«Ils doivent envisager qu’une grande responsabilité est la suite inséparable d’un grand pouvoir.» —French National Convention
A panel at the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine released a report yesterday announcing they had resolved that it would be ethical for scientists to conduct experiments engineering babies with DNA from three parents for certain medical reasons.
The advancement of technology has never been independent of increased power. Humans learned to communicate—and therefore how to lie: They could choose to misdirect fellow gatherers and hoard the bounty of their favorite blackberry patch or they could choose to share the harvest, perhaps inspiring a woman to accidentally create jam. Chiseled knives allowed for hunting and protection, but also a new means for aggression and more violent outbursts of hatred. The United States founded and continues to promulgate itself as a land of milk and honey and has to respond to the demand from South American immigrants and Syrian refugees for the wares it peddles.
The idea that an idea or a technology must be either inherently good or evil is restrictive, not to mention largely nonsensical and impractical. In all things, we have the opportunity to choose—to use an idea in a formative way that spurs personal improvement, increases knowledge, shows humanity, improves an other’s existence; or in a detrimental way that builds walls, restricts understanding, or does real physical or psychological harm to an other.
Oftentimes, the same action can be either—or both! A long Sunday in the sun may be peaceful, cathartic, and rejuvenating if an individual has been overworked or suffering. The same Sunday in the sun may be indolent, extravagant, negligent if the same individual has been shirking responsibility or uses the time to mope and wallow (which, really, we also sometimes might need, but that’s another topic).
In the same way, we choose to learn and empathize from the content we consume or to subsidize superficial beliefs and stoke petty wants. Nothing is exempt; an article on Brangelina may be a catalyst for envy and greed in one reader and a comparative study of Rainbow Tribes in another.
The debate will certainly rage over whether the NASEM finding is acceptable—indeed, already has—but arguing in blacks and whites and alls or nothings is futile. Curiosity and wonder will prevail and the science will advance. Our efforts would be better spent in assessing the verdancy of the pastures and the horrors of the abysses, and determining how close to the edge of the precipice we’re comfortable standing.
Perhaps we restrict entirely, perhaps not. And while decisions will certainly not be unanimous, an open-minded debate aimed at realistic decisions and structures at least allows traction and guardrails against the slippery slope.
We cannot—and should not—censor discovery. But if we believe we have freedom of choice, therein lies our power et du coup our responsibility. As a global community, we can—and must—choose how to use it wisely.
*So many baby-making puns here. Sorry there’s no comments to share ’em ;)