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THE MODERN BIOLOGIST AND HUMANISM CATHERINE ROBERTS, Ph.D.* For not to know, either awake or in a dream, the nature of justice and injustice, and good and evil, cannot in truth be otherwise than disgraceful to him, even though he have the applause ofthe whole world.—Plato, Phaedrus, 277e. During any ofthe postwar international biological congresses some of theparticipants, in being thusconfrontedwith the essence ofcontemporary biological thought, may have experienced a vague sense of uneasiness or foreboding. To them, as well as to biologists who have not had this experience , the following words are addressed in the hope ofevoking, ifnot a sympathetic reaction, at least an awareness ofa problem. To scientists and laymen alike, international scientific congresses can be awe-inspiring. Consider the thousands ofassembled participants, including the greatest names within the field, the hundreds ofscientific papers, the eventual voluminous publication of the congress proceedings, and the years ofpreparation which efficient congress organization requires. This vast expenditure of time, energy, and funds can only be undertaken because the dissemination and discussion of new scientific information are considered to be ofvital importance in our modern world. The success of these enormous enterprises can therefore be regarded as a true sign ofthe times, symbolizing, as it does, the accelerating progress of Man the Scientist. Let me try briefly to characterize him. Could itnot be said, for example, that the modern scientist is one who is engaged in the most fashionable occupation ofthe twentieth century and who, in his insatiable thirst for * Theauthoris in privatelife married to an English biochemist, Dr. R. S. W. Thome, with whom she has collaborated in microbiological investigations. Address: Lyngbakkevej, Holte, Denmark. Catherine Roberts · Modem Biologist and Humanism Perspectives in Biology and Medicine · Winter 1963 knowledge, recognizes no boundaries or limitations to his activity? Here not only the most admirable quality of the scientist, his unceasing quest for truth, is emphasized, butalso the importance ofsocial prestige, without which science could not flourish. In justifiable elation over our hitherto astounding successes in science, we feel that there is nothing, and shall be nothing, to stop us now. It is thus taken for granted that civilized society will always be interested in providing means to support scientific research and that the pursuit ofscience will necessarily continue at an ever-increasing tempo. It is this triumphant note, this spirit ofelation, which permeates the scientific meeting of today: and it is just this atmosphere which also arouses foreboding. In order to express more precisely this undercurrent ofmisgiving with respect to the future ofbiology, we must at the outset attempt to define its ultimate aim. For most biologists the immediate goal is the discovery ofnew facts about life on this planet in the hope that such knowledge, in conjunction with accepted principles ofmathematics, physics, and chemistry , will eventually establish new biological generalizations and provide a more complete understanding ofthe phenomenon oflife. And the further we penetrate into the essential nature oflife itself, the more successfully will biology be able to solve problems concerned with mastery of the environment, food supply, and medicine. Thus, in view of material benefit to mankind, modern society regards the accumulation ofknowledge per se as an admirable justification for the continued activity ofthe biologist. We must, however, not stop with these prospects, for in its triumphant advance, biology is not content with understanding life, much less respecting it: now, with undiminished optimism and with apparent lack ofrecognition ofthe possible consequences, it desires to alter it. In scores ofbiologicallaboratories throughoutthe world bacteria, yeasts, and other micro-organisms are being subjected to various physical and chemical treatments for the purpose ofproducing permanent and inheritable alterations in their genetic constitutions, and the mutant forms thus produced are then studied either directly or after having been subjected to crossing experiments. Such investigations, which are by no means of recent date, have been ofinestimable value to geneticists and biochemists alike in dealing with such problems as the determination ofthe genes responsible for the expression ofphenotypic characters, the location ofthe genes on the chromosomes, the relation of the genes to the synthesis of 189 specific enzymes, enzymatic adaptation, the frequency of mutation, and the chemical basis ofheredity. It should be noted that these induced...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1529-8795
Print ISSN
0031-5982
Pages
pp. 188-202
Launched on MUSE
2015-01-07
Open Access
No
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