Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Just because we can, should we............?

This is a question that has been continually argued by scientists and their constantly hounding moral police for years. I remember my first real argument on this point after watching Jurassic Park, I think my farther and I were debating whether if we could bring back dinosaurs should we? I, at that age, could not honestly understand why anyone who could bring back dinosaurs would not want to (the fact I had just watched a film where lots of people had been eaten by said giant lizards not withstanding). Dinosaurs where cool, I think my farther did agree with this point but highlighted that they had died out and we should leave them where god intended them to be. He also brought out the argument often thrown at me when discussing this point, that if we could build a bomb that could destroy the world should we? I suppose at that age I couldn't really argue with this and he reminded me that technology can be turned to evil.

Now after years of forming my own sometimes convoluted opinions I am still of the firm belief that if we can (scientifically speaking) we should! Just on the whole dinosaur front the advances in genetics gained by bringing a dead species back to life would be of enormous benefit. Think if you could bring a species back from the dead you could also preserve the rapidly shrinking biodiversity of the earth, nearly extinct species could be gene mapped and saved from annihilation and then brought back when we have finally sorted out our problems with the environment. The medical advances from such a project would be great and not to mention the fact that we would have dinosaurs to marvel at. The atom bomb, while it is a dreadful piece of technology whose only function is destroy and maim, it also ended a conflict that could have gone on to kill millions more, the advance brought about by its development are far ranging and have improved the lives of millions. Splitting the atom provides power for millions and kick started a whole new branch of science that has produced great advance is medial sensor technology and treatment to name but one area. Going back to my dad's point on the bomb that could destroy the world, I imagine now that the development of such a device would lead to some pretty amazing discoveries relating to energy creation and some pretty funky particle physics which would probably change the world on their own. Of course we would also have a bomb that could destroy the earth and that is no way a great outcome but I would hope if the planet where at stake cooler heads would prevail as a device like that is a lose-lose weapon of the highest order. Anyway the point I am trying to make (yes there is one I assure you!) is that advances in science should be taken advantage of, some of the best advances have come off the back of risky lines of research. Now I am in no way condoning testing random drugs on children, breeding mutant rabbits or indeed building a bomb that could destroy the world, I am saying that sensible well regulated research should always be encouraged.

There will always be those who object to lines of research. This is usually focused around medical and biological research as those are the areas most likely to offend personal and religious views I suppose. What sparked this post is the resent decision by the UK government to let scientists use hybrid human and animal embryos for stem cell and other medical research. I think this is a landmark decision, an actual turn around in UK policy towards this type of research, not to mention going against the increasing attitude in the west (mainly from the christian right in the US) that any testing on embryos is evil and should be stopped and the scientist burned at the stake. It was a source of annoyance for me how the US was so willing to stop all research using embryos and cloning, effectively stopping their stem cell research in its tracks, I was concerned the EU would go the same way. It confuses me how the decisions on these matters are legislated by politicians who are more concerned with the views of the lay masses and not with those who actually (pardon the arrogance of this) know better. An article I read recently (again from the guardians comment is free site, a favorite haunt of mine) echoed this opinion, highlighting how research in this country should be regulated not legislated to avoid stifling vital advances.

India and China have no where near the regulation on medical and biological research that we have and are racing ahead in those areas where the west is stuck in a quagmire of umming and arring! This highlights one of my main rebuttals to the "If we can, should we?" argument. If we don't pursue it then someone else will, there is of course always a risk that research no matter how benign the intentions of the scientists, can be turned into something potentially dangerous but again I make the point that who would we rather be in control of potentially dangerous scientific research, sticking our heads in the sand and pretending it doesn't exist is no defence, someone somewhere will do the research and will hold the advantage. The moral doom mongers will say this is a reckless attitude but to them I say that we have had scientific research for centuries and the planet is still here and the human race has not been wiped out by genetically engineered viruses or giant killer wheat plants.

I have faith, and I know this will draw bellows of extreme laughter from many, that the human race is capable of not destroying itself. That science holds the key to the future of our race and our world and that the conservative views of many in the places of power on our earth have, and will continue to prevent advances that could help millions. I am however aware that there needs to be a moral balance, some research can go too far, but I believe this limit should be decided by learned people of the scientific community not politicians hoping to gain the votes of a few ignorant, overzealous, perpetually scared, right-wingers.
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