Wednesday, March 19, 2008

The Future of DNA

Genetic engineering is increasingly becoming part of our daily lives.
For instance, the food processing industry depends on it to a large
extent and many modern diagnostic tests in medicine are based on methods
derived from DNA technology. Along with these advances, the public is
becoming more aware of the enormous potential of the technology, as well
as the ethical and social issues related to it. Thus, scientific views
about DNA and genes challenge our fundamental concepts about life,
nature, society and humanity.

The public debate about genetic engineering is based on a paradigm that
seems to be widely accepted by scientists, as well as by laymen. It is
the paradigm of reductionist biology, which postulates that all
attributes and characters of life in its substance and form are
ultimately determined by genes. Other factors like the natural and the
social environment are recognised as being only of secondary importance.

There are however other possible approaches to an understanding of life.
Some of them stress the contextual and relational qualities of organisms
and consider them to be the basic cause rather than the consequence of
molecular interactions at the genetic, i.e. the DNA, level. They
acknowledge that every living being is endowed with its own dynamics,
sustained by the interaction of both environment and genes. But
approaches to understanding life that encompass genetic determinism are
also conceivable. Indeed, molecular biological discoveries themselves
prompt us to search for such approaches.

Such a search would be of value not only to philosophers of science or
epistemologists, but also to all those concerned with biological science
and its application. From the outset, our concepts and ideas shape our
perceptions of the world and determine our actions. Thus, ethical or
moral values necessarily reflect our scientific outlook on the world.

Some initial questions related to the scientific and social aspects of
genetic engineering can be identified: Where does the power of this
technology originate from? What characters and properties of living
beings does it unravel? Where and how does it come up against

A second group of issues relates to the presuppositions of DNA thinking.
The success of molecular biology often hides the fact that its
scientific and philosophical foundation is open to being questioned and
reflected upon like any approach to understanding life. Obviously, such
reflections are more fundamental than socio-economic interests and
concerns, which are anyway to do with applications of the technology.
Indeed they transcend an ethical debate which is restricted to risk-
benefit assessment, be it in ecology, public health or social rights.

At this conference the fundamental issues will be tackled in several
different ways. On the first day, the discussion will focus on
scientific and social aspects. The introductory lectures will shed light
on benefits, challenges and dangers of DNA thinking. What will our world
and society look like if they are shaped by concepts of molecular
genetics? What qualities of science and society will be deepened and
enlarged by gene thinking? Which qualities would be lost and how can
they ultimately be salvaged, reintroduced or formed anew?

The second day will cover molecular genetics in biology. The rate of
discovery of new genes and their functional properties and interactions
is breathtaking. Our insight into molecular function is highly advanced
and will develop in still greater depth. However, when molecular biology
moves from a descriptive to an explanatory science, obstacles are
encountered. Molecular function does not readily explain pattern
formation during development or processes of consciousness etc. The fate
of a transgenic organism in the environment cannot be deduced from the
results of DNA manipulation or calculated in advance. Thus, the theories
based on the molecular approach fail to explain life-processes. Are
there essential aspects missing?

The third day is dedicated to DNA and the human being. Faced with the
serious issues about the social impacts of the new technology, public,
scientific and medical awareness is severely challenged. Diagnosis and
therapy open a whole field of new questions which require us to rethink
and reformulate concepts such as human individuality, health and

Participants in the evening round-table discussions will share their
attitudes towards genetic engineering and aspects of their personal
biographies that led them to take their particular position. The
intention is to show that besides the ability to grasp certain
'objective' facts about this technology, the contextual environment,
i.e. the 'personal subjective approach' is of equal importance for
judgement formation.

The aim of the conference is to mobilize people - both scientists and
non-scientists - who would like to raise the dialogue above mere utility
and economic needs. The challenge is to create a pluralistic exchange of
concepts, hypotheses and images about what it is to be human and the
nature of the world. The discussion will focus on the presuppositions,
as well as the consequences and perspectives of knowledge. We hope that
through this interaction, consciousness will be raised and a broader
foundation will be provided for individual ethical judgement forming.

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