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Notable Writings

In Search of a New Ethical Ideal

By Ignacio Ávalos Gutiérrez

Advances 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 potential.

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.

Copyright © 2001 Tierramérica. Todos los Derechos Reservados

Credit: Fabricio Vanden Broek
Credit: Fabricio Vanden Broek