Science: Art meets biology to forge a vision of modern humanity
The Italian city of Genoa bore witness
to a rare encounter: artists and scientists debating the impact of the life
sciences on modern biology. Together, they forged a compelling vision of the
role of modern biology in serving humanity.
Since the discovery of the double-helix structure
of DNA half a century ago, the life sciences have been moving
ahead in leaps and bounds. Today, our successful mapping of
the human genome, along with the largely unutilised potential
of genetic testing, gene therapy and tissue engineering hold
great promise in helping to diagnose and treat a wide range
of degenerative diseases.
In addition to general questions about safety,
this uncharted scientific territory - with the potential that
emerging technologies can be used to do harm as well as good
- also throws up a plethora of ethical questions, such as
the advisability of genetic profiling and the use of human
embryos in medical research into stem cell treatment.
"Scientific and medical breakthroughs have
dramatically improved our quality of life, but they have also
created many social and moral dilemmas," said European Research
Commissioner Philippe Busquin. "The impact of these advances
on Europe's society and culture cannot be ignored."
Recognising the importance of these wider
questions, the Research Commissioner decided to organise a
conference that would bring together leading European and
international scientists, philosophers, sociologists, psychologists,
politicians, writers, poets and other artists. A book entitled
'Modern biology and visions of humanity', containing essays
by participants, was also launched at the event.
"This event is unique in that it is the first
time the European Commission has organised a meeting between
worlds that very seldom have the opportunity to meet," he
told delegates in his opening speech. "The aim is to have
a public debate on the role and the impact of [the] life sciences
and biotechnologies on society and culture in general."
The ethical dimension
Since the Enlightenment, science has largely been
viewed as being rational and unassailable. For centuries,
scientists have insisted on the objective reality of their
In recent years, this view has been brought
increasingly into question. Today, many people recognise the
dual nature of scientific applications to do good and evil.
In such a context, more and more people are asking, is it
responsible or desirable for scientists to work without societal
"Global warming, stem cell research and GMOs
[Genetically Modified Organisms] are not scientific issues,
they are political issues," Massimiano Bucchi, member of the
Public Communication of Science and Technology International
Scientific Committee noted.
In order to chart the best way forward, all
segments of society need to engage the scientific community
in a broad public discussion, delegates at the gathering suggested.
"Democratic representatives, philosophers and citizens from
all sectors must take part in this debate on the future of
science," commented Federico Mayor Zaragoza.
Some participants at the conference suggested
that a new ethical dimension needed to be added to scientific
research policy. Patrick Cunningham, professor of animal genetics
at Trinity College Dublin (IE), suggested a "third layer"
of procedures - on top of safety tests and environmental impact
assessments - to examine the social equity of scientific applications.
"It is the responsibility of scientists to
tell us where new developments can lead to progress and where
they can lead to danger. Then, it is the responsibility of
politicians to decide what technologies to use and which ones
to avoid," maintained former Nobel Prize winner Christiane
Nusslein-Volhard, director of the genetics department of the
Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology (DE).
Source: EU sources
'Modern biology and visions of humanity' website