Science and Society

A brief summary of the play "Twilight of the Golds" would run like this. A woman married to a genetic researcher finds that she is pregnant and tells her husband, parents and gay brother at dinner the next day. Though her family is ecstatic, a previous conversation of family related Parkinson's Disease weighs heavily on their minds. However, the husband reveals that his lab has completed the Human Genome mapping project years ahead of schedule and that it would be possible to test their unborn child through its amniotic fluid for any genetic defects. They do so. However what they find is not what they expected. Though the child will be completeley free of Parkinson's or other similar diseases, because of various indications such as a huge suprachiasmatic nucleus, a significantly reduced INAH 3 as well as related "genetic suggestions," the Golds are informed that their unborn child has a 90% chance of being gay. After a great deal of mental, emotional and spiritual torment, Mrs. Gold decides to have an abortion. Unfortunately, in the process, complications rob her of further fertility. Meanwhile, her gay brother must come to terms with his sister's decision to abort her child in relation to his own existence.

Considering that on the afternoon before I saw the play I had been introduced to the biology of homosexuality (for the first time) in our class, similar dilemmas were already fresh in my mind. Particularly relevant was the question of progress. Can humans handle the power of genetics? Was the man who you quoted to us, who said that we should simply leave the subject alone for fear of its social ramifications, right? Was the playwright also right? Was my anarchist friend who saw the play with me and who argued for primitivism, (a total rejection of `western' ideas of technology) right? My intuition cried out a resounding NO! But it wasn't until I read the article on Homosexuality in the Atlantic that I was able to formulate a more rational line of reasoning to support my intuition.

Let me begin by stating outright that I think `progress' is deeply rooted in, if not definitional to, humanity. Technology, like any other cultural resource is part of our adaptive strategy, which we have used for millions of years (at least since Homo habilus). It is a resource which has both deeply effected morphology through brain restructuring, digit formation, use of language, etc. as well as been effected by those changes. In fact, many argue that such technologiocally relevent morphological change reaches down to a genetic level. So yes, I do support progress wholeheartedly. That is, somewhat less rhetorically, I `accept' progress as indivisible from humanity and something which must be mastered rather than rejected. In other words, man will continue to create and further, attempts to stifle such creation will be ineffective. Instead, we must focus on using our tendency to create positively and learn how to live with it.

This, of course, is not meant to obscure the evils that may come from technological progress. Each time man achieves a greater power over his environment, he gains a greater ability to make mistakes or worse, he may gain a false sense of moral righteousness with which to justify `evil' actions. As Burr writes in the Atlantic, "Science can enlighten, can instruct, can make objective distinctions...but we cannot rely on science to supply full answers to fundamental questions like human rights, human freedom and human tolerance." In other words, technology is just an adaptation, a human mental creation which can make him better able to survive or better able to affect his extinction. How to use the adaption positively is the `big question.'

The answer I think, lies in the de-mystification of science. Science has become far too removed from everyday life. I don't mean to say that technology has become removed. Surely Timex reaches even the furthest depths of the Kalahari. I mean that `science' has become removed; raised on a pedestal by some and fearfully ignored by others.

On the one hand, scientists in the past have tended to wrongly see themselves as distinct from society as a whole. They have worked towards their own private goals, (the grand quest for truth!), without looking broadly at the whole picture. To them, it is not science that is evil, but the people who use it in evil ways.

But this is quite a silly argument. Of course science is not to blame. But that certainly doesn't mean that scientists are off the hook. By realizing that what they create can be used in evil ways, they implicate themselves in those future evils. In The Goldbug Variations, Richard Powers describes one scientist's epiphony that science is not some separate entity that like mathematics can be played with for hours of amusement. Rather, he realizes, science is an integral part of life, the universe and everything. While it is true, that we cannot dam up the river of progress, it is also true that we can do our best to guide that river in positive ways.

Secondly, non-science oriented people have shied away from science perhaps because of its complex terminology, perhaps because of its abstract subject matter, or perhaps because of some other reason. Technophobia runs rampant in western culture and jokes about people not being able to work their VCR's are getting less and less funny as time goes on. It is clear that we as a society must make a concerted effort to reach out our hand to science, let it smell us and our fear, and pet it until it becomes our friend.

One crucial step towards this end, is for Scientific journals like Scientific American and scientific programs like Healing and the Mind to address both real, technical issues while remaining accessible to real, everyday people, relatiung technical issues to real life situations and morality. In this way, scientist will be forced to think about their directions in a cultural framwork, and audiences will be able to appreciate modernity and its implications for their lives. As a role model for this, we might look to the Chinese doctors in Healing and the Mind who have mastered both Western medicine as well as traditional chi manipulations.

To a large degree, I think there has been a great deal of attention focused in this direction in recent times. Both the article in the Atlantic and the Healing and the Mind program, for example, were very culturally relevant. So much so, that my grandmother and mother, who are both technophobes, sat through and thoroughly enjoyed Healing and the Mind. Both the program and the article spent some time dealing with real biological issues.

For example, most of the Atlantic article dealt with physical, hormonal, and genetic aspects of homosexuality. It discussed the limbic system, DNA, and leutinizing hormone feedback systems. Similarly, in Healing and the Mind, Moyers dealt with diseases like cancer and the traditional methods of combating such diseases.

And yet, each discussion took care to explain in everyday language the meanings of those issues. In both discussions, we could sympathize with the people involved. Their biology was made real to us with their faces or in the case of the Atlantic with a beautiful and coimprehensive writing style which one can see clearly by comparing Burr's discussion of CAH in the Atlantic as opposed to Erhardt's in our reader. Even I had to resort to skimming through Erhardt's overly complex and technical account.

Similarly, the use of Bill Moyers as a buffer between the worlds of science and people was quite effective. The light drawl and friendly smile of Bill was enough to seduce even the most intense technophobe into interest. And what was such a technophobe forced to admit after watching: Biology, science and technology are integral to ones individuality and life. It is pointless and harmful not to admit and work with such a link: Step one in a therepy crucial, I think, to the continuation of the human race in the next century.

In conclusion I would only mention that I have a great deal of faith that our society will come to terms with its technology. Cyberpunk culture was recently discussed in Time magazine and everywhere I turn are movies, plays, comercials, and articles outlining and defining the greater integration of technology, biology, and culture.

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