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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 The Silent Weapons is probably the best general account of biological warfare. It is, of course, certain that the military research establishments in several countries possess secret information which they are not divulging; but what we do know, and what Clarke has succeeded in piecing together, is probably enough to give a fairly accurate overall view of the situation, even if some of the details are missing. I think the general impression that most people will get from this book is that biological weapons could be very powerful indeed—though probably never so powerful as nuclear ones—and that they are likely to remain difficult to control, that is, it may be difficult to guarantee their effectiveness against the other side only and not against one’s own. This means that, although they are relatively cheap to produce, they are not the “poor man’s weapon” they are sometimes claimed to be, suitable for a small country to use in its defense against a larger invader.

The question of controlling the production of biological weapons, not discussed by Clarke, is important. Some bacteriologists believe that it would be very difficult for a country to conceal the production of such materials, in the quantities necessary for effectiveness, from an international body with access to the kind of statistical material which most countries tries are willing to publish. At present the peace research group SIPRI, whose headquarters are in Sweden, is carrying on such an investigation with the cooperation of a number of other European countries.

However, even if it turns out to be possible theoretically to detect an attempt to build up stocks of biological weapons, the international agency required to do so is not in being. What, then, to do in the meantime? Clarke discusses the many ethical dilemmas which biological warfare presents both to society and to the individual scientist. Society can scarcely be expected to forswear all biological research which might prove helpful to the development of aggressive biological weapons, since the methods involved in such development are, as he puts it, simply “public health in reverse.” That is to say, the understanding we need to control the development of strains of disease-organisms resistant to our drugs would make it possible to produce strains resistant to the enemies’ drugs, and therefore useful as aggressive weapons. It is not, of course, impossible for nations to repudiate the use of such weapons. Many have already done so, although some of these, e.g., Britain, feel that they still have to be prepared to defend themselves against chemical or biological attack. The declaration that a country will not use this form of warfare is, it seems to me, not much more than a gesture; the only really effective step, and the objective toward which it is most important to aim, is to prevent or abolish war altogether.

This conclusion leaves the moral problem of the individual scientist ambiguous. In practice, decent and responsible people arrive at various decisions about their moral involvement. Some decide that large-scale microbiology, although clearly essential for efficient public health, offers so many obvious possibilities for being misused for warlike purposes that they prefer to work in some other field of biology. Others remain within the field, but work outside the military area; or concern themselves with military matters only by helping to develop methods of detecting preparations for biological warfare; or they accept the argument that national security demands a defensive capacity. Finally, there are some who argue that these weapons are less inhumane than such conventional armaments as anti-personnel bombs, napalm, and high explosives.

In my opinion, whatever the arguments for and against these various decisions the main task of biologists is to work toward the limitation and eventual abolition of war of any kind as an instrument of policy and for systems which will minimize the likelihood of its breaking out by mischance.

The situation today is so acute that action against the development of particular types of aggressive warfare—nuclear (ABMs, etc.), chemical, biological—is very well justified. But activities like the March 4th Movement for reconsideration of government research in American universities need, in my opinion, to be supplemented, in an even broader political way, by the organization of a system of mutually interlocking controls between the major nations, which would make it much more difficult, if not impossible, for any state to try to impose its will on others by the kind of action that warfare has now become—something so much beyond even World Wars I and II that it should be referred to by a different name: not “War,” but “Meta-War.” I should urge scientists not to be content with stating that they will not work for national bodies on projects obviously connected with potentially aggressive weapons, but to couple this with the offer that they would work on projects for an acceptably supra-national body, which would bring together the Western and Soviet worlds (with the hope eventually to incorporate the Chinese).

War is by no means the only subject which reminds us that in the development of biology, as Abraham Kaplan puts it in his essay in Life or Death, “possibilities for evil grow commensurately with the possibilities for good.” Gordon Rattray Taylor describes some of the most spectacular instances in The Biological Time Bomb. But before discussing them, we might well remind ourselves of the ethical problems raised by quite ordinary biological statistics. As long ago as 1940, in a book called The Scientific Attitude, I pointed out that: “Adoption of methods of thought which are commonplaces in science would bring before the bar of ethical judgment whole groups of phenomena which do not appear there now…. If a man hits a baby on the head with a hammer, we prosecute him for cruelty or murder; but if he sells dirty milk and the infant sickness or death rate goes up, we merely fine him for contravening the health laws.” Some years later, Warren Weaver coined the phrase “statistical morality,” but the point is slow in gaining acceptance. Kaplan points out that even today, “Because as a society we do not intend specific accidental deaths and have no knowledge of them in their specificity, we feel that no moral issue is involved; yet we adopt social patterns whose inexorable consequence is death to tens of thousands.” Henry K. Beecher, in the same book, shows that adopting these social patterns is not always owing to mere insensitivity or ignorance. A real dilemma may be involved:

For example, in discussing new and uncertain risk against probable benefit, Lord Adrian spoke of the rise of mass radiography of the chest in Britain. Four-and-a-half million examinations were made in 1957. It has been calculated that bone marrow effects of the radiation might possibly have added as many as twenty cases of leukemia in that year; yet the examinations revealed eighteen thousand cases of pulmonary tuberculosis needing supervision, as well as thousands of other abnormalities. The twenty deaths from leukemia were only a remote possibility, but, Lord Adrian asks, if they were a certainty would they have been too high a price to pay for the early detection of tuberculosis in eighteen thousand people?

As P. B. Medawar says, in his essay in the same volume: “The contribution of science is to have enlarged beyond all former bounds the evidence we must take account of before forming our opinions.” He does not, however, offer us any clear advice about how to form our opinions after we have taken all the necessary factors into consideration. Perhaps, indeed, there is no very clear advice to be given. Kaplan argues that “We can solve some problems in human life, but they are usually the less significant ones. Those that are more significant we do not solve, but at best we only cope with them. This is to say that we have no way of disposing of them: at best we learn to live with them, and go on to the next.” There is considerable wisdom in Kaplan’s remark, but is this indeed all that biologists can do?

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