A few years ago I was doing some research for a talk I was due to give on science and religion when I cam across a sermon delivered by a London vicar at his church’s annual harvest thanksgiving service in 1885. The following passage struck me particularly:
“Today you see in this church apples and pears, carrots and potatoes, wheat and barley. They are the fruits of the harvest, for which we offer thanks to Almighty God. God, in His mercy, works great miracles, and in His kindness clothes us and feeds us.
But there are other miracles. We have the railways, which take us at previously unimaginable speeds to places we could never have known, over great bridges and viaducts which defy nature. There is iron and steel. There are great machines, which work mysteriously and mightily. These are all miracles as well, and miracles which perhaps will touch the people of this city much more than the ploughshare and the sheaths of corn. And some will say they are not God’s miracles at all, but the miracles wrought by our scientists and engineers. In this church we say weekly that God became man. Others say and think that, with our factories and our industry, man has become God.”
Leaving aside the particular religious frame of reference which informed the sermon, throughout the periods of scientific and technological progress in human history there has always been an undercurrent also of suspicion and fear, and the gnawing worry that overcoming what we thought were laws of nature cannot be done without punishment of some sort for our arrogance. And such thoughts have not always been without foundation – as medical progress was pursued, for example, in the Nazis’ barbaric human experiments, or as chemical or biological weapons unleashed by irresponsible and cruel warlords wiped out communities.
Right now we are again at a point in scientific discovery where we need to take certain decisions. We need to come to a view whether our known capacity for particular types of innovation should or should not be pursued. So for example, the programme for government of the current coalition in Ireland between Fianna Fail and the Green Party contained two key commitments: to secure the island of Ireland as a ‘GM-free zone’, and to ensure that Ireland would be nuclear-free.
The first of these two commitments will have come as a shock to all sufferers of diabetes, as the standard drug used to treat them, insulin, is a genetically modified (GM) product. Furthermore, globally the opposition to GMOs (genetically modified organisms) is increasingly seen as a western, middle class obsession, as the imperative to feed the populations of developing countries with food containing sufficient nutrition will be impossible without GMOs. Our principles, their hunger. It is also now being argued by some that nuclear power is the only realistic way of providing an environmentally sustainable form of energy for the world.
It may be, of course, that there are powerful and good and overwhelming reasons for adhering to these principles set out in the programme for government. I am not wholly sure myself where I stand on them; but what strikes me as dangerous is that we appear to be suggesting that, as a nation, we are hesitant about scientific and technological progress, which is a dangerous impression to create, not least when we are also trying to escape from recession by attracting global R&D. The programme for government suggests, in these two statements, that we are not open to dispassionate analysis, which is very dangerous; and thankfully, on both issues debate is being conducted in a sensible way, with trade unions actually playing a very positive role.
This week in Ireland, we have also had some discussion about embryonic stem cell research, prompted by the decision to allow such research subject to certain conditions in University College Cork. Without wishing to suggest here what the correct decision is, I hope that this debate, too, can be conducted in a way that addresses both the scientific and the ethical issues raised, but does so without being driven by inherent fear of scientific innovation.
Scientific discovery and technological innovation has its risks and needs ethical oversight, but we must also remember that it has done more than anything else in human history to make possible the feeding of the hungry, the healing of the sick, and the ending of poverty. We should not abandon that lightly.