A Matter of Life and Death

Life or Death: Ethics and Options

edited by Daniel H. Labby
University of Washington, 167 pp., $4.95

The Silent Weapons

by Robin Clarke
McKay, 270 pp., $4.95

The Biological Time Bomb

by Gordon Rattray Taylor
World, 240 pp., $5.50

Man, Medicine and Environment

by René Dubos
Praeger, 125 pp., $4.50

So Human an Animal

by René Dubos
Scribner’s, 267 pp., $6.95

For the last half century or so, biologists have been used to a rather quiet life, out of the public eye in their academic laboratories or in the back rooms of hospitals and agricultural institutes. The last important occasion of public excitement about their activities was connected with Darwin almost a century ago; even the re-discovery of Mendelism and the rise of genetics in the first quarter of the twentieth century produced little interest in the public mind. When people have spoken of “scientists,” it has almost invariably been physicists and chemists they had in mind. But the time may now be approaching when biology will no longer be the poor relation of the Natural Sciences, overshadowed by physics and chemistry with their technological offspring in engineering and the manufacturing industry.

It is often said today that the First Technological Age is nearly over, and that man is passing into a new phase of civilization which will be based on something other than simply physical sciences. The candidate usually put forward to take over the dominant role is described sometimes as Automation or, in a more general sense, as Communication Science. There is, however, a case for arguing that the fact of Automation or Communication is less important than what the systems are automated to do or what they communicate, and that the science which will contribute the content, even if not the tools, of the new civilization will, and perhaps should be, Biology.

This case has two main aspects: a technological one, which argues that the most challenging unsolved technical problems of the near future are biological in nature—food, population increase, deterioration of the environment, etc.; and a philosophical one, which suggests that the modes of thought, the concepts, and the type of understanding sought in biology would give a “bio-technical” world a set of values and an emotional tone radically different from those of the physicotechnical world of today (whether Capitalist or Socialist), and much more favorable for the solution of the grave social and psychological problems which mankind faces.

Most attention so far has been focused on the bio-technologies, and the challenges, promises, and threats connected with them. Perhaps on the threats especially. The idea that warfare can be waged with biological weapons—epidemics and plagues artificially spread through human populations and their domestic livestock—evokes particular horror in most people. Understanding so little of the physiological processes of their own bodies in health and sickness, perhaps they place an exaggerated trust in the often ill-judged ministrations of beneficent doctors and feel a proportionate terror at the thought of a malevolent force which would appear equally powerful. Moreover, the fact that the milder forms of biological weapons, such as anti-riot gases, and defoliants and other agents for attacking the vegetation useful to man, are already widely used both in war (Vietnam) and in civil commotions throughout the world, leaves no doubt that biological warfare is a subject to be taken very seriously indeed.

Robin Clarke’s …

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