An interesting juxtaposition of events highlighted one of the great challenges to be faced in our time. While the world’s leading geneticists gathered in Melbourne to reflect on the developments and potential in this stream of science which seems to be at the forefront of thinking for the future, two young women lost their lives on an operating table, seeking a new life - having lived for 29 years joined at the head. Debate rages now over whether the operation ought to have been attempted at the outset.
The explosion in human knowledge over the last fifty years has brought us to the point where many of the things we had dreamed of are now on the verge of reality. But as with any explosion, our view becomes clouded in the short term, before all the dust settles: while we know that we know so much more, it is easy to forget the things which we do not know, or ignore the damage yet to be revealed by the smoke. This was admitted by the surgeon who performed part of the surgery on the twins: “Sometimes the way in which the human body behaves in surgery is not what one can entirely predict.” This is true for any surgery. For all the knowledge, we still need to factor in the things we do not know.
The church has often stood against developments in science and understanding. Its opposition to Galileo is legend, although the reality is somewhat different from the myth. Yet this reactionary history ought not cloud the stark realities which are often ignored. In any one week you will find reports in the press of scientific discoveries which place into question truths previously held without hesitation. While we welcome advances in genetics which enable greater understanding of the human condition, we need to move cautiously with implementation.
It is less than forty years since nuclear energy was proclaimed the clean, safe alternative to fossil fuels. Drugs once dispensed freely are now withdrawn from circulation because of unexpected side-effects. For all our developments in knowledge, we still have limited vision. Who can predict the impact of genetically modified crops? Fiddling with human DNA? Who knows ultimately whether it is nature or nurture at the back of many human actions? And the ownership of the technology behind it all creates important economic and social justice questions: will this create further inequality between the West and the rest?
The greatest knowledge has never been found in a scientific laboratory, and therefore ought to be balanced with discussion of the greater questions of love, compassion and justice. Humanity’s future depends upon it.
July 13, 2003