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?
Gordon Rattray Taylor is a scientific journalist. His new book has a sensational title, The Biological Time Bomb, and few readers will find the contents less startling than they were led to expect. His book is in fact the first major exposition, addressed to the general public, of questions which are going to be very much with us in the next few decades. The main question his book raises is simple to state, and very difficult to deal with. It is that the pursuit of knowledge eventually brings the power to control the subjects the knowledge is about; and power can be used for many purposes, including undesirable or evil ones as well as good. Taylor’s aim is to show that biological knowledge is on the point of presenting us with powers that might be as double-edged as the control of atomic energy proved to be.
We are in fact already seeing instances of this in the field of orthodox surgery. The first artificial kidney machines and artificial pace-makers for the heart are already here, and raise difficult enough problems, such as how much society can afford to spend on building and operating them, and who should be chosen to have such elaborate and expensive life-saving facilities provided for them. Other artificial organs, capable of keeping alive people who would otherwise die, will soon follow, and the techniques of transplantation of hearts, kidneys, lungs, and other organs will certainly be rapidly improved.
But these are only the beginnings of the possibilities which biologists can envisage as feasible, if enough research and development effort were devoted to them. We already know, for instance, how to keep some small simple organs alive for long periods when they are removed from the body; it will probably be not more than a technical matter to work out methods of doing this with systems as complex as the entire foetus (“test-tube babies”?) or the whole brain (human robots with a human brain controlling a mechanical body?). Or again, we are on the threshold of some real understanding of the process of natural aging; can we maintain an embarrassing crowd of active and vigorous centenarians?
Even more far-reaching would be the development of techniques of manipulating the genetic material which seems to be within the capacity of determined and concerted research. We can already, rather inexpertly, fuse together the cells of two different species (e.g., sheep and goats); and obtain—without yet being able to exert much control—nuclei which contain the hereditary qualities of both. We can, in a different group of animals, inject a nucleus into an egg so that the latter develops with the characteristics of the injected nucleus. Only a small effort is required to develop these possibilities into a method for transferring chromosomes from one species of animal to another, as plant breeders have been doing for many years in their more easily handled material. But what if this took the form of breeding hybrids between man and the apes? And other methods—which look somewhat more difficult, but not impossible—might make us able to transfer single individual hereditary determinants (genes) from one individual to another, either within or perhaps between species.
These are just a few examples of the kinds of biological manipulation which look as if they could be realized if society wished to pay the price of the necessary research. Taylor discusses them with an admirable blend of the necessary caution which rules out the merely fanciful and a bold imagination which can comprehend the novelties which may actually become practical. He has not, of course, any firm answers to the problems these possible advances raise. Nobody has as yet. We need to draw up the balance sheets: the alleviation of suffering, the conquest of disease, the prolongation of life—all the conventional virtues of medicine—on the one side; on the other the dangers if these powers are misused; and finally, the means society has, or might develop, to control the use of such methods for good rather than evil or merely misguided ends.
The ultimate decisions on such subjects must, and will be taken by society; but it is probably too early for the political mechanisms by which society eventually expresses its will to tackle them. There must first be much more public discussion, leading to the gradual crystallization of a general climate of opinion which the political system can then interpret. Many biologists feel that it is their duty to stimulate and lead such discussion. For instance, there are movements in the large international organizations of biologists, such as the International Union of Biological Sciences, and the other Unions belonging to the International Council of Scientific Unions, for the formulation of a Biologists’ Oath, affirming an agreed basic ethical attitude, corresponding to that in the Hippocratic Oath which has for so long governed the relations between the medical doctor and his patient. Although this might be valuable, agreement on the terms of the Oath will of course be very difficult to reach. Moreover, the Oath will bind only one class of professionals and experts, who cannot be more than members—even if perhaps quite influential ones—of the society to which they belong. In my opinion, it would be more effective if the outlook and goals of society itself could be influenced by the biological point of view.
What I mean by “the biological point of view” is the realization that a living organism must be regarded as a nodal point in an extremely complex network of interactions, relations, transactions, and remains fully alive only in so far as this network is respected. Part of the casual network is internal: the biochemical and physiological processes by which the body keeps alive and active. Part is external, concerned with the interactions between the organism and other members of the living world, of its own and of other species, and with the non-living factors of its environment. In both his recent books, Dr. René Dubos never loses sight of the range of interactions which form a human being and in which that human being takes part. In Man, Medicine and Environment he is concerned mainly with the physiological interactions within the human body and their reactions to external environmental factors. The main point of his argument is that we should abandon the common idea that any given diseased state is simple either in its effects, producing one abnormal condition, or, more importantly, in its causes. For Dubos, we do not get a certain illness just because of infection by a certain bacterium. The state of illness will be a complex reaction of the whole elaborate physiological system of the body to the stresses arising from its environment as a whole, and of these the bacterial infection is only a part, though sometimes of course a very important one.
In So Human An Animal Dubos applies a similar type of thinking to the wider problems of personal and social life. He shows first how the personality of man is shaped by his surroundings and his experiences. He takes his evidence not only from everyday life, but from the history of primitive man and of the early colonists in the New World, but not from the data of those anthropologists, such as Margaret Mead and others, who have derived the same point so clearly from their field studies. Dubos provides examples of a similar effectiveness of socialization even in animals lower in the evolutionary scale than man; but a geneticist would, I think, have to question the example he gives on page 69, in which he seems to claim that local variations in bird song become fixed in the population merely by inbreeding—actually some selection would almost certainly be necessary as well.
The importance of Dubos’s books, which are among the best biology books written for the general reader, is that he does not confine himself to considering the interactions between man and his natural surroundings, but goes on to deal with the technological world which makes up most of our environment today. He does not of course fall into the simple error of so many of those who have suddenly woken up to the facts of pollution and environmental deterioration, who forget food production and disease control and jump to the conclusion that technology is wholly bad. Dubos is wiser, and admits the merits as well as the dangers and defects of technology. And his judgment on balance is adverse. “Scientific technology today,” he writes,
appears at first glance to be merely an extension, even though a spectacular one, of what it started out to be in the early nineteenth century. In fact, it is different in nature. Until a few decades ago scientists and technologists were concerned with well defined problems of obvious relevance to human welfare. All too often, science is now being used for technological applications that have nothing to do with human needs and aim only at creating new artificial wants.
All societies influenced by Western civilization are at present committed to the gospel of growth—the whirling-dervish doctrine which teaches: produce more so that you can consume more so that you can produce more still. One need not be a sociologist to know that such a philosophy is insane.
It is true that this century has seen a series of revolts against the previously accepted values of Western civilization. The Marxist revolt was followed by the Colonial revolt; and now young people are involved, on a world-wide scale in a so far uncoordinated set of movements, typified by the New Left, the Beats, Hippies, Flower People, Castroists, Guevarists, and, of course, the widespread student movements. Most of these recent movements are occurring in a sphere which is much broader and deeper than mere politics and economics; they are concerned with the character of human life and its social setting. Many of the movements express an outspoken antagonism, not only to existing technology, but to rational and logical thought as a whole; but since many of the movements have found most of their adherents among the sections of society which are illiterate in logic and technics, it is not easy to assess just what their statements really imply. Certainly few of the protesters give any sign of being ready to escape from man’s most complex technological achievement—the city—and return to the hard manual agricultural labor which was the common lot before the advent of the competitive technological system which they so much—and so justifiably—dislike.
The kinds of rationality, and of technology from which so much of modern youth seeks to dissociate itself, have been molded largely by the need to understand the physical non-living world, and the desire to exploit its potentials. It has been usual to accept physics as the paragon among the sciences, and to take, as the exemplar of what rational thought should be, the already outmoded “classical” deterministic logic of Newtonian physics, occasionally rendered slightly more subtle by an admixture of the indeterminacy of quantum theory, which mollifies the old rigidity only by stochastic, and not at all by any humanizing, component. On the technological side, the appropriate attitude has been to make the most of some variable in a system which has few components, for example, to get more power-output per unit of fuel per kilogram of engine per cost of fabrication, and with the social consequences ignored.
Now these are attitudes which not only seem totally foreign and obnoxious to the young, many of whom are conceptual illiterates, but they seem shallow and pretty boring to the most intellectually sophisticated biologists. In fact, I think that when Dubos uses the word “growth” in the quotations above, he is doing so in a sense which is influenced more by the ideas of physicists than of biologists. There is very little in the biological world—except cancer!—which grows in the unrestrained way which has characterized, for example, the automobile industry. Normal biological growth is a well-regulated harmonious process; the legs and arms and head and belly keep pace with one another. The trouble with the modern technological world is not “growth,” of the kind which characterizes biological organisms, but uncontrolled growth in which each aspect of the society increases as fast as it can with only minimal cross-reference to the situation of other parts.
Students of living things, who approach them on their own terms, have to develop types of thinking capable of dealing with entities of extreme complexity which yet exhibit global characters of a definite—and therefore in some sense simple—kind. In the biological world almost nothing is “maximized”—except some variable which no one has yet satisfactorily defined but which is important for evolution. And this variable is related not to the organism under immediate consideration, but to the number of its offspring, and even that is maximized only over the long term of many generations, not just from one generation to the next. And, more importantly, there are apparently no timeless, eternal, or universal biological laws, as in physics; every biological unit has a history, indeed one might say, is a history—a circumstance which physicists find unnerving (cf. Delbruck, A Physicist Looks at Biology).
In place of the maximization of entities whose essence is independent of time, biology deals mainly with balancing, or “optimization” of things which are very complex, and which have histories, and whose stability and balance are going to be tested over a long period—a number of generations. In a developing embryo, for example, there are all sorts of control mechanisms which adjust the sizes of the organs to one another to produce a harmonious whole; or in an ecological system, the numbers of animals and plants in the mutually dependent species are usually controlled—not always effectively—so that they stay in balance.
The kind of understanding of its most general subject matter—such as evolution—which biology attempts to achieve is much more akin to the kind of understanding of human history we aim at than that which physics gives of the interactions of any nameless oxygen atom with a couple of nameless hydrogen atoms. Biologists don’t attempt to say of living things in general (it may be different of a few matters of detail) that so-and-so must happen, but rather, this seems to have happened, and it is after all quite easy to see how it might have done so. This is, for example, the only kind of theory we have of evolution as yet, or seem likely to get.
Another characteristic of biology is the thoroughgoing way in which it transcends the physicist’s simple-minded distinction between the subject and the object. An evolving population, by the behavior of its members, chooses—or creates—the environment which exerts natural selective pressures on it. There is no preordained unavoidable rat-race; the biologist is studying situations in which the possibility of “dropping out”—migrating elsewhere—is always available. Again, biologists who study perception, or the acquisition of knowledge and understanding of the external world by the developing child, find themselves forced to recognize that in neither of these processes is the subject a merely passive recipient of whatever the “objective” imposes on to it. On the contrary, both in learning how the world works, and even in apprehending it in perception, an active and indeed creative participation of the “subject” is essential (cf., for example, Piaget’s Biologie et Connaissance, Gregory, Eye and Brain). A drop-out who objects to being treated as a “thing” might think differently if we were in a world dominated by a biologically oriented outlook which denied that there any “things” quite independent of the subjects who observe them.
Unfortunately there are still rather few biologists, and therefore of course an even smaller proportion of the general public, who have realized the true nature either of the fundamental insights of modern biology or their implications for a culture concerned with how to live as a truly human organism. We have been dazzled by the glittering successes—glittering with real gold—of Molecular Biology, which is a combination of essentially old-fashioned physics-and-chemistry applied to long-formulated basic biological problems. It should be regarded as providing unexpectedly firm foundations for the whole edifice of biological understanding; but it is from the upper storeys, not from the basement, that we can hope to get a view into the immediate and challenging problems of the life of man as an individual and as a member of society.
I do not think that any of the authors of these books have scanned the horizon sufficiently widely—perhaps that was not their intention. But one could wish that the contributors to Life or Death and René Dubos had set themselves a more comprehensive task. There is a great educational job to be done and, for all that can be said against official science, it would be unfair to suppose that the established biologists are dragging their feet. The International Union of Biological Sciences is the chief non-governmental organization of the world’s biologists, and it has recently sponsored a symposium in which a number of biologists met to discuss Biology and the History of the Future with a few people from the Humanities and Human Sciences (ranging from John Cage to Margaret Mead). The discussion, which will appear in the next few months as a Penguin paperback, will not solve all the ills of our technological society, but I think it does carry a few steps forward the arguments about the social relevance of biology advanced in these books and in this review.
June 5, 1969