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Iceland, Blood and Science

Paul Billings

In the annals of science's interactions with society, the 1990s may well be recalled as the decade when tools to manipulate human biology and the environment grew powerful enough that society was forced to confront its ability to alter long-established human systems. This capability is hardly new: From the splitting of the atom to the Industrial Revolution or major transitions in agricultural techniques, science has changed lives and societies over the millennia. But new genetic technologies touch us where (as well as how) we live; they interact in novel ways with our lives, our cultures and our identities. The policies and norms that have grown up on the science-society interface do not address many of the new challenges.

A fundamental consideration as society adapts to these developments is the role that science, and scientific ways of thinking, should play in social decision making. Is scientific rationalism a proper basis for social and political actions? Or do other systems of experience still outweigh scientifically established methods and facts? Should, for instance, society still strive to treat people equally in terms of basic rights and entitlements, despite ever-increasing amounts and varieties of biological data proving that we differ? Given the social and moral content of such questions, it may be paradoxical but true that scientific activity will flourish best in an environment of well-conceived restraints and limits on its conduct and power. These constraints may and should vary across cultures.

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