THE FATE OF MAN IN A SCIENTIST-TECHNOLOGICAL ERA. (A PHILOSOPHICAL EXAMINATION OF THE IDEAS OF ALEXANDER DENIS.)
1.0 Science In The Seventies
If a reasonable analysis is made of the whole periods in the history of science, the fact that science brought much innovation to mankind cannot be denied. Throughout the history of science, one could see attempts by scientists to exhaust all that are practicable as far as our world of reality is concerned. But these achievements of science have not been without problems.
Alexander Denis sees the problem as a turning point in those advancements of science. He traced back the foundation of scientific evolution and its social impact to the late 19th and early 20th centuries. For instance, in the year 1905, Einstein came up with his theory that mass could be converted into energy. Within the camp of the scientists, some doubts were raised as to the possibility of this theory. But 40 years later, his theory was confirmed when Hiroshima and Nagasaki were destroyed by atomic bomb.
In the 1950s, scientists were bent on constructing nuclear weapons. Weapons of war became more sophisticated with an increasing hope that no one would be foolish enough to use them adversely. But unfortunately, as hopes were rising towards what science could offer as good, there was a corresponding increase in disillusionment. At this point, one stands to ask where mankind was going in the 1970s. This boils down to the fact that one-fifth of the world’s political manpower was (and is still) employed for military purposes. As this was foreseen as something more deadly than life giving, some moves were made to the imminent excesses. Many countries engaged in the formation of groups to arouse social and moral conscience among scientists, one of which was the British society for social responsibility in science. All these groups were put up because of the fact that a single misuse of science anywhere is likely to attract its own heavy repercussions. The extent to which these groups in different countries could go was immediately seen. They could not achieve much, and the reason was quite obvious: a country tries to out do the other in the production of weapons, at least for defence purposes. This situation leads to a kind of dominos effect. Alexander demonstrates this with the production of biological weapons.
If one country is going to attack the other with biological weapons, one needs to know how to defend oneself. And to defend oneself, one needs to know how the weapons work. And to know how they work, one equally needs to make them. Since the individual has known how to make them, even if he does not stock pile them, he can always make move if he wanted to1
This kind of situation leads to a deep struggle for superiority and a vicious circle is created.
What was happening in the production of biological weapons was present in other areas such as in the science of molecular biology. By the 1970s,according to his analysis the chances of begetting life artificially were no longer deemed impossible.
1.1 Genes, Sex and Society
“Genes are strings of chemicals that help create the proteins that make up the body”2. Genes are composed of chromosomes, which are responsible for our different characteristics. But these characteristics are summed up in the DNA, deoxyribonucleic acid, which is the sum total of the genetic make up of every living thing.
DNA is very stable such that “mutations”3 occurring in the germ cells will be passed on to the children. It has been found that some genetic defects are linked with chromosomes that determine sex. For instance colour blindness, webbed toes and muscular dystrophy are caused by chromosomes related to sex chromosomes.
In 1969,the first fertilization of the human ovum which was carried out under laboratory conditions was made. Earlier before this date (1969), human ovary was not accessible and so studies concerning human conception could not yield any positive result. But, this breakthrough has taught man that artificial fertilization of the human ovary is hundred percent possible. As years go by, more discoveries were made. Alexander Denis made allusion to the new discovery about human blastocyst in 1974.He noted the report that “human blastocysts had been grown artificially in the laboratory and re-implanted into women, with subsequent birth of apparently normal several children”4.
No doubt, there was some social impact accruing from these discoveries. It became obvious that infertility and other related problems can be stopped. A wife with blocked oviduct or a husband with ineffective sperm can get an aid.
There was equally a way of determining sex chromosome. In this case, the sperm containing the Y chromosome is identified as male chromosome while the sperm containing X chromosome is identified as female chromosome. Hence Alexander averred that “sex could be determined by separating sperm containing the Y (male) chromosome from those containing the X (female) chromosome”5. He also noted the discovery made by a group of German scientists, that sperm could be made concentrated 85%. This concentration he said, makes the Y sperm to swim more strongly.
In the past centuries, man submitted to the dictum that children are gifts from God and that their (or children’s) absence is an expression of God’s wrath. It was taken that the sex of one’s children is determined by the mind of God such that one was made to be grateful for what he gets even if it is a girl again (may be for the fourth time). The case of infertility was then seen as the actualisation of God’s will on man. But in this era, not only that infertility has a total cure; man can now choose to have more males than females in as much as he adroitly follows the rubrics of science concerning the modernised form of reproduction.
More still, the developments in science have also led to the discovery of genetic abnormalities. It is true that under normal circumstances, chromosomal donations during the period of human conception do not go beyond or below the usual 23 chromosome pairs from either parent. But sometimes the unusual may happen such that the chromosomal donations may not keep to the usual 23 pairs. According to R.F. Biehler “The unusual number of chromosome may either be 23+24 making an overall number of 47 instead of the usual 46.At other times it may be 23+22 making a combinatory total of only 45 instead of the usual 466.”
Biehler explained that there is bound to be a genetic abnormality when either of these situations occur. The type of abnormality that occurs in this situation is Down’s syndrome. He explained that Down’s syndrome occurs when the cell is produced by 47 (i.e.23+24) chromosomes.
The missing of a sex chromosome or the addition of an extra sex chromosome may lead to a type of genetic abnormality called Turner’s syndrome. This abnormality occurs when a sperm with a missing sex chromosome fertilizes a normal egg or an egg with a missing an X-carrying sperm fertilizes X chromosome. Biehler explained that this lack of a second X chromosome may cause stunted growth in the female child and will eventually lead to a blockage of breast development and menstrual flow in the female child at puberty.
However, in the midst of these genetic discoveries, mankind should not submit to geneticists as those who have the final answer about gene and sex. Sometimes, their projections can really cause more harm than good. In his book, “The Technological Society”, Jacques Ellul argued, “If the choice as to what type of human is desirable be left to those who are making the choice possible –the geneticists, then the doom of humanity must crop up”7. Under what I may call the magic wand of biology, man is now gradually becoming quite different from what he was. He is changing into a new and paradoxical animal. The very ‘Homo sapiens’ has now become a ‘Homo biologicus’ who attains the level of fertilizing his female at a long distance like the molusks or like the Kangaroo that develops outside his mother’s body.
Some molecular biologists had much questions to respond to in regard to the manipulation of living things and human beings. The effects of science and technology were also beginning to draw attentions and questions; for instance, population density was much with a corresponding increase in pollution, deaths from war and other social ills were in the steady progression: these situations made the enthusiastic applications of biological discoveries to everyday life to fall down drastically. However, the advancements in science does not only revolve around gene and sex, it equally encompasses the human brain.
1.2 Chemistry of the Brain
The human brain can be described as two handfuls of tissue, which weighs a little more than 1.2kg with colour and pulp-like substance responsible for man’s feeling, speaking, seeing, smelling, remembering, engaging in sexual union and other activities that characterises the daily human life.
The human brain indeed contains about ten thousand million nerve cells. Thus, in comparing the computers to human brain, Denis Alexander avowed that “the biggest computers ever built manage less than a hundred units unlike the human brain that contains ten thousand million cells”8.
Initially, brain research was the major preoccupation of Neuro-physiologists, those who are primarily concerned with the electrical activities of the brain. In 1974, Sir John Eccles of Buffalo University used a microelectrode less than a thousandth of millimetres in diameter to explore the electrical behaviour of individual neurons in living cat brains. However, in not more than ten years of this discovery, it was also discovered that “if the electrical activity of individual neurons varies so much, it is also likely that their chemistry varies as well”9. Thus, among the complex task of biochemistry in the early seventies, was to find out the disparities in chemistry between the ten thousand million nerves contained in the brain.
There has been a tremendous increase in our knowledge of the structure and chemistry of the brain. Our detailed knowledge of the brain chemistry makes it inevitable that new and more sophisticated drugs are produced to exert certain effects on man’s behaviour. The implantation of electrodes in the brain, which was initiated by Dr. Hess in 1928, now serves as a routine procedure. This is a situation where a hole is made in the skull of the animal or man, and a fine metal planted in specific areas of the brain. Through these electrodes, simultaneous electrical recording can be done while the animal or person moves freely to wherever (it) he chooses. Even the cerebral areas related to pain, pleasure, eating, sexual gratification and learning have all been detected through this medium. It was equally ascertained that electrodes could be used not just for picking up electrical activities alone but also to stimulate specific regions of the brain.
Before delving into the interpretive cortex of the brain, it is nice to highlight some diffuse pathways in the human brain. There is what is known as the cholinergic pathways, which regulate attention, learning and memory function. In other words, a projection from the nucleus basalis of Meynert
provides the cholinergic input to the cerebral cortex. The medial septum in turn provides cholinergic innervations of the hippocampus.
The Dopamine pathways also regulate movement, cognition, learning and memory function. Hence, a projection from the substantia nigra provides dopamine input to the neostriatum. Then the ventral segmental area supplies dopamine for the cerebral cortex and the limbic system. These activities of the brain are not unconnected with its plasticity. According to Malcolm Jeeves “the most characteristic features of the brain is its plasticity”10. The absence of this plastic nature of the brain will result to inability of the human brain (man) to learn or memorize something. Man’s response or adaptation to his world and its changing circumstances will be impossible.
The Serotonin pathways play important roles in mental health. So it is discovered that projections from the brainstem raphe nuclei innervate a wide variety of brain regions. Therefore, Serotonin is implicated in the etiology of depression and hallucinogenic agents such as LSD, and mescaline equally plays their role.
According to professor Giles Brindley of the Institute of psychiatry in London, “Electrodes are being planted in human brains for very different purposes”11. He explained that a wide range of wires could be planted in the back of the brain, which receives signal from the eyes. He also noted that photo-electric cell devices can be used to convert light waves into electrical impulses which has the feasibility of giving blind people the ability to recognize objects and possibly to read. Enumerating various researchers on the brain will not be complete without some theories on memory. This has been a fascinating thing about the human brain. How do we store information and then recall it in years later? Infact, how do we remember? According to Prof. Penfield, “memory is an area of the brain called interpretive cortex”12. From experiments made, he opined that man has the potential to recall any past experiences. He went on to say that any theory of memory must provide for the storage of a directional, sequential series of events complete with sound, vision and colour. However, this assertion has led to many theories about the memory though we shall not be delving into them now. From the researches made so far, it has also been discovered that the vital region of the brain called hippocampus, is responsible for short-term and long-term memory
It is quite evident that some big steps have been made in brain research but we are not going into details so as to focus on the scope of our study.
In many ways the ethical issues raised by such researches and experiments are similar to those that come from our acclaimed potential to control our own heredity. Just as the genetic content of our cells may be manipulated in the laboratory, in the same way, some specific information will (if not already experimented) be fed into human brains at birth.
Already we can exert enormous power over the mind by the use of drugs and even more by the use of electrodes. And one can attest to it that “never before has man held such power in his hands. And never before has there been such a temptation to misuse it”13.
1.3 How brave the new world
For Alexander Denis, by 1970, matters were coming to its zenith. The richer countries were becoming over-extended. Most of them were becoming over-populated, over industrialized and over-reliant upon cheap imported raw materials. Resources were either becoming less plentiful or were being deliberately withheld by the producing countries, all in the interest of long-term conservation.
The twentieth century has seen the most rapid technological development in human history. As such, people who were born before powered flight saw men walk on the moon. Within five decades, medicine has moved from leeches and cupping to organ transplant. Thus, if the main feature of a god were his power, it might seem that man was more like a god than ever before. “It is man who with his inclination to science and technology has travelled to the space. It is this same man who fits people with new hearts, keeps them alive in machines and even changes their minds or their sex. Mankind has even gone to the realm of trying to produce himself artificially (cloning). There is no doubt that man has benefited much from his own effort of research to gain the potential for healing the minds and bodies of the sick ones”14.
But amidst all this, Alexander believes that one of the outstanding characteristics of this present generation is a U-turn from science. It is no more a hidden fact that the prospect of technical innovation has now become almost a threat to humanity. In his book “chance and Necessity”, Jacques Monod spoke of the apparent frustration, which has brought about the rejection of science and a resultant shift to religion as the only moral approach.
The hope of our filling and ruling the earth is turning sour as it is realized, and the prospective future seems nightmarish. Another effect of the new human situation is that our environment, and the forces which shape our lives, become more and more man-made. Even our basic thoughts about our situation and ourselves are continuously geared towards anthropocentricism. Looking at those countries of the world where science and technology already developed, one notices a total feeling of disillusionment. What can we say is the cause?
The obvious reason is that the glorified science and technology with the peripheral standard of living has not curbed the evil that is rampant in our society. Alexander, in giving credence to the views of M. L. Smith, avows that “collectively we are much more like two-year-olds in a petrol store with a box of matches than we are like gods or even responsible adults”15. We really call it a new world. But how brave is the new world? One can admit the fact that the acutest social and technical problems facing mankind today come not from the so-called under-development’ but from ‘over-development’16. This is why the various applications of modern science will continue to constitute mayhem to peace and human life.
In the face of all these, some proponents of science would still hold it as being neutral. For them, man’s discoveries are neutral, what varies is their application, which involves moral choice. Such views maintained that “when a man discovered fire, he could either warm himself with it or go out to burn the surrounding villages with it. Iron when discovered, could either be used to make cooking-pots or be beaten into spears for killing people. At the same time, drugs may be used to heal the sick minds or to break it. Nuclear power as well may be used to warm a house or set a nation ablaze”17
However, if we should take it in another sense, one can prove it that science is never neutral. Scientific research is only empirical and cannot be said to be wholly rational or objective. Every human activity involves value judgment. Since science is a human activity, it should not be left out. In other words, decisions have to be made concerning projects that are worth undertaking and hypotheses must be evaluated as well.
The paradox of modern science is such that while it gives man a god-like power, it also appears to reduce man to a rather confusing animal in a confusing world. Is man just a mere Heideggerian Dasein who is thrown into existence? Can man be only a bundle of conditioned reflexes predetermined by his genes, chemistry and environment? But science as a god seemed to have reduced its (man) worshippers to nothing.
Obviously, the value of man surpasses whatever science and technology can offer. Therefore, mechanisms, which underlie the application of science, should not be completely upheld at the expense of meaning through which human life excels.
1 D. Alexander, Beyond Science, (Britain: Lion Pub., 1972) , p.11.
2 J. Ekennia, Bio-Medical Ethics, (Owerri: Barloz Publishers Inc., 2003), p.112.
3 Denis Alexander defined mutation as the mistakes which arise in the genes of the body.
4 D.Alexander, Op. Cit. p.18.
6 R.F. Biehler, Child Development: An Introduction, (New York: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1976), p.79.
7 J.Ellul, The Technological Society, (Britain: Random House Inc., 1971), p.208.
8 D.Alexander,Op. Cit., p.25.
9 Ibid. p.31.
10 M. Jeeves, From Cells to Souls- and Beyond,(U.K. :Ww.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co. 2004), p.26.
11 D.Alexander, Op. Cit. p.35.
12 Ibid. p.37.
13 Ibid. p.41.
15 Ibid. P.43.
16 S.H.Nasr, Man and nature, (London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd. 1968), p.13.