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RECOMBINANT DNA AND THE COPERNICAN WORLD VIEW FRED D. LEDLEY* I The recent advances in recombinant DNA research and the specter of genetic engineering have provoked extensive debate over the practical, personal, and philosophical consequences of genetic manipulation. Popular concern arose when scientists who were pioneers in this field called a temporary moratorium on recombinant DNA research in order to assess the need for special safety precautions in laboratories doing recombinant DNA studies. The Asilomar conference and the NIH guidelines which followed set standards for laboratory facilities and placed restrictions on certain types of high risk experiments [1-4]. The public's concerns, however, were not mollified by the creation of P3 and P4 laboratories, by the creation of mutant disabled bacteria which cannot survive outside of the laboratory, or by the subsequent demonstration of the low inherent risk of recombinant DNA research. The essential issue involved the expediency of recombinant DNA research itself and the practical or imagined consequences of its application. As modern biology expands its understanding ofthe molecular mechanisms of genetics, mankind acquires previously unknown powers to cure and to change. Recombinant DNA technology provides mankind with an unprecedented ability to determine his future by altering fundamental structures of his environment and potentially mankind itself. Many fear that the manipulations which scientists conceive to be benign and healing may prove to be reckless or used for malevolent ends. Our generation remains haunted by the specter of nuclear war which grew, like the Frankenstein monster, from the discoveries and naive excitement of nuclear physics in the early twentieth century. Few underWork supported by the ACTA foundation. ?Division of Clinical Genetics, Children's Hospital Medical Center, Department of Pediatrics, Harvard Medical School, Boston, Massachusetts 02115.© 1983 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved. 0031-5982/83/2602-034OfOLOO Perspectives in Biology and Medicine, 26, 2 · Winter 1983 \ 245 stood that these obscure and poUtically detached discoveries would bring man to the brink of extinction. In the popular recombinant DNA debate, recombinant DNA has been depicted as premature, perilous, and potentially antithetical to the stands and structure of contemporary society. A common synthesis of the debate maintains that the dispute is a manifestation ofthe conflicting interests of science and society [2]. The scientist's interest in an objective exploration and exposition ofthe mechanisms of genetics, which has led to man's abiUty to manipulate these events, is seen as conflicting with society's values. Society is presented with prerogatives and power that it is not willing to exercise and fears it may be unable to control. As a result, some feel that science has become a threat to the stability of society. Recombinant DNA is seen as another Promethean fire, and modern science as a seemingly benevolent Prometheus who has violated his trust in giving man some of the power of God. For this act many beUeve that science, like Prometheus, must be restrained. The fundamental premise of the science-versus-society synthesis is that scientific progress occurs independent of cultural imperatives, and that science can be considered as a closed, distinct entity, subject to objective examination and regulation by a dispassionate society. I shall argue that this popular synthesis of the recombinant DNA debates is wrong—and, more important, not useful. It is, at best, simplistic to personify science and society as discrete adversary interests. At worst it simplifies the complex equation of cultural evolution by considering science and technology only in the role of a programmed provider for society's needs and thus ignoring the intricate give-and-take between scientific and cultural achievement. Man's technology has always been a hallmark of his culture. Louis Leakey distinguished "man" from "near man" by his ability to "make tools to a set and regular pattern" [5]. The succession of human cultures through the last 2,000,000 years is defined by man's technological achievements. Throughout more recent history, scientific progress and technical progress are frequently associated with changes in social structures. In the medieval world, the introduction of the heavy plow, waterpower, the stirrup, and gunpowder were associated with fundamental transformation in feudal institutions [6]. The steam engine and the Industrial Revolution were associated with the revamping...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1529-8795
Print ISSN
0031-5982
Pages
pp. 245-260
Launched on MUSE
2015-01-07
Open Access
No
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