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We are essentially a society of cells that come from a single cell, the fertilised egg. Research in cell biology has made major advances that are relevant to medicine and our understanding of life. Our understanding of the role of genes and proteins is impressive. But is this science dangerous? The whole of Western literature has not been kind to cell scientists and is filled with images of scientists meddling with nature, with disastrous results.1 Just consider Shelley’s Frankenstein, Goethe’s Faust and Huxley’s Brave New World. One will search with very little success for a novel in which scientists come out well—the persistent image is that of scientists as a group unconcerned with ethical issues.
There is a fear and distrust of cell science, particularly genetic engineering, leading to genetically modified foods, genetic modification of humans, cloning and stem cells. There is something of a revulsion in humankind’s meddling with nature and a longing for a Rousseauish-like return to golden age of innocence. There is anxiety that scientists lack both wisdom and social responsibility and are so motivated by ambition that they will follow their research anywhere, no matter what the consequences. Scientists are repeatedly referred to as “playing God”. Many of these criticisms coexist with the hope, particularly in medicine, that science will provide cures to all major illnesses, such as cancer, heart disease and genetic disabilities such as cystic fibrosis. But is cell science dangerous and what are the special social responsibilities of scientists? It is worth noting one irony: although scientists are blamed for making us live in a high-risk society, it is only because of science that we know about these risks, such as those related to health.
The media must bear much of the responsibility for the misunderstanding of genetics as genetic pornography is, …