What Can Biologists Solve?

What is the relation of biology to social concerns, aside from work that is primarily medical? We hear from all sides that biology, and in fact all pure science, has become irrelevant, neglecting its obligation to pursue goals of physical betterment of man. We all know the fallacy of this viewpoint. We know that all science can find applications in appropriate times and circumstances. Even the most esoteric studies on bacterial gene action and on DNA and RNA synthesis have suddenly become central to the cancer problem. For example, viruses cause cancers, and scientists are searching within human cells for genetic material that may resemble cancer-producing viruses.

One could give many similar examples in defense of pure research; but that is not the point I wish to make. I do not disagree with the demand that scientists concern themselves with the consequences of their work. On the contrary, I firmly believe that such concern is very important. But I also believe that an intense guilt feeling about the “irrelevance” of one’s work is counterproductive both to good research and to relevant research.

There is another, more insidious aspect to the relevance question: the attempt to saddle science with the burden of tasks that have little or nothing to do with science. Specifically, I believe that today biologists are being pressed to take on, as their professional responsibility, the study of certain problems that are not, or at least not primarily, biological problems, but social problems. In my opinion this is not an accident: it is part of a technocratic tendency to see only the technical aspects of human problems—and, when these aspects do not exist, to invent them. Let me give you several examples of what i have in mind.

The first example concerns the so-called ecological crisis and the pollution of the environment. Well-known biologists as well as other earnest persons have joined in alerting the public to the worrisome state of our air, our waters, our soil. That is fine. But, in the face of the crisis, if a crisis does in fact exist, biologists and other scientists have now been called upon not only to help correct the immediate consequences of pollution and to advise on future policies, but to assume responsibility for new approaches to the management of our environment. Universities have established courses and programs in ecological science, environmental biology, and other new specialties—often without any specialists to man these programs.

I do not question that applied biology can help to correct some ecological troubles. But it seems clear to me that the central problems are not biological. Neither are they scientific or even technological. They are social, and their solution depends on radical changes in social priorities and on improved machinery to enforce those priorities.

If the ecological crisis exists it is a social and political crisis, brought about in part by population increase and urbanization, and in great part, at least in this country, by the unfettered and selfish exploitation of natural…

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