Challenging Nature

Among books by skeptically minded scientists, here’s another one that is worth attention: Challenging Nature: The Clash of Science and Spirituality at the New Frontiers of Life by Lee M. Silver, a molecular biologist.

Challenging Nature starts out with a defense of scientific materialism. It’s not hugely in depth, but it’s a nice survey. I was particularly interested in seeing how he presented a point of view much influenced by molecular biology: how routinely dealing with life as a physical, manipulable process leads to skepticism about spiritual claims. Yet just as interesting, perhaps, is how Silver’s views differ very little from mine, when my take on alleged supernatural realities is primarily driven by my background as a physicist. At some level, the natural sciences are really very similar in culture and outlook.

Arguments against spiritual beings, however, set the stage for Silver’s main concern: biotechnology and moral debates concerning biotechnology. I learned a lot by reading Challenging Nature; certainly the prospects for biotechnology these days are very fascinating, way beyond the “cures for horrible diseases” or “genetically engineered monsters” images that tend to dominate public debate. Moreover, I like the way Silver tries to bring a relentlessly secular, naturalistic perspective to bear on some moral questions that have been attracting a good deal of attention.

Still, I also find myself ambivalent about some aspects of Silver’s argument. The way he ends up portraying the present moral debate seems to be a bit of a caricature. Anybody with qualms about biotechnology in the full-speed-ahead mode, Silver seems to think, is in the grips of some explicit or unarticulated spiritual superstition. There is the traditional religious view, which suspects biotechnologists of usurping the role of God, but there is also a New-Agey, more Mother Earth-worshiping way of conceiving of life as a sacred domain that must not be violated. Both, apparently, stand in the way of progress. So you get spiritually-inspired opposition not just to cloning and stem cell research but also genetically modified foods. Crazy ideas about ensoulment of embryos and also silly beliefs about organic foods and alternative medicines.

Now, all that is correct. Silver is right to go after all the various superstitions blocking the possibilities for making good use of biotechnology. But what is disturbing to me is that in a book about morality and public policy, there is practically no mention of the political aspect of the debates. People suspect interference with human genetics not just because they believe in souls created by God, but also, in part, because they worry about who has the power to manipulate the genome and whether new technologies can lead to an even more stratified society consisting of genetic elites and more deprived segments. Many environmentalists are suspicious of genetically modified foods not just because they divinize “Nature” but also because they distrust an industrialized agricultural system that does not seem to operate under any institutional constraint beyond maximizing short-term profits.

All of these political, secular reasons to raise questions about the particular directions we might take with biotechnology are completely missing from Challenging Nature. I worry that inadvertently, Silver presents an image of elite scientists (indeed, insufferably elitist scientists) who know best and are held back by what they consider the petty superstitions of the masses. Let them loose to do their thing, regardless of the political and economical context in which their funding materializes and decisions about how to apply their knowledge gets made. And that’s a scary thought, made more so because Silver writes as if he can’t even conceive of such issues being relevant at all. This is a peculiar blindness for someone trying to influence a debate concerning social morality. I worry that for all the good points Silver makes, he will also end up shooting himself in the foot by reinforcing the stereotype of a scientist who is oblivious to much that goes on beyond his research lab.

So as an effort to clear the ground for a deep, sophisticated secular exploration of the moral issues surrounding biotechnology, Challenging Nature is a wonderful book that should be read by anyone interested in such issues. But it only clears the ground—for a sophisticated, socially aware exploration of secular moral options, readers will have to look elsewhere.