Doron Weber is a vice president at the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, where he directs the Public Understanding of Science & Technology Program to support work linking science and the humanities. He’s the Writers Room board president and author of “Immortal Bird: A Family Memoir.”
The scientific revolution that began in the 16th century marks one of the most significant transformations in human history of the past 500 years — intellectual, economic, military, technological, social and cultural — and it continues to reverberate today. Science has shaped the modern world and reconfigured almost every aspect of our lives by advancing our understanding of the laws that govern nature and by applying that new knowledge to widespread technological enhancements: rockets, robots, cars, computers, smartphones, sanitation, refrigeration, penicillin, Prozac, pacemakers, etc.
While the triumph of modern science and technology is a tale of unprecedented human progress, its fruits have not been shared equally by all peoples, nor have its benefits been unalloyed. In some cases — eugenic sterilization, synthetic pesticides, lobotomies — science has led to demonstrable harm. In others — genetically modified foods, nuclear power, predictive privacy — the question of risks vs. benefits continues to be debated. Science seeks to uncover underlying physical truths and, based on those truths, to construct new capabilities, which are not automatically ethically right or in society’s best interest. It is up to us, as humans living in a contingent social order, to make those decisions for our greater good, as we define it.
Current public discussions of science are narrowly polarized, like much else in these divisive times, and often reduced to an all-out “war on science,” coming from anti-science climate deniers and the religious right, and a counter-adversarial “march for science,” coming from the pro-science, progressive left. Anyone picking up a copy of Sheila Jasanoff’s punchy, deeply informed critique of science and scientific hubris, “Can Science Make Sense of Life?” will see a more complex reality.
Jasanoff is a sociologist and founder of science and technology studies at Harvard, a field that views science not as a standalone enterprise to be judged solely on its own terms but as a social practice embedded in, and accountable to, the particular societies and institutions of which it is a part. Here she is specifically interested in how the life sciences, biology and biotechnology, have interacted with law, ethics and public policy in modern democratic societies.
The author knows how important science is, but she worries about its self-importance and its claims to unique sovereignty in determining the rich, multidimensional meaning of life. In this critical and deeply humanistic new book, she contends that 20th-century breakthroughs in the life sciences turned biology into a secular religion, enshrined in the publication of DNA as the secret “code-script” of life. Biologists discovered the double helical structure and then the 3 billion-letter sequence of DNA; they learned to tinker with that universal genetic code, to amplify it, to transfer it from one species to another and to grow it in a test tube; they developed molecular scissors to snip and edit that genome, enabling permanent alterations to any species; and they managed to synthesize and engineer new, self-replicating life forms from artificial, non-life sources.
These remarkable advances based on deciphering a single master code underlying all physical life gave biology its “soaring status” and “made it increasingly more acceptable for biologists to claim ownership of the meaning of life.” Jasanoff, who frames the modern search for meaning with Gaugin’s Tahitian painting “Where Do We Come From? Who Are We? Where Are We Going?,” finds this monopoly on “steering human progress” by a small band of specialists — still mostly male, white and Western — problematic for society. Biologists, in her view, have been allowed to define not just “what life is for” — which rightly belongs to “other, long-established discourses and modes of reflection” — but also to reconceive and redesign “what life is.” Her book is a plea, at times an erudite polemic, to wrest back some of that control and moral authority from science to society at large.
She takes us through the major landmarks in biology with a skeptic’s eye on its accumulating power and reductiveness: the shift from 19th-century field naturalists to 20th-century molecular biologists in a lab and then to increasingly data-based genomics; the myth of pure science and the lone scientist-genius motivated solely by the pursuit of truth vs. the role of capital, big business and personal enrichment; the concomitant shift from basic research to applied technologies that can become profitable, beginning with Genentech and the biotechnology revolution; the abdication by legal, bioethical and political systems in the face of science’s claim to represent a unique progress (she revisits the 1975 Asilomar Conference on Recombinant DNA as a pre-emptive bid by scientists to forestall regulation and public debate); and the ascent of New Biology, in which engineering has infiltrated the life sciences and turned biology into a self-appointed problem-solving enterprise for remaking life rather than for understanding it.
Jasanoff offers an instructive example of deciding what constitutes life in discussing in vitro fertilization (IVF). The technology for creating an early-stage human embryo outside the female body has helped millions of infertile couples since Louise Brown’s birth in 1978, but it also gave rise to an entity that had never existed before. Was this test tube creation an early-stage human or just a clump of cells for further research, including deriving lifesaving embryonic stem cells? Jasanoff compares how the United States, Britain and Germany came up with divergent answers, with only Britain developing a comprehensive solution, known as the 14-day rule, after which the collection of cells achieved human status and no further research was permitted. The United States, owing to the toxic politics of abortion, responded with a bifurcated public-private system to officially condemn but privately support such research, while Germany also used “legal jujitsu” to sidestep the moral issues without burdening science. They both kicked the can down the road and failed to engage with the public and the myriad social, legal and ethical issues involved.
The current controversy surrounding a Chinese scientist’s use of CRISPR to edit human embryos shows how urgent such questions remain. While almost all scientists have publicly condemned this rogue experiment — though even CRISPR’s co-founders disagree on whether a moratorium is needed — Jasanoff’s call for “a global observatory on human genome editing and other heredity-altering techniques” looks prescient. Society, not just scientists, needs to weigh in on these vital issues.
This timely and important work is a powerful reminder that we are still in the midst of a scientific revolution that demands shared decision-making regarding the boundary between natural and artificial life — what life is — as well as what life is for. Jasanoff’s compact, sweeping book has a mildly academic structure and tone; she occasionally belabors her thesis and does not always give science or scientists their full due; and I might have changed her title to “Can Science Alone Make Sense of Life?,” since she is not questioning science’s contribution to our understanding of life, only its claim to exclusive sovereignty. Surely there remain few investments in society as worthy as support for basic scientific research.
But Jasanoff is just as surely right in her fundamental argument that we need the two cultures of science and the humanities, and the multiple voices of moral philosophers, lawyers, political theorists, bioethicists, and even artists and religious leaders, along with scientists and engineers, to decide where we came from, who we are and where we are going.
By Sheila Jasanoff
Polity. 208 pp. $19.95 paperback