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Page last update: 25/12/2008

Philosophy, 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 discoveries.

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 control?

"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
More Information:
Commission press release
'Modern biology and visions of humanity' website

Last update: 25 December 2008 | Top