thumbnail of Issue and inquiry; 11; Genetic Surgery: The Politics of Science
Hide -
From Northeastern University the National Information that were present issue and inquiry. This point I can see no reason why we should be allowed ever to tamper with the genetic material of man. And yet you lead a team that has tampered with genes not genes of man but genes in this case of bacteria. Were you not aware that when once that step was taken someone else would come after you and take the further step the next logical conclusion. Someone will tamper with the genes of man. It's inevitable but I don't think it's inevitable if we can prevent it. This week on issue an inquiry Dr. Jonathan Beckwith associate professor Dr. James Shapiro post-doctoral fellow and Lawrence Iran the graduate student all of Harvard University. This week's program genetic surgery and the politics of science. Here is your host Joseph arbiter.
Two of the most characteristic aspects of the 20th century are education and revolution. Usually political revolution but a quiet revolution for mankind has been growing in recent years. A revolution in the very meaning of man. The key word is the gene and the key concept is the fact that man may soon be able to directly influence his own heredity. Scientists and philosophers view this prospect with an uneasy mixture of optimism and pessimism because while there are future benefits there are also potential problems. Currently the basic problem is the public ignorance about scientific discoveries because science touches our daily lives in ways we may not realize. And scientists alone may be inadequate to teach us all we need to know. In this era of the knowledge explosion. At the beginning of this program we asked one of our three guests Dr. Shapiro who he thought was responsible for performing this task of educating the American public about scientific
discoveries. Here was Dr. Shapiro's response. I think the primary responsibility rests with scientists and scientists are educated to believe that they're the only ones qualified to talk about scientific problems. A lot of scientists feel inhibited from communicating their results. What's the progress of science to the public because the moons of communicating are some sort of public media press the radio etc. and I think they're a bit afraid of that. You obviously are taking pains to make the news of your discoveries available to the public. We get this idea that scientists have the monopoly on certain areas. Knowledge and specialization only they have the right to talk about and make pronouncements with regard to these areas. One thing is built in the whole society the whole idea of what some people call professionalism. What people on the left would call leaders and is that certain people are qualified in certain areas. I don't think you have to know how to build a hydrogen bomb to understand what the political
implications of countries having hydrogen bombs are. I don't think you have to know the exact technical details of how the eugenics program to know whether you Jennings program that selective breeding program means for human beings and means for society would it be appropriate to ask what it is about our system of education which seems to inculcate within the minds of budding young scientists this idea that they have the right to make. Send a mass of people that don't have any right to ask questions What is it about our system the Creator where we live in a society where people are exploited. A policeman for example is a very exploited individual. He's paid low wages he has to risk his life basically to defend somebody else's property. If you're going to exploit people no way they're going to rebel against it unless they believe that somehow that fits into the natural order of things. And so what they're told educated from the time they're born is that some people are better than others. What sort of effort is being made by the academic community by associations of scientists to take the knowledge out of their
stereotyped Library Tower and into the man on the street the way that science is set up there where the university is run the way scientific research is done the way it is funded the way meeting is like the recent meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science are done in Boston. This was in Boston where these things are run. It's designed in fact to exclude people from finding out what's happening. For example the supersonic transport these things are planned in secret by small groups of people all the sun and announcements made accompanied by a big public relations campaign and that's what passes for public participation. The people really haven't had a chance to decide to say what they want. And in fact in some cases there's a lot of public opposition. But it really doesn't enter into the initial decision making processes after a certain time. Decisions are made and they're reversible What is the reason for the secretiveness. We were brought up not to trust the mass of people. I think that our training brings us up to believe that we are superior race of intellectuals professionals who really are
best capable of making the decisions. Shortly after we received some publicity for our findings on the isolation of the gene from bacteria I received a call from a private institution in Washington which we had set up a committee of prominent scientists to establish a crash program and as he'd like to say genetic disease manipulation this was an institution interested in curing diseases. However once one has any tools in one's hand to to cure diseases by genetic manipulation one also has I think some very frightening tools in one's hand. And yet. These This group is set up nobody knows about it. It's a group of prominent scientists who are going to make the decisions about what work to do. Probably ultimately in conjunction with the government maybe in conjunction with private industry drug industries even make the decisions as to you know what use is going to be made of it. Decisions could be made which could affect the future of mankind future of racism. I don't want to specify and scare people but the people who maybe brought it when it's a fait accompli or when things are very well underway regardless of whether one
believes that the public can comprehend the complex details of some of the more complicated side of experiments or whether they cannot. You apparently are saying that the average citizen can't comprehend the impact of these discoveries on his life and should be allowed to give some helpful criticism with regard to how these discoveries are going to use. Is that correct. Yes and it seems to me the only reasonable principle in this is the whole Democratic deal in which to organize a societies that people participate in a meaningful way in decisions that affect their lives. We get a lot of accusations of trying to bring science to the people who are being unscientific or anti intellectual. That's not true. What we're trying to say is that people have to demand knowledge because knowledge affects their lives. Let's take a look at some of the knowledge that you are gentlemen of the cumulated have discovered. Let's examine the area working in a few elementary questions. First of all the most obvious what is a gene. Dr. backward a gene is one of the elements. Heredity the genes are responsible for along with the environment for determining all the traits of living
organisms. The simplest examples that one gives are that genes are involved in the determination of eye color. You inherit them your eye color is determined as you think blue or brown or whatever it is and there is a group of genes in your genetic material which determine that those are going to be blue but in addition many other characteristics are going to be specified by genes. Others can be of course changed by environment. Now a single cell has apparently hundreds of genes does it not. Now we're working with bacteria a bacterium single bacterium has thousands of genes. Now all these thousands genes go together determine all the characteristics of that organism. In contrast the cells of higher animals human beings contain many many more genes that debate now as to exactly how many out there tens of thousands or even millions of genes. They're obviously much more complex organisms and therefore require much more complex genetic material. Do we know at this particular point in history which genes are responsible for certain characteristics such
as blue eyes or diabetes. There has been a certain amount of genetic analysis. Human being so that one can actually specify where certain genes are located for certain characteristics I'm not sure whether the ones where I cover unmapped not entirely single genes are responsible for single characteristics but one gene responsible for mobile characteristics. If you take blue eyes the blue is a is a chemical. And to make that chemical the cell that makes it must carry out a series of chemical steps to make that chemical and those series each of those chemical steps is specified by a single gene so in fact to get to blue eye color one requires a good number of genes knocking out or affecting any one of those genes can affect the color of the eyes. And there are many known hereditary diseases in human beings where knocking out a single gene can have very very serious affects on the whole growth of the organism. Also a single gene basically can be defined as specifying as a single
entity the removal of that entity for instance from the organism can have. A whole range of effects. Could you go into a brief discussion of the significance of the work that you were doing. I think one reason we wanted to talk about our work is it was a particularly graphic example of how fast things are moving. When scientists have got to the point of actually being able to isolate a gene from bacteria and then we've progressed pretty far. And this you have done that spirit for the first time in human history and I think there's a certain drama to one apologize for it. Dr. Shapiro this shouldn't be viewed as some kind of great leap forward if we hadn't done the work. There are other people who could have done it Norman certainly would have done it within a few months. People have to realize that science progresses at a given rate depending on how many resources basically money are put into it. It doesn't depend on the individual brilliance of various scientists. So that for example if we wanted to embark on a campaign to change human heredity you know given
sufficient money put into it it will eventually be done. It's not that we have to wait for some particular genius to be born. Stan I think that maybe some people have a wrong idea of how science progresses. If the public were were kept more up to date with what's happening in this field. This particular step would not have seemed so impressive to people. Why hasn't the public been able to keep up with work in science. There is this general feeling that one contaminate science by communicating it to the public because it's always going to be distorted out of proportion to its real worth. One of the reasons it's distorted because the progressives heard about so rarely that when it is reported it has to be reported to make it seem more interesting it really is. Gentleman kind of event occurred recently to the Center for the Study of democratic institutions in Santa Barbara California. And that event was the recommendation that an amendment to the constitution be proposed which would guarantee to each citizen the protection of those environmental rights. By that they apparently meant a lot more than just a protection against
air pollution that kind of environmental problem but rather Also the threat of psychosurgery and those aspects of genetic manipulation which would challenge integrity protect a person's right to individuality to identity protected against again biological manipulation you gentlemen are biologist you're working with genes. What is the impact of this kind of proposal an amendment to the Constitution. Dr. Ballard I'm not sure that that's going to solve the problems that we're worried about but I've seen in so many cases the civil rights struggle et cetera. You can have all the laws in the book and we can have a lot of suffering going on while these laws are being fought in the courts but if people are familiar with civil rights problems and they are not familiar with the problem of potential genetic manipulation soul what is there to protect against. Dr. Shapiro one thing people should realize is a lot of the technology to do it falls under the category of genetic manipulation is already here. For example we can already carry out large scale eugenics programs. We can sterilize people. We can do artificial insemination.
We can sterilize human populations now 40 triggers developed a virus I think which give an aerosol spray will sterilize women. There was a session on genetic manipulation at the last meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. One of our colleagues got up and said that because of population pressures we're going to have to limit the growth of population. This means we will have to license some people to have more children than others. Who's going to decide who has children. So that's where the problem comes in. There was in recent history one large scale attempt. Breeding a superior race of human beings that was Nazi Germany. And I think that people should be aware that precedent when they hear all these glowing things put forward is that we're going to breed a race of people more adapted to technological civilization. Generally I think people who promise that want people more like themselves. What we're saying is that perhaps such a powerful technological tool should not be put into the hands of too small a
group of people. Could any majority ever take it upon themselves with all of the whims and passing that even the majority are subject to fundamentally alter the genetic material irrevocable alterations Dr. Shapiro people must have responsibility for decisions which affect them. Now it may be that because yes we have population growth people have to realize they have a certain responsibility society and that it will be a generally accepted principle that across the board every couple will have two children say so the population doesn't grow. That's a different thing from saying that some people are going to have a privilege that other people don't have. That's the first thing and saying I'd like to say is that we have to realize it's not a question of preventing the technology from coming into being. Much of it already exists. Scientific progress is such that it really can't be stopped. The problem as I see it is basically a political one is to create a society in which other people don't make decisions for me for example. It's my decision whether or not I'm going to have children.
There are certain limits on that right of course as I said you know maybe we have responsibilities aside limit the size of our families to be done in a completely legal Tarion basis. When you say do you tell a Tarion And of course you mean Democratic everyone participates. Is there not still the possibility that we get with majority rule everyone participating can still in a sense make many major mistakes and get ourselves into a eugenic called a sock a dead end. Factor out characteristics which should not have been eliminated and overemphasize characteristics which should not of been overemphasized. Oh sure oh sure that's a possibility no no I think that's what we should say that yes you shouldn't tamper with human genetic material. Never. Probably never. My position right now I think people who say that we know enough and intelligent enough to improve the human race overestimate their own intelligence and underestimate nature. And yet you are coming terribly close to acquiring the ability to do just that to be able to engage in genetic surgery to tamper with the human genetic material yet you
personally don't get anywhere close to it I think again what we pointed out was that things are moving very fast in the field of genetics as far as you're on the road when one might be capable when scientists biologists. If it were up to them might be capable of carrying out genetic manipulations in addition to the present capacity obviously to be able to carry out eugenics. We just don't know. You know it could be 25 50 years old. Maybe that is close but certainly I think it obviously is close enough so that people should start worrying about the general problem of what's happening with science. And the control over scientific development we can't inhibit scientific progress but as people will discover that the progress of technology is affecting their lives then I think more and more that this will act as a brake on the pace of technology as thinking of an example in Massachusetts where to some extent the public pressure has brought some sort of slowing down of the building of highways and the tearing down of homes resulting from the building of highways and the increase in the pollution problem as
a result of building of bugs. I think it's significant that you are not proposing a moratorium on research in your particular area of genetics because you recognize apparently that this can never be successfully done but that you are proposing procedures by which we come to conclusions as a society as to how we use the discoveries which you and your colleagues are coming up with Dr. Shapiro. You can't stop science I mean there's always new somebody who's going to go ahead and do research and find out new things. I think you know the pace of it can be slowed by a social decision not to put so much money into it or it can be accelerated by decision not to put so much money into it. Fundamentally those are decisions which should be taken by the mass of people since they're the ones who are affected by research they should decide for example. Do we want research you know heart disease research and lead poisoning your research into how do you know kill rats so that rats don't bite children cities or may want research into cancer. That's something which people should decide and not just a few bureaucrats and people the head of. Private institutions have you know specific thinking about just how
people can be made aware of what scientists are discovering that affects them and how that knowledge once given to them can be you. I feel that perhaps our idea of democracy where either the whole body of people make a decision or else a small group of elected representatives make a decision on what the 21st century man should look like may not be adequate. The majority of people have been wrong in the past. Now when they're wrong on such a fundamental question as what the future of man is to be like whether it be affected from a genetic standpoint from a psychological standpoint from a nuclear standpoint that in fact this earth could become so contaminated with radiation and smoke that it could not be fit for a life. This is too big a question to perhaps be answered by the old forms that we have used in the past. Think what has to happen is helping people to see how they are being oppressed essentially
by a small group of people. Decisions are being made which are oppressing their lives I don't think people are that much aware of it. Once people recognize that all sorts of levels their lives are being squeezed in choked off by pollution things like this I think that they'll automatically be a demand for more community control and building up from that level to control more and more people over what's happening in this country. I think for example the use of the atom bomb against the Japanese in 1945 when we had fact knew that the Japanese would surrender. An example of how horrendous it is when a few secluded in a government office or something like that make a decision which affects thousands or maybe even millions of people. I think the example of mine that a few men in some pharmaceutical companies to make a profit. Put this drug on the mark. It caused a great deal of misery to thousands and thousands of people. Point out that people have to know what's being done to them and they have to have a part in the decisions that those things are going to be done.
Who are these small groups of people that I assume you believe control scientific research Dr. Shapiro. Let's take a look at biological research. A lot of it is funded by the government. Decisions are made by people appointed by the president. The president is elected by the people of the country. You have to have some delegation of responsibility in any society. Well I think that's that's a very complicated problem you raise. People haven't had a meaningful say in running their own affairs. That's the problem. If you talk to people about pollution the city's parking problems urban renewal you can't fight city hall and city halls from the other guys who represent big business. That's not democracy either. Well if you look at the foundations and the government agencies that are supporting my research or research of people in my field a good percentage of it comes from the National Institutes of Health. It also comes from some private foundations such as the American Cancer Society. Now the National Institutes of Health. Sounds like a course in an institution which is devoted to health care. Decide where the money is going to go and a lot of it
goes not only to basic research such as our own but into specialized research heart disease cancer. Of course as a general disproportion the society in terms of most money going to defense and very little to anything even science or health care but even in terms of the National Institutes of Health I think there's a disproportion terms of the money that goes to research and the money that goes to getting at the root problems that are responsible for the really major health problems in this country. Money is control are somewhat synonymous not within the context of science. How would you like to have it. Dr. Shapiro there's two problems first of all as a problem of politicians deciding they want to put money into certain things. Politicians tend to be all people have to worry about heart disease and cancer and stroke. Those are serious problems. But malnutrition is a serious problem. Infectious diseases are serious. Infant mortality is serious. There was no public debate you see as to what are the serious problems maybe when they take the census this year they should ask people what are your health problems so we can get some real information as to what health problems are and where we could put in resources rather than
having a few people sitting in their offices deciding what the problems are and where the money should be spent. The real problem is that when a scientific discovery is made like lasers for example radioactivity these people are the only ones who have the resources to take that and develop it into a full flown technology. In other words is the government very large corporations which can take a scientific discovery such as ours which probably won't be exploited this way but it could be pouring millions and millions of dollars getting people to work up a technology from it so that it can be applied to people's daily lives. And that's the real problem. John here at the very end of this program I'd like to get to one of the most fundamental questions of life. What are the religious implications of your work with Gene. Is this just another example of man's ability to control his own destiny to control the things and voices around him without God's help. This question is best answered by the present
dissatisfaction that people have with man's ability to control his environment. In fact since man has gained the ability to control his environment he has polluted the air is polluted the waters and there's very little indication that he's going to be able to turn back the tide until he destroys his environment. I think that what we're saying here is that I had better do something about things very quickly because at the present rate I think that we're tampering with the world in such a way that the world would have been better had we never been here. Well this is the opinion of the present Professor Paul Brown has a view that makes the point that genetic experiments that kind of tampering that they could lead to changes of the genes of unborn babies that would be as far as he's concerned a violation of man and fall below what is to him morally acceptable at least at this point I can see no reason why we should be allowed ever to tamper with the genetic material of man. And yet you lead a team that has tampered with genes not genes of
man but genes in this case of bacteria. Were you not aware that when once that step was taken someone else would come after you and take the further step the next logical conclusion someone will tamper with the genes of man. It's inevitable but I don't think it's inevitable if we can prevent it. And I think that potentially we can prevent it. I know that there are groups working you've mentioned one group working on introducing laws which would make it illegal specifically to tamper with the genetic material of human beings. Now I think a law like that on the books obviously would be very important. I don't think we ever thought much about the fact that in addition to ultimately leading to a greater understanding of how genes work and how therefore diseases might be cured that we increasing genetic knowledge in this field is leading to increasing genetic knowledge in general therefore increasing ability of men to temper with any sort of genetic material. Since we talked about it more we are more obviously much more concerned about it now is the age old problem of the scientists not knowing how his discoveries are going to be used I'm sure those working on
atomic energy and we're not that much aware of that it would be put into the atomic bomb. But I think we have that example behind us and I think that's been an extremely useful example to us because I think that the scientists who are concerned about this problem now. Are concerned at the right stage of the stage at which it's just beginning to become a possibility. But far enough ahead so that one can really consider possibilities for controlling it. I don't want to exaggerate the significance of this particular problem of genetic engineering because of all the other problems we've talked about that we confront one of which which we haven't talked about today is the increasing unit use of computers to pigeonhole people to find out more and more about people to predict people's behavior to control their behavior. There's just a whole range of scientific advances. Again it's something that people don't find out about very frequently. Gentleman one never answers questions in a radio program but hopefully one poses questions and I think you don't oppose and raise questions which will have our audience thinking for some time for many months to come.
Thinking about the impact of science and scientists on our society Mr. our doctor back with Dr. Shapiro thank you very much for coming on this program. Northeastern University has brought you Dr. Jonathan Beckwith associate professor Dr. James Shapiro post-doctoral fellow Lawrence Iran graduate student all of Harvard University. Today's program genetic surgery the politics of science. The views and opinions expressed on the preceding program were not necessarily those of Northeastern University for this station. Questions asked Where are the moderators method of presenting many sides of today's topic. Your program host has been justifier Vader's Director Department of radio production. This week's program was produced by
Issue and inquiry
Episode Number
Genetic Surgery: The Politics of Science
Producing Organization
Northeastern University (Boston, Mass.)
Contributing Organization
University of Maryland (College Park, Maryland)
If you have more information about this item than what is given here, or if you have concerns about this record, we want to know! Contact us, indicating the AAPB ID (cpb-aacip/500-f47gvq40).
Other Description
Issue and Inquiry is an analysis of public affairs issues such as environmentalism, public health, education, and politics. Produced for the Division of Instructional Communications at the nation's largest private university, Northeastern University.
Asset type
Social Issues
Media type
Embed Code
Copy and paste this HTML to include AAPB content on your blog or webpage.
Producing Organization: Northeastern University (Boston, Mass.)
AAPB Contributor Holdings
University of Maryland
Identifier: 70-11-11 (National Association of Educational Broadcasters)
Format: 1/4 inch audio tape
Duration: 00:30:00?
If you have a copy of this asset and would like us to add it to our catalog, please contact us.
Chicago: “Issue and inquiry; 11; Genetic Surgery: The Politics of Science,” 1970-00-00, University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed January 20, 2022,
MLA: “Issue and inquiry; 11; Genetic Surgery: The Politics of Science.” 1970-00-00. University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. January 20, 2022. <>.
APA: Issue and inquiry; 11; Genetic Surgery: The Politics of Science. Boston, MA: University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from