and it has grown stronger the further science has penetrated the natural world, unlocking the secrets of the atom and of our own genetic makeup. Indeed, fear of our own awesome power explains the appeal of environmentalism, with its vision--particularly in its fundamentalist, quasi-religious variant, so-called "deep ecology"--of an intrinsically "pure" Nature whose harmony is supposedly disrupted by man.

But nature is entirely indifferent to man; it has no moral standing and it contains no moral code. Nature just is . My own field, chemistry, plays a primordial role in our ability to act upon natural phenomena, to modify them, and to invent new expressions of them. A natural substance, however, has no reason to be less toxic than a synthetic one. In fact, synthetic compounds may be safer than natural ones. For example, genetic engineering has eliminated the prion which causes Creutzfeld-Jakob disease, from naturally occurring human growth hormone, and has enabled blood transfusion without risk of HIV infection.

Let us be clear: science is the result of evolution, which has led to a being--man--that has progressively become able to take charge of itself and its surroundings. We humans will inevitably end up controlling our own evolution, and, because our power is emergent from nature we will make use of this acquired capacity sooner or later, for better or worse. Man modifying man (and man's environment) is contained in man.

What of the "sanctity" of life? We humans embrace the axiom that life is sacred in order to preserve what allowed that axiom to be formulated in the first place: consciousness and thought. No natural law commands that life respect itself--and, indeed, it does not; living species feed on each other. The basic value that life is sacred rests only on our ability to transcend and question our own making, even if this foundation is necessarily a product of life.

SPRING SALE: Save 40% on all new Digital or Digital Plus subscriptions

SPRING SALE: Save 40% on all new Digital or Digital Plus subscriptions

Subscribe now to gain greater access to Project Syndicate – including every commentary and our entire On Point suite of subscriber-exclusive content – starting at just $49.99.

Subscribe Now

It is thus our fate to continue the quest for knowledge. It is also our obligation. We do not have the right to decide that we have reached a sufficient level of scientific progress, because we cannot consult future generations--and we are fortunate that our predecessors could not consult us. Science and technology, after all, are not responsible for the careless and wasteful behavior that environmentalists rightly condemn.

On the contrary, the scientific spirit offers our only hope of developing new processes and products that minimize the risks attendant on human progress, while technology transfers promise to minimize poor countries' reliance on natural resource-intensive industries. Providing a "development shortcut" that leads directly to photovoltaic or nuclear electricity generators, not coal-fired power stations, high-performance materials, not steel mills, and cellular telephone networks, not expensive fixed-line systems, would clearly benefit us all.

Zero risk does not exist. Risk appears with life. Zero risk is a dead world. So risk is inherent in every decision we make. Attempting to eliminate risk by ruling certain areas of research off limits would stifle human freedom as well. We must distinguish between the dangerous and the merely disagreeable. A glass that is half-full to some people, is half-empty to others; but from the half-full half, you can drink, whereas with the empty half you cannot do much (except try to fill it)!

Unfortunately, it is not always possible to assess risks accurately, and science alone cannot provide all the answers. Decisions concerning the uses of scientific discoveries are typically based on criteria that have nothing in common with science. A factory may function without emitting disagreeable fumes that are not dangerous, but only if we are prepared to pay for it.

Of course, technological choices entail more than economic criteria. Installing a solar-powered water pump in a developing country may destroy a traditional social structure based on control of the water supply. Similarly, sexual cohabitation before fertilization may, according to recent research, generate an immunological response in women that markedly decreases health risks linked to pregnancy, such as hypertension and convulsive eclampsia. Such findings--like the development of safe, effective contraceptive methods--clearly threaten long-held religious proscriptions.

The scientist's first responsibility is to the pursuit of new knowledge, not to any narrow vision of society. Ethics and rules of justice change and have to adapt, as they have since the Enlightenment's ideals began breaking down the barriers of superstition, obscurantism, and demagogy that limited the realm of human freedom. History cannot be rewritten, and we must resist the irrational urge--whether it originates from the abyss of our ignorance or from the specter of our crises--to stop it in its tracks. We must walk the path to the tree of knowledge if we are to control our destiny.