New Biology - New Ethics

In Population and the New Biology, Proc. 10th Annual Symposium of the Eugenics Society, London, 1973, ed. B. Benjamin, P. R. Cox and J. Peel, Academic Press, London & New York, 1974


It is often maintained that "science is science" in the same kind of way as "business is business". There is no room for moral values or ethical concepts in the scientist's equations or the businessman's balance sheets. Let them intrude even into the background thinking and, they say, it would lead to confusion. These are all different universes of discourse; and the necessary concepts of the one may be meaningless in the other context. This is true; but I wish to submit that it is only part of the truth.

    In the world of physical reality if we want to find the truth we must put into cold storage ideas of what we should like to be the truth. To quote Bertrand Russell (1954):

Ethical considerations can only legitimately appear when the truth has been ascertained: they can and should appear as determining our feelings towards the truth, and our manner of ordering our lives in view of the truth, but not as themselves dictating what the truth shall be.

    Russell's principle directs us to examine in a dispassionate way all manner of problems with a factual basis, whatever their emotional repercussions. There is no reason why the principle should not apply in other worlds than that of physical reality, e.g. in the social sciences, that is, as long as there is a truth that can be ascertained. If we had the self‑discipline to follow Russell here, we might make progress towards understanding such things as racial problems, sex deviations, drug addiction, violence, and the containment of social evils. If we did not feel so strongly, we might think more clearly.

    However, scientific indifferentism has dangers of its own. After the clear thinking, dispassionate enquiry and cool understanding there comes action, or a decision not to act. When we act, or refrain from acting, it is out of our subjectivities, dominated by wishes and fears, mental habits and mental inertia, all set against standards of value. In fact, everything we do has an ethical dimension. If we make the amoralism, which is appropriate to factual enquiries, into such a habit of mind that it pervades the life of action, we become dehumanized. All intellectual workers run this risk, not only in science, but notably also in law, administration and commerce. On the grand scale, the divorce of factual from ethical thinking contributes to the growth of global dangers. At the individual level it leads to a petrification of the personality. The scientist should not feel it open to him to make a career out of the study of neurotoxic gases, or to pursue the truth by way of cruel experiments on animals, or to act as if his only concern was what is going on at the laboratory bench.

    One fundamental cause of danger to the scientist comes from an instrumentalist philosophy of knowledge. This is an epistemological school which has been vigorously combated by Karl Popper, perhaps in vain. Instrumentalism is a way of evading basic difficulties, and it seems to be necessary because reality, from the cosmos to the microcosm, has become impenetrable to an understanding armed only with familiar models and images. It is only a Euclidean geometry that we can understand instinctively; curved space‑time is not something we can feel in our bones. The scientists who concern themselves with the mythic entities of modern physics have given up model‑making. All that is necessary for research to proceed is for the problem to be expressed in the appropriate mathematical language. We may give them names, the neutrino, the quark and the tachyon, but to define and describe them other symbols than words are required. Translation from one language to the other is both unnecessary and impossible. They are, then, incomprehensible in any ordinary sense. But in­strumentalism enables us to work with familiarity with concepts we do not even try to understand.

    The immense prestige of physics leads to a similar approach becom­ing more and more the chosen philosophy of the life sciences. Infor­mation is sought not so much for imaginative understanding as for the capacity to make predictions and to manipulate material to attain desired ends. A line of mouse‑human hybrid cells can be submitted to question in the same spirit of dispassionate ruthlessness as inanimate nature. And so, in turn, can the mice. And the humans. The human experimental subject becomes just another black box, capable indeed of verbal behaviour, but none the less amenable to the constraints of behaviouristic experiment. The ethical dimension becomes invisible.

    But there are ancient gods who stand guard over the way from the temple of Truth to the public forum, from the understanding of a problem to its practical solution. Categorical imperatives and prohib­itions rear up on every side. Simple solutions that nature provides are held to be ethically unacceptable. If a primitive people can lead a stable existence in harmony with its environment by means of tribal warfare, head‑hunting, cannibalism and infanticide, from where do we get the right to intervene? Can we honestly claim that our ethics are better?

    It is unthinkable – now – that the world should cope with over­population by licensed infanticide. Infanticide is sporadically but universally practised, and is universally forbidden. However, when we deny ourselves the easy ways, it is usually possible to do something the hard way. If a contraceptive were found specifically lethal to the XX gamete, I have no doubt but that it would be thought ethically acceptable. Oriental societies could regulate their families to produce sons only, with social consequences incalculable and almost certainly disastrous.

    It is usually possible to get on the blind side of the gods; and one way to avoid those terrible commands and prohibitions is by redefi­nitions which take a problem beyond their scope. For instance, is a man really alive whose spirit has departed from him, who by brain injury or brain disease has lost even the knowledge of his own identity? It would be good instrumentalist epistemology to regard the hulk that remains as already dead. At the humane level it would be kind to the relatives, and kind also to a generation of elderly people who envisage the possibility of a fate worse than death. Perhaps one might even add that it would tend to relieve the strains on our overstressed hospital services; and that it might divert scientific effort unprofitably spent on the problems of ageing to more worth‑while fields.

    We seem recently to have got rather confused about what constitutes a human being. While normal embryos are not held to have attained this status, it has been allowed to mistakes of nature that reach birth and survive into a future for ever incapable of independent existence. It should not be too difficult for us to categorize anencephalic new­borns as without human potentiality, permitting ourselves to put them down without further ado. And if so with the anencephalics, why not so also with other examples of hopelessly defective quasi‑human machinery? Genetic engineering to correct a genic defect so easily eliminated by nature's own methods might at least be given the tests of cost‑benefit analysis, if our new biology is to conform to any rational ethics.

    Theistic religions have now almost completely broken down in the Western world, But law and administration are still governed by the vestiges of a Judaeo‑Christian morality. For very large organizational systems have an immense inertia. Nevertheless, when universal convic­tions have eroded and dogma dies, the ethical values they supported can undergo revolutionary changes, even in a single generation. A shift in the balance of opinion in the educated middle classes led to abortion law reform; and the change in the law triggered off a transformation of medical ethics and medical practice. We are now witnessing a change in informed opinion about euthanasia; and there too the switch effect of a change in the law might open a floodgate to social change. Bit by hit the Christian ethic gives way to an irreligious humanitarianism. As old inhibitions are dissipated, new freedoms arise and new possibilities of welfare or ruin.

    The instability of the social system, and the possibilities of a violent swing in one or another direction, will presumably become even greater as the decay of humanism follows the decay of theisms. Mankind has unfortunately come to recognize itself as overwhelmingly the most important global pest species, as much for itself as for the rest of the biosphere. Anything but cynicism about anthropocentric stan­dards of value will become increasingly difficult. What will happen when we are freed from their inhibitions is beyond our guess.

    We already need a new focus around which to centre our value systems. We might find it, not in ourselves, but in the planet which is in our guardianship. Mankind will surely bring itself to ruin, if it strives only for the welfare of mankind. Nothing prospers, neither the individual nor the group nor the institution, which gives its loyalty only to itself.

    Strangely enough, this is a lesson taught us by the new biology, which shows us all organisms living in an ecology in which each has its part. If the inanimate world shows us no ethical dimension, we may find it in height and depth in the living world. It is a wisdom of nature, one might say, that requires each species to live not for itself alone.



Russell, Bertrand (1954). Mysticism and Logic. London: Penguin Books.