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Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Science of Seduction

This article was written some time back for a web magazine ViewsUnplugged. com (now extinct)
It also appeared in a local news paper. The stem-cell debate was raging across the world and my light hearted treatment of the subject met with some spirited rejoinders from serious minded American Professors. I was compelled by my editors to respond with a seroius - and I believe, a boring piece. This  old  article  of mine  caught my fancy while I was rummaging thorough old papers. So here it is for those who may like it.


The sedulous serpent, who urged Eve to taste the fruit of knowledge, is an unrepentant monster. After having engineered the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, he didn't look back in remorse, nor did he return to his abode in the tree of the primeval garden. In fact, he has pursued the human race with even greater energy and determination. Now of course, he is more persuasive in his respectable vocation, as the man of science. Instead of whispering in the ears of Eve, he now seduces statesmen, power barons, captains of industry and owners of capital. Knowledge leads to power, knowledge leads to wealth, and knowledge leads to happiness. And he himself? He is just a disinterested seeker after knowledge.

But be forewarned, he takes no responsibility as to the consequences. If Eve tasted the fruit of knowledge, well! She had the freedom to ignore the serpent's advice, says the Devil. If it led to her expulsion, it was no fault of his. This line has been the standard defense of Science, as well. Only now it has been codified, and made respectable, as the scientific neutrality thesis and the scientist would mount this highest hobbyhorse when in the firing line. Science is no more to be held accountable for its misuse any more than a piece of bread can be accused of murder. It can feed, but if it sticks in the throat, it can also cause asphyxia.

Jacques Monod's - of Chance and Necessity fame - remark can be taken to be the official view of the scientific establishment. "Science rests upon a strictly objective approach to the analysis and interpretation of the universe, including Man himself and human societies. Science ignores, and must ignore value judgments. Knowledge discloses and inevitably suggests new possibilities of action. But to decide upon a course of action is to leap out of the realm of objectivity into that of values, which by essence are non-objective and therefore cannot be derived from objective knowledge. There is strictly no way of objectively proving that it is BAD to make war or kill a man, or to rob him, or sleep with one's own mother".

Dr. Louis Fredrick Fieser was in charge of the team of scientists at Harvard University, which developed the Napalm bomb. He is reported to have said that he "felt free of any guilt". "You don't know what's coming, that wasn't my business. I was working on a technical problem that was considered pressing".

The tree of knowledge is laden with luscious looking fruits, ready for picking, promising a way out of the vale of tears. The information technology is egging the human spider to make a killing on the World Wide Web. Bluetooth technology is determined to usher us into the realm of science fiction. But foremost among them all is the entire gamut of research, designed to take charge of the orientation and control of human reproduction. Cloning and the stem cell research promise eternal youth. No more geriatric disorders. Good-bye to Parkinson's Disease, Alzheimer's Disease, cardiomyopathy, vascular diseases, stroke, cancer, craniofacial disorder and all that.

25 years back cloning and stem cell research was visible in the outline on the scientific horizon. At a seminar, Biology and The Future of Man, held at the University of Paris some of the kindred issues were discussed in their largest perspective. The issues that were debated were seminal, and it seems, the multiplicity of views made it still more difficult to arrive at any conclusion. The wisdom of Jacques Monod, Gunther Stent, Cyrus Levianthal, Theodosisus Dobzhansky, Prof. Lasagna and all such savants of the biological science could lead only to tentative formulations. The seminar concluded with the pious declaration a, universal Movement for Scientific Responsibility.

What constitutes human life? Is it a process, a succession of ordinal organization, a coded macromolecule, an unfertilized egg, an oocyte, a fetus which has become "quick", or a neonate that can survive independently? Or is it that at some point - some arbitrary point - in the succession of events it becomes life and continues to remain so until its termination. (Any views there Dr. Keruoc?) Is there a threshold, a magic line that divides the boundary of life and non-life? Is there a no-man’s-land? And who had the authority to eliminate it to decide the threshold?
That was in 1976. Exactly 25 years later those questions seem to have been decided by relegating them to the realm of the non-issue. The world Medical Association declaration of Helsinki had cautioned against research on identifiable human material. But the Donaldson Report winks at the recommendation and justifies the research in the interest of potential benefits to human beings, science and society. Which is perhaps just as well. Any idea which promises utopia can never be put on the back burner. The technological imperative takes over. If a thing is shown to be possible then it will become possible. But in the meanwhile, one may ask the question. Why was Jonathan Swift, in a manner of saying, carted away to the lunatic asylum for having put forward his proposal, that the rich could have the babies (of the poor) for breakfast. Why is cannibalizing for protein ethically repulsive but raising human embryos for organ harvesting a medical necessity? Dr. “Miracle” Severino Antinori may justly accuse me of being “intellectually Talibanised”. Perhaps I am speaking out of turn on matters of such arcane knowledge as stem-cell research, but even humbler folks have opinions. They experience the world as it impinges on them. In troubled times, and in times of doubt, they dip into their racial memories and myths.

The Indian tradition relates the story of the gods and the anti-gods churning the Ksheer Sagar for the elixir of youth and immortality - Amrit. Amrit they did get, but the unforeseen by product was Kalkut Vish, the poison which could annihilate death itself. Shiva, the great god, in his compassion, ingested the poison lest it destroy Creation. But even then the other problem of sharing the Amrit with anti-gods remained. A lot of ungodly deceit and chicanery was used to get out of the mess. This metaphor for the endless search of utilitarian knowledge and the disastrous consequences energizes the comparatively recent cultural myths of Faustus and Frankenstein.

The consciousness of the flip side of knowledge is implanted in the human memory like a bad dream. Many of us have learnt to distrust science and technology. But if myth is considered too old fashioned and dated, let us look back to the history of the last hundred odd years. When the allied powers - the self appointed guardians of freedom, democracy, human rights, harnessed the power of the atom to make the authentic thunderbolt of the Gods to vanquish the absolute evil of Hitler, did they but know that 50 years later the same authentic weapon will become the scourge of civilization in the hands of Bin Laden and his ilk. You can bring technology into being for very pious, very humanitarian, very utilitarian reason, but how can you deny access to people who want to use it for precisely the opposite reason. How do you prevent small minds getting hold of, and abusing these big secrets of nature? You can clone Mother Teresa, but there is a countervailing risk that the Ladens, Hitlers and Jack the Rippers may be crawling over the surface of the planet, through this same technology.

So let us tarry a while. Let us have a wider debate. Let us not put blind faith in a body of people who can’t decide for us whether it is bad to make war or kill a man, or to rob him, or sleep with one’s own mother. I for one, am prepared to terminate my subscription to eternal health and happiness, considering the risks. I know I am exposing myself to the charge of intellectual Ludditism but that shouldn’t deter humbler folks like us from asking silly questions, stupid questions, even inadmissible questions. It is a lot better than being dumb, driven, and mute.