Solutions to Today's Challenges Will Take More Than Technology Several Scientists and Statesmen Discuss the Economic, Moral, Ethical, and Political Implications of Science for Mankind's Future

The Christian Science Monitor, January 2, 1992 | Go to article overview

Solutions to Today's Challenges Will Take More Than Technology Several Scientists and Statesmen Discuss the Economic, Moral, Ethical, and Political Implications of Science for Mankind's Future


The World Media Project asked several well-known scientists and politicians what questions they would put to each other if they had the chance, then gave each an opportunity to answer the others' questions. Excerpts from that dialogue follow. HEAD: Science and ethics

Jacques Delors asks: Science raises new ethical problems - intergenerational solidarity, the status of the human embryo - that herald a return to the ethical aspect in public debate. Do you think a code of ethics could be adopted on a worldwide basis that would make it easier to regulate the application of scientific discoveries? As a man of science, would you accept subordinating science to ethics?

Stephen Jay Gould replies: I believe that any human activity must operate within ethical guidelines, for no imperative is more pervasive or overarching than proper moral conduct - however hard it may be either to define or to agree upon the content of such a concept.

The issue of such subordination arises whenever any human institution becomes powerful enough to harm and regulate people's lives.

Thus, war, politics, and penology - but rarely art or music - have been viewed (at least in principle) as subject to ethical restraint. The question has emerged so prominently for science in our time because this institution has now achieved the requisite practical power over our lives - what with nuclear bombs and direct reading of the DNA code.

I am not pessimistic. I believe that basic kindness and decency have increased their sway through history. Unfortunately, the instruments of destruction have grown in effectiveness at an even greater pace - so that one Hitler today can overwhelm in content of cruelty what one hundred of like mind might have contemplated 1,000 years ago, but were unable to implement at grand scale. Ethics cannot be legislated, and I do not think that a worldwide code could be adopted or enforced. But broad-ranging international discussion of these questions - among scientists, philosophers, politicians, and religious leaders - should be convened in the hope that moral suasion thus achieved might help to promote moral action, or at least to focus the world's attention on this ultimate interdisciplinary issue. Overpopulation

Desmond Morris asks: My observation of animal behavior has allowed me to confirm that, in the animal kingdom, overpopulation always leads to destruction of the social order, to the appearance of blind violence, and to the spread of epidemics. Most species have mechanisms that permit a reduction in the reproduction rate when population growth reaches dangerous levels. Mankind does not seem to have such a system of natural control, or to have cast it aside. What measures can you take to prevent the overpopulation of our planet?

Abdou Diouf replies: First of all, one must note the discrepancies between animal behavior and the conduct of humans, and place special accent on the importance of the element of liberty that makes up the human being and that makes mankind something other than just a "species" among other biological species.

It is probably in this element of liberty that one must find the origin of the scourge tied to overpopulation, but also the true solutions to demographic challenges, the gravity of which are correctly emphasized.

It is a question of influencing people's attitudes, behavior, and ways of looking at things. That is why in Senegal we adopted in 1988 a declaration on population policy with the clear goal of control over the size of the population.

This is naturally a long-term policy, because when it is a question of attitudes and mentality, the only policy worth anything, and that can be effective, is one that takes the time to convince people to modify trends.

In this context, there are, of course, decisions that have an immediate result. They put the means of such a choice at the disposal of citizens, but they have only a limited effect without the sensitizing and education which must be done through the media and in which the school must play the greatest part. …

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Solutions to Today's Challenges Will Take More Than Technology Several Scientists and Statesmen Discuss the Economic, Moral, Ethical, and Political Implications of Science for Mankind's Future
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