Lord Robert Winston on the morality of Science
By news editor, on 26 January 2012
As the education director of the UCL Jewish society, my primary focus has been to invite and host successful figures in a variety of different fields to talk about thought provoking topics that are important to students. The hallmark of our talks has been the question and answer sessions, which often go well beyond the allotted time.
This was certainly the case with Lord Winston’s talk. The theatre was filled far beyond capacity, with students crammed into aisles and in the corridor, making the atmosphere of the talk especially exciting. It was without doubt the talk that I was anticipating the most, and it definitely surpassed all expectations.
Lord Winston was very circumspect about both science and morality. He stressed that ethical principals can only be as good as our understanding of the world; for instance, while the Catholic Church argues that life begins at conception, we now know that it is not one singular moment, but a continuous process.
He was also forthright about the limitations of scientific knowledge. He argued that science is not as objective as we might think. He disagrees with the idea posited by UCL professor Lewis Wolpert, who argues that science is ethically neutral, and ethical issues only arise when science is applied to technology. Lord Winston was unequivocal that the way that we ‘do science’ and the way that we use it cannot be separated from scientific research, and thus there are ethical implications to science at all levels.
He used a fantastic variety of examples to illustrate his point, holding the audience in complete awe. He posited that every scientific invention has a downside that isn’t comprehended at the time. He went back to the first ever scientific invention, the hand axe, to underline this point. The hand axe can cause great damage, as well as being a crucial tool for humanity’s deveopment.
He also pointed out that the next major invention, agriculture, could be argued to have caused a terrible thing. We are now dependent on a very high carbohydrate diet, which leads to obesity and diabetes in many cases. Even today, modern agriculture and the farming of animals are contributing to global warming. He described how only yesterday he was sitting at the House of Lords on a committee discussing these issues.
He also looked to the future of scientific progress. Somebody in the near future is going to be able to create transgenic animals that have been genetically modified before birth to avoid defects or improve their abilities. You could therefore make a transgenic human one day in the not too distant future, with modified sperm, improved intelligence and physique. He described the already existing transgenic mouse model, which can run at twice the speed of normal mice. The idea of a super human is not so radical.
Thus, he argues, science needs ethical thought informing its progress as this new moral issue develops. Irrespective of our religious beliefs or lacks of them, we hold human life as sacred, and the idea of a super human raises questions of whether it might denigrate the value of human life. He stressed that scientists should communicate and listen to the concerns of the public, and not leave it to the government to make these decisions. He deplored the lack of ethics in the curriculum of science subjects at universities.
Lord Winston was also happy to talk about science and religion and his own religious faith. He made clear his disagreement with Professor Richard Dawkins, who has written a book called The God Delusion. The title suggests that anyone who disagrees with scientists is delusional, and Lord Winston thinks this is wrong, as science should be listening to people’s views, not trying to dictate them. He even touched on his own religious beliefs, explaining that he finds Judaism attractive, as at its core there is a belief that science is important. He does not seek to excuse it for everything, and thinks that some of its rules, such as the kosher dietary requirements, seem quite silly.
Throughout the lecture Professor Winston held his audience enraptured, and dealt with questions ranging from animal experiments (needless pain is unacceptable, and there are ethically challenging issues, such as Rhesus monkeys in captivity, but if we are going to save lives, human lives are more important) to academic boycotts (he is opposed to academic boycotts altogether, seeing human contact as a better way to solve problems, and dismissed current calls for boycotts against Israel as ludicrous).
It was an absolute privilege to host Lord Winston, and it was clear that the talk made a real impression on many of the students, staff and members of the public who attended. There has not been a talk quite like this in some time at UCL, and may not be another for quite some time.
I personally took from the event an understanding of just how nuanced and exciting the world of science is and an appreciation of the difficult ethical questions that scientists are challenged with, but also faith that we can make informed choices if we talk about them. I hope this talk may have inspired many UCL students to take Lord Winston’s ideas and his own experiences to heart.