“If scientists don’t play God, who else is going to?” Nobel Prize winner James Watson once said. While some consider this statement arrogant, others see it as simply pointing out the challenges faced by scientists. As a future neuroscientist myself, I can tell you why I don’t think we should be playing God.
Two hundred years ago Mary Shelly’s novel The Modern Prometheus was published. In it she described a scientist by the name of Victor Frankenstein who created life in an unorthodox manner, an act some scientists today look up to as a challenge to mimic in their own ways.
While Frankenstein was meant as a mere tale, the idea of scientists controlling life as we know it spread. In fact, what appear to be scientific breakthroughs almost always beg existential questions, for many are Frankenstein-ish in nature.
Start with the birth of two cloned monkeys only a couple of weeks ago. Using the same techniques that once gave life to Dolly the cloned sheep in 1996, scientists have now succeeded in cloning a primate — one of our closest relatives. The researchers alluded to a future 'cloning industry’. Does this step bring us closer to the cloning of humans? And how does cloning impact our perceptions of our own identities?
To give another example, scientists are now growing ‘mini-brains’ using stem-cell technology to model diseases like depression and Parkinson’s disease. Today’s technology allows neuroscientists to grow a brain comparable to that of a five-week old fetus. Will they soon be able to grow a more complex ‘brain in a dish'? And if so, will it have consciousness, thoughts or human-like feelings, such as pain, joy and sadness?
These may sound to some like sci-fi fears, but what is not a problem today does not translate into ‘not a problem tomorrow’. And if we don't ask those questions, who else is going to?
Scientific discoveries have always been important in diagnosing and treating diseases. But this shouldn't stop us from asking questions; nor should it stop us from drawing red lines where necessary. We ought to be able to shed light on scientific practices that could interfere with fundamental questions of human nature. In addition to raising questions, we need to raise awareness in the scientific community and involve not only bioethicists and policymakers, but also scientists themselves as well as the public in investigating these controversial issues. If we don’t act now, the ethics may not be able to keep up.
Why not play God? The real question is: how can we get ourselves to stop playing God?
Katherine C. Bassil, second-year Research Master’s student in Cognitive and Clinical Neurosciences