Excerpt from “The Body Politic: The Battle Over Science in America”
No particular group, right or left or somewhere else, is immune from the sense that change is accelerating at an ever faster pace with each passing year. The experience of too-rapid change, whether trivial or profound, is a characteristic of modernity. Information technologies are perhaps the sentinel sources and examples of what Alvin Toffler called “future shock” in 1970, right around the time that a young Bill Gates programmed a GE computer his school purchased using proceeds from a rummage sale. Information scientists cite Moore’s law, the idea that computing capacity doubles every two years.
We’ve all experienced the anxiety, frustration, and even resentment that accompanies the introduction of a new version of a software product on which we depend, or the realization that people younger than ourselves have adopted a new technology that makes the pace and style of their lives seem very different from our own.
Reservations about rapid technological change are widely shared regardless of political party or philosophy. In America the tension between approval of science and worry about the rapid changes it can bring bubbles up in special ways when moral or cultural choices seem to be involved. We’ve seen this tension play out time and again in our seemingly endless controversies about the teaching of evolution, reproductive rights, the moral status of the human embryo, the origins of the universe, and nearly all the issues of science that relate to human values.
Sensitivities about science are understandable. People rightly feel that high stakes are involved when science pushes familiar boundaries, and most of all when it seems that our customary and largely workable moral framework is being challenged. Americans seem especially touchy about such challenges. Ours is in many ways a deeply conservative country where the vast majority (generally around ninety percent) consistently report that they believe in God. The prominence of faith among Americans becomes even more striking when compared with modern western Europe, the historic source of America’s core Enlightenment values of rationality and science. There, the proportion of believers is around fifty percent. Americans admire science but also treasure traditional values, which are in some ways threatened more by science than any other institution; our attitudes tend to assemble at the extremes. In this sense, America is both the principal product and the main stage for the ongoing drama of the Enlightenment. Here are these universal values of truth, freedom, and equality founded on reason rather than the authority of a church or sovereign rulers. But is reason enough, or does it threaten those very values?
The ever-quickening pace of discovery in biology is an especially volatile source of “wedge” issues in our politics because it puts into question our familiar values about life itself. These questions are particularly clear when human dignity seems to be threatened, as critics … Next Page »