In Search of a New Ethical Ideal
By Ignacio Ávalos Gutiérrez
in genetics have caught us unprepared, we suffer a ''normative deficit,''
says Venezuela's former minister of Science and Technology.
CARACAS - In our eagerness to dominate nature,
surpass its limits and adapt it to our own pretensions - evident
since we stood up on our two legs and looked beyond the ends of
our noses - that humankind has arrived at the most sacred terrain
of life: its genetic foundations.
With the Human Genome Project concluded we
already know - so to speak - what we are: 30,000 genes, give or
take a few. And we know, in passing, that some insects have 30 percent
of same genes we do, that we have just 300 more genes than mice
and that everything indicates that we have almost exactly the same
ones as monkeys. A blow, someone ignorant of these labors might
think, to our trite idea of superiority in the realm of living beings.
But those in the know affirm that the matter rests not so much on
the number of genes but on the way they relate to each other.
The arrival on the scene four years ago of
Dolly the lamb marked a significant landmark in the history of science
and, of course, that of homo sapiens. All signs are that within
a few years human cloning will be a real option, and the British
have already made the first step in that direction by allowing the
use of human embryos in harvesting cells capable of generating any
tissue of the human organism.
We hold in our hands, then, a crucial issue
that has become quite thorny, because we lack many answers and even
well formulated questions. We seem to be tormented by fears and
hopes, in equal shares. Fears caused by a certain idea of nature
and what is considered natural, which does not permit any manipulation
of the environment. And hopes fed by the idea that biotechnology
is the new panacea and that there is no evident limit to its transformational
These advances ultimately catch us unprepared,
with very little in the way of a political, institutional or moral
platform that would enable us to deal with them.
The market, meanwhile, does not hesitate, it
goes right after what it wants. Its influence is increasingly evident
in the direction taken by genetic research and development and its
applications. Regulations are being created that promote the private
ownership of knowledge and technologies, and all signs indicate
that the matter of human cloning will largely unfold in accordance
with the law of supply and demand.
The advances and applications in the arena
of biology bring with them new ethical dilemmas. The ground under
our most basic points of reference has cracked and we have a ''normative
deficit'' that we must urgently resolve.
We need an ethical ideal that is capable of
guiding human conduct. An ''ethic of responsibility,'' according
to the teachings of some philosophers, based on the moral achievements
accumulated throughout human history. But one that is updated in
function of today's complexities, capable of leading us through
unprecedented situations and harmonizing our coexistence based on
the values of liberty, equality and solidarity.
There are forces advocating a different relationship
between science, technology and society, in other words, urging
a new ''social contract'' that says the market should not be the
end-all orientation of science and its applications, and that research
should be guided by agendas linked to the broadest interests of
society. Scientific research should not be conducted as isolated
disciplines, but rather on a basis of approaches that are inter-
and trans-disciplinary, as the only way of comprehending and transforming
reality in a harmonious way.
It means reconciling freedom to research with
public responsibility, access to science's results and benefits
with the legitimate individual interests of those who promote it,
dissemination of knowledge with ownership, economic growth with
environmental balance, the forces of the market with so-called ''non-solvent
demands,'' the long term with the short term, and the collective
good with private interest.
In essence, we must realize that it is essential
to create adequate mechanisms for citizens to be kept well informed
and able to choose the direction and the applications of scientific
and technological development. For as the winds of the new era are
blowing, if we do not do so, we cannot truly speak of democracy.
* Ignacio Ávalos Gutiérrez is the former
Venezuelan minister of Science and Technology.