Good Science Requires Good Ethics
Science is conducted by humans for humans. It is not done in a vacuum. Even the lone researcher working in a basement hopes to make a discovery worth sharing. The need for ethical science shows most clearly when humans experiment on humans – with or without their consent. Two recent articles underscore the indispensability of moral grounds for science, and a third raises questions about the source of morality.
Remember Guatemala: According to Medical Xpress, the President’s Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues issued its report dealing with safeguards to minimize risk for human subjects. The report is entitled, “Moral Science: Protecting Participants in Human Subjects Research.” The study was prompted by the revelation last year that in 1946 to 1948, the U.S. Public Health Service exposed thousands of Guatemalans to sexually transmitted diseases without their consent. Confident that today’s standards would never allow such an atrocity to happen, the commission recommended 14 changes to existing policies and procedures to provide additional protections.
Many experiments require human volunteers, especially in medical, social, and psychological research. These participants should give their consent and be fully informed of the risks. Commission chair Amy Guttman said that the Guatemala study should remind us all to never take ethics for granted. “We must never confuse ethical principles with burdensome obstacles to be overcome or evaded,” she said. “Good science requires good ethics, and vice versa.”
Don’t patent human embryos: Oliver Brüstle just lost his decade-long effort to patent human embryonic stem cells in Germany. The European Court of Justice gave its final ruling, with no appeal, declaring that “any patent depending even indirectly on human ES-cell lines is outlawed on moral grounds throughout the European Union (EU).” According to Allison Abbott in Nature News, “Unexpectedly, it added that any research using such cell lines was similarly immoral.” The suit against Brüstle was brought by Greenpeace, whose protestors held signs high stating, “Stoppt patente auf leben!” (Stop patents on life).
Abbott wrote as if this were a scientific tragedy, not a triumph for morality. She focused on how disappointed Brüstle was with the ruling, stunned that a group of environmentalists would bring his efforts to a screeching halt. But it’s clear from one statement from him that he didn’t “get it” about morality: “How can a European court rule immoral what national governments have allowed and which national research agencies have funded?” He seems to forget that his own government allowed and funded some pretty grotesque things back in the 1940s. It seems like Brüstle and his colleagues will have to reluctantly try to do their work with induced pluripotent stem cells.
It’s clear where Nature’s editorial board stands on this issue: “The European Court of Justice was wrong to weigh in on the definition of a human embryo,” the Dec. 15 editorial began, making a clear moral opinion right there. The editors began their argument with alleged ambiguity about the definition of human life.
The question of when a formless clump of developing cells can truly be said to become a human will never have a clear answer. It depends on whom you ask: biologists, theologians, and pro-life and pro-choice campaigners have all wrestled with the concept for years. Regulations that cover the relevant scientific fields and issues should take all these conflicting views into account.
This statement begs the question whether the judges did take those conflicting views into account. It also leaves unanswered how taking “all these conflicting views into account” should be done; which will be given more weight? Nevertheless, the editors projected their own anger onto a faceless group of colleagues who agree: “The ruling left many scientists, judges and legal experts in Germany and other EU member states fuming,” the Editorial stated. Nature’s righteous indignation led to a lively series of comments from readers, including this statement from Frederick Waltz:
Large adult human beings who have power over small in utero members of their species may not value them but this conclusion does not diminish the biological truth that the latter are independent human beings. We should acknowledge that if we reverse our own biological clock we encounter the truth that we all first existed as a zygote.
Alison Abbott’s own bias was clear from her previous week’s report on Nature News, which emphasized the outcry from scientists: “European Court of Justice had no right to impose moral judgement on science, says influential group.” The Alliance of German Scientific Organizations said, “The European Court of Justice is neither the proper place to decide on patent rights nor to impose a general moral order on the whole of Europe.” Who, then, does have that right? Are scientists free to define their own morality? Abbott stated their response, and the reasoning – a kind of “states’ rights” position: “The alliance’s statement says that, because there is no consensus within Europe on the morality of using human ES cells, decisions about how to regulate them should remain with national governments.” Several questions are begged in that response: namely, that morality is a matter of consensus, and that national governments will have monolithic views on morality. If the Alliance’s reasoning were to be extended, should each province, county, or city make its own rules? Abbott ended with an argument that even though iPSCs look promising, they need to be measured against the “standard” of human ES cells. Whether that comparison requires patenting human embryos (the subject of the court’s ruling) was left unclear.
Seeking guidance from Dr. Darwin: Science magazine reported on the dream of some evolutionists to bring Darwin’s theory into the hospital. Elizabeth Pennisi, in “Darwinian Medicine’s Drawn-Out Dawn,” (Science, 16 December 2011:Vol. 334 no. 6062 pp. 1486-1487, doi: 10.1126/science.334.6062.1486) didn’t have anything to say about ethics or morality – just insights that some biologists feel would benefit doctors. Randolph Nesse and George Williams proposed “Darwinian medicine” in 1991, but the “dawn” is “drawn out” because the doctors don’t want it or don’t care. “Evolution has been resisted fiercely” by the medical profession, according to Dr. Peter Gluckman (U of Auckland), author of the first textbook on evolutionary medicine. Pennisi considered it a sign of progress that 30 institutions do include evolution in their curricula, and hopes that in 10 years it will be standard, but admits that “it’s unlikely that medical schools will provide entire courses in evolutionary medicine, given the already-intense course load students face.” Even though Gluckman believes that “Evolution is fundamental to understanding biology, and doctors are what people turn to to understand biology,” he confessed that “there are some people who think it’s just a series of ‘just so’ stories.” For previous entries on Darwinian medicine, see 11/16/2002, 2/27/2003, 5/31/2004, 4/25/2007, 7/13/2007 bullet 4, and 9/08/2009.
Darwin was wrong: A rare secular science news article admits Darwin was wrong – about emotions. Medical Xpress noted that Darwin's view “could be misguided” about animals and humans exhibiting their emotions through universal facial expressions. "“This debate isn't purely academic,” the article said. “It has consequences for how clinicians are trained and also for the security industry.”
Major premise: Evolution is fundamental to understanding biology. Minor premise: Evolution is a series of just-so stories. Conclusion: A series of just-so stories is fundamental to understanding biology.
Patient: “Doctor, I have this pain in my elbow.” Doctor: “It’s a relic of your evolutionary past when your ancestors swang from the trees. As your ancestors adjusted to hunting and gathering on the savannah, their arm bones didn’t evolve properly. Get used to it.”
Patient: “Doctor, is this a wart or is it melanoma?” Doctor: “It’s an example of industrial melanism. It will oscillate between generations depending on the amount of pollution in the air. Get used to it.”
Patient: “Doctor, this infection in my nose is getting worse.” Doctor: “This is what’s called an evolutionary arms race. It’s you against the bacteria, and the bacteria appear to be winning. Since you have as much value as bacteria in the Darwinian scheme of things (i.e., nothing), we’ll just have to see the outcome in this contest of survival of the fittest. Get used to it.”
Major premise: Good science requires good ethics. Minor premise: Evolution is the foundation of biological science, including human physiology, psychology, and sociology. Conclusion: Good scientific ethics evolve.
The secular institutions of science want to talk about morality, but they cannot provide grounds for it. Morality and ethics derive from a view of the world that believes in eternal standards of right and wrong, standards that do not evolve. If you would not have elitists subjecting you to diseases without your consent, or patenting human embryos, or telling just-so stories in the doctor’s office, you had better hope that the Judeo-Christian foundations of western civilization do not erode further. Without that, the horror show is only beginning.
Exercise: Send in your entry for a patient-doctor joke based on “evolutionary medicine” like those above.