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Astrophysics: 'I've been a cheerleader but not a player'

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Genetic engineering and the responsibility of scientists
Freeman Dyson Scientist
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The problem with biochemical ethics, if you like to call it that, or medical ethics, is that it's the knowledge which is the problem, and not any specific application like cloning. People fuss a lot about cloning since we now know how to produce a cloned sheep. Cloning isn't the problem, it's the knowledge that enables you to do it that's the problem. Because if you take the case of fertility clinics, that very few people will actually want to make clones of themselves. That is something which is a possible option for parents who can't have babies, but it's not likely that a lot of us will want to do it. On the other hand, if you take the possibilities that genetic engineering opens for changing the genes in detail, which is what's going to be possible in the next decades, then every parent, whether you're fertile or infertile, will have the option of ordering a baby according to their tastes, and it's hard to see how that's going to be resisted. Parents are willing to spend a $100,000 to send their child to an expensive college; why not spend, say, $10,000 for some superior genes which have the same effect, or enable the child to make much more efficient use of the college education. That's the problems we're going to be up against. So it's genetic engineering in the large which is the problem and not any particular application of it. We'll know what the applications are when the time comes. So I'm in favour of being worried about this, keeping a watchful eye, but I don't think we can legislate anything for it yet. There's the interesting parallel with what happened in 1973, I think it was, when the biologists discovered recombinant DNA technology. That was a momentous event. It was an absolutely new and very powerful technology which suddenly and unexpectedly arrived; it was comparable to the discovery of fission for the physicists, and the biologists responded magnificently to that. There was essentially one person who actually caused this to happen, and that was Maxine Singer who is a great hero, I think. She ought to be celebrated much more than she is: she's a great human being apart from being a great scientist. So she seized the opportunity after recombinant DNA appeared to call an international meeting of biologists simply to decide what to do, and in the meantime all experiments stopped. So for 10 months, I think, the entire biological community all over the world stopped doing experiments with this method and then they got together and decided what should be allowed and what should be forbidden, and that actually has worked. I mean they, they had the meeting in California, at Asilomar, it was an international meeting, they came together, they agreed on a set of guidelines that certain types of experiments should be forbidden; certain other types should be very rigidly controlled and only done under highly contained conditions; and others should be free. And these guidelines have been followed ever since, I think quite meticulously. That's what the physicists ought to have done in 1939 when fission was discovered and the physicists absolutely missed this opportunity, which is very sad because I think it could have... it could have happened in 1939 in the same way, if the physicists had had social consciences equal to the biologists. However, that's by the way. Anyhow, so when something like that happens again, as it will; when some new breakthrough happens in genetic engineering, I hope that we'll do the same thing again, that we'll simply get together and decide what should be permitted. But until the breakthrough happens it's not much point in trying to decide in advance what you'll do.

Born in England in 1923, Freeman Dyson moved to Cornell University after graduating from Cambridge University with a BA in Mathematics. He subsequently became a professor and worked on nuclear reactors, solid state physics, ferromagnetism, astrophysics and biology. He has published several books and, among other honours, has been awarded the Heineman Prize and the Royal Society's Hughes Medal.

Listeners: Sam Schweber

Silvan Sam Schweber is the Koret Professor of the History of Ideas and Professor of Physics at Brandeis University, and a Faculty Associate in the Department of the History of Science at Harvard University. He is the author of a history of the development of quantum electro mechanics, "QED and the men who made it", and has recently completed a biography of Hans Bethe and the history of nuclear weapons development, "In the Shadow of the Bomb: Oppenheimer, Bethe, and the Moral Responsibility of the Scientist" (Princeton University Press, 2000).

Tags: cloning, 1973, Asilomar 1975, 1939, Dolly the Sheep, Maxine Singer

Duration: 4 minutes, 12 seconds

Date story recorded: June 1998

Date story went live: 24 January 2008