New Questions From the New Biology, by Jane F. Koretz


We live in exciting and challenging times. Advances in basic biological research have led to new, life-preserving medical technologies, and promise eventually to free us even from the thrall of genetic disorders. It is not unreasonable to believe that we and our children will be able to lead longer, healthier, and more productive lives than might have been envisioned even ten years ago, thanks to a deeper and more unified understanding of fundamental processes in living things. Associated with every advance, however, whether it be philosophical, scientific, or technological, are questions that no one had thought to ask, and implications that no one had foreseen. In most cases, these questions and implications reduce to new versions of classical ethical-moral problems. It is the contention of this essay that certain potential advances in the biological sciences will lead to questions that have never had to be considered up to now, and for which we are therefore completely unprepared.

My purpose then is to acquaint the reader with new and pending developments in modern biology, and, in the process, to indicate some of the questions and dilemmas that arise in relation to these developments. I fear that even questioning the directions/ implications of certain areas of modern biomedical research makes me an alarmist, apostate, or neo-Luddite in some scientific circles, but I strongly believe that all of us must participate in decisions relating to the shaping – and possible alteration – of the human species, and we are talking about nothing less than that.

New Medical Technologies:  Life, death and somewhere in between

The biological sciences and their associated “technologies” (e.g., medicine) have always been a source of questions about the nature of life and death. Medical philosophers continually grapple with questions relating to the allocation of scarce medical resources, the definition of death, the problem of when a fertilized human ovum can be considered a human being, etc. Less emotionally charged, but equally important, issues arise in relation to the treatment of non-human research subjects, the disappearance of some species and the alteration of others through cross-breeding. While the essence of many of these questions has remained unchanged over the centuries, the advancing sophistication of modern technologies has increased their complexity.