Importance of Bioethics in Science Education

- M. Selvanayagam, Ph.D. and Francis P. Xavier, S J.,Ph.D.
Loyola Institute of Frontier Energy,
Loyola College, Chennai-600034, India
Email: selvam@xlweb.com

Eubios Journal of Asian and International Bioethics 10 (2000), 48-51.
Despite the benefits and fascinations of science, it is a human tendency to focus on the disturbing consequences of science and technology. Our anxiety gets accentuated by such events such as the atomic bombings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. On another level, we sense a growing mechanical complication in today's life, without a balancing protection of human impulses. We have the uncomfortable feeling that impersonal forces are taking over us. This is to certain extent due to advancement in science. The pragmatic solution appears not to call a halt to scientific enterprise as suggested by some but to make that enterprise more thoughtful, responsible and self correcting. We have to search deeply for ways to detect and deflect unforeseen dangers before they can inflict any harm on society. Eventually bioethics in science education is the only way to provide alternative answers to the problems that the humankind faces today.

History of science development

The history of science education dates back to the Greek civilization. To the Greeks, science and philosophy were almost one because most philosophers tried to explain the nature of the physical world. They rejected the myths and superstitions about the nature of the physical world and attempted to give rational explanation to it and believed that all matter was composed of atoms and that the differences in arrangement of these atoms resulted in different forms of life .The most famous philosophers were Socrates, Plato and Aristotle.

Socrates believed that knowledge leads to right conduct and happiness, while ignorance breeds evil. He criticized the popular beliefs of the Athenians. After the defeat of Athens in the Peloponnesian war, he was condemned to die on the charge of "corrupting the youth and introducing new gods" and was forced to drink poison. Actually, he merely encouraged them to question everything. His courageous words at his trial have inspired martyrs for centuries. The Greeks in power at that time could not accept his ideas. Plato and Aristotle belonged to the same school of thought. In medicine Hippocrates laid the foundations of modern medicine by insisting that "every disease has a natural cause, and without natural causes, nothing ever happens". Doctors practiced dissection of humans bodies for the first time and obtained a great deal of knowledge about human anatomy.

The Chinese had a fair knowledge of human anatomy. They knew about a number of diseases and knew the symptoms of each. The relationship between health and diet was also known to them. The Egyptian practice of preserving the bodies of the dead by embalming was a stimulus and even mysterious to science. It added to the knowledge of the structure of the human body, and to the skill in surgery. The Romans did some pioneering work in surgery. Celsus wrote a treatise on surgery and Gallen compiled a medical encyclopaedia. The Indians gave rich information about symptoms and diseases through Atharva veda. The two great names in Indian medicine are Susruta and Charaka.

The Renaissance marked the beginning of modern science. According to the medieval European way of thinking, any view to be held true must be supported by the authority of the scriptures of the church or of ancient philosophers whose views had been accepted by the church. The renaissance thinkers rejected the blind acceptance of authority. They asserted that knowledge could be gained by going out and studying mentally and manually the book of Nature and not by speculation. This new outlook marked a break with the past and prepared the way for the advancement of science.

According to Francis Bacon, he who seeks knowledge should first look at things that happen in the world around him. He should then ask himself what causes these things to happen and after he has formed a theory or belief, as to the possible causes, he should conduct experiments. The experiment is to test his belief and see whether the assumed cause does, in fact, produce the result he has observed. One of the first achievements of the renaissance in science was an exposition by Copernicus regarding rotation of the earth on its axis and its motion around the sun. For over 1000 years, it was believed that the earth was the center of the Universe. Its refutation was an attack on the conception of the universe held by the Catholic Church. This was therefore condemned as a heresy. The proof of the new conception of the universe was made possible by the invention of the telescope by Galileo and he was tried by the church and his trial marked the end of a period in the history of science.

The modern age of science that began with these renaissance scientists not only increased man's knowledge but also established a method of study that could be applied to other branches of knowledge. Significant discoveries for example were made in the study of the human body and circulation of the blood. Serventes published a book explaining the circulation of blood. He was condemned to death for questioning the Church's belief in trinity. So the science education development began by questioning, observation and experimentation. Moral and ethical values stood as the fulcrum of the science education development.

Science and religion

Science and religion have a common origin of the process of civilization which distinguished man from apes. Science enabled man to practice and propagate religion and religion gave him the conditions, including cohesion, necessary for pursuit of science. In ancient civilizations scientific thought flourished hand in glove with religious activities. Discoveries were considered revelations and the scientific knowledge presented the greatness of God. In ancient India scientific enquiry was provoked by the sages themselves. Rishi Charaka made an exposition of the Ayurveda the science of causes, symptoms and cures of diseases. Aryabhata the Indian astronomer who propounded the revolutionary theory that the earth is round and rotates about its axis, mused that his knowledge owed itself to the grace of god.

The Greeks about 2000 years ago are credited with initiation of systematic investigations and application of Aristotelian logic in their endeavor to understand the universe. These methods gained momentum throughout the middle ages, but reason played subservient to the orthodox religion. Whatever scientific knowledge was gained by man during this period was interpreted in the praise of God. Thus, when in1543,Versalius,a Belgian physician published a book on human anatomy based on dissections and personal observations, he was driven to wonder at the "handiwork of the almighty''. In 15th and 16th century scientists totally denied the existence of sex in plants since even a mention of it was considered inappropriate and obscene.

It was under such circumstances prevailing during the early 16th century that Copernicus earned the wrath of society by stating that the earth is not the center around which the sun, planets and the stars revolve. This was a serious challenge to cosmological teachings of the medieval church. Religious bigots were further enraged when the double motion of earth was put forth as explanation for the diurnal and annual changes which were till then considered handiwork of the heavens. A few years later Galileo discovered that the planet Jupiter had satellites revolving around it and argued that the sun, and not the earth, was the center of the solar system. The scientific establishment and the Roman Catholic Church both promptly denounced these findings as "false and opposed to the Holy scriptures".

Far from slowing down the march of science, the religious fundamentalism of medieval Europe seems to have provided the right setting for the growth of modern science. Hereafter the divergence between religion and science became sharp and the conflict gradually snowballed into a two sided warfare. When Newton propounded his laws of gravitation, Leibnitz described them as "subversive of natural and inferentially of revealed religion". Newton held that the majestic works of nature not only attested to his existence but also spoke of his glory. However, he rejected the possibility of control of day to day events by god.

Charles Darwin meticulously assembled the evidence for evolution and described the principles of natural selection in his origin of species. The evolutionary theory revealed the earth in terms of enormous antiquity and gradual, continuous change in which existing plants and animals, including man, have slowly evolved from previously living forms. This directly contradicted the orthodox who believed that the earth was only 6000 years old. The theory of genesis says that all basic types of living things, including man, were created by God during a creation week. So careful was Darwin in publishing his book that he could not desist from referring to the creator in order to please angry clergy.

The onset of two world wars hastened the speed of scientific progress. After the 2nd world war there has not only been a build up of war arsenals and nuclear stockpiles, but the technological innovations have changed the style and substance of life. Warren weaver puts it, science and technology ensure that "we are warmed and cooled, clothed and fed, protected, cured, transported and entertained". However, it is equally apparent that the religious fervor is far from declining. Formal religion is becoming more and more popular, as indicated by increasing attendance in churches, mosques and temples. Even religious fanatism raises its ugly head again and again, but not against science any more. Is the conflict resolved then?

The relationship of science and religion today is like that of a divorced couple. They hardly interact or pose any threat to each other's existence, yet in some ways they thrive on each other's weaknesses and assets. Now a man can be devout Christian and an evolutionist at the same time. Millions belonging to all religions, successfully juxtapose independent scientific and spiritual viewpoints. Some even regard science as a purgatory of religion, constantly weeding out that which is wrong.

Ironically, in USA there still exists a church lobby which seeks legal intervention to exclude study of evolution in American schools. Having lost at the trial in 1925 the fundamentalists forced several publishers to omit evolution from the school texts. A few months before the 100th anniversary of Darwin in 1982 the fundamentalists took up the controversy again, this time at Arkansas demanding equal treatment to the evolutionist and creationist view point. However the federal judge ruled it unconstitutional as it would force biology teachers to journey into religion in science class room. Today, new techniques follow each other in rapid succession and have left the mind of man baffled and stupefied. There is hardly any sphere of human activity that has not felt it's impact, the destructive and negative impact often outweighing the positive. The inability to grasp the long term implications of this phenomenon to the human species, and to life as a whole, is at the root of many problems confronting humankind today. This is a challenge that calls for a fundamental reorientation of the entire educational system.

Education revision on the impact of technology

Technology has been the willing handmaid both during periods of progress and of decline. With technology literally exploding in our faces, today the implications of this contradiction to the future of the human race become all too evident. The challenge before us is to ensure an uninterrupted progression in the functioning of political, economic and social systems, in the maintenance of peace, the protection of human rights and cultural pursuits, in each of which technology must play a progressive never regressive role. It is towards this end that the restructuring of education became imperative, in order to keep pace with the impact of technology. The significance of such a restructuring of education lies in the preparation and development of the mind to understand the ultimate purpose of technology. It is fundamental to bring a change from" the present inverted pyramid state of society, in which technology hovers on an unstable base in the air as it were, to a balanced society of the future, where technology will stand on a firmly grounded base with human rights occupying its stable summit. The role of the educators at all levels is to help formulate a unifying value system where technology is directed towards the improvement of life and the preservation of the bio environment.

People at all levels must be taught the rudimentary skills needed for living in the complex world of today. Hence a case can be made for the inclusion of functional technology literacy in both formal and non formal education. The next logical step in the process of education is methodology learning by doing has long been recognised as the most effective method of teaching. It stimulates student's interest and is a challenge to the ingenuity of the teacher. But traditional methods still find favour for both teaching and examination purposes. The widespread resort to the problem solving, activity method, progressing from environmental studies at elementary level to research work at tertiary level, is the most effective way of understanding the impact of technology and countering its adverse effects .Curriculum planning at the primary, secondary and tertiary level should have a compulsory provision for the inclusion of suitable projects for the implementation by students, with the emphasis being placed on the integrated multidisciplinary approach to learning and teaching. Money spent on such projects will be cost effective and productive with immediate benefits to the community. Involvement in such projects will help produce research scientists and administrators capable of making a positive contribution to the preservation of the bio-environment.

The aim of education must be the development of the concept of the 'bio-environmental citizen' who will be able to fully exercise his environmental right, and be ready to take any necessary steps against the harmful and destructive endeavors destroying the bio environment .It is also clear that environmental problems can only be solved through the process of participatory democracy. Therefore, bioethics in science education means education about, for and within democracy, based on full participation of the people within social, political and cultural affairs at all levels of government, concerning them as citizens. In tackling environmental problems and in increasing public awareness is not only a task for educational institutions, but also a function of local governments as well as civic and voluntary, non-governmental organizations. Within the same context, another point is the role of the mass media in educating people about environmental issues.

1. What we may expect from bioethics in science education?

2. Creating and feeding affection for the bio environment.

3. Tackling the ways and means of using and living within the natural environment's

4. Promoting public consciousness to stop social and economic activities from demolishing the balance of the biosphere.

Contrary to expectations, automation, computerisation, the information revolution and the tremendous potential of technology have affected the quality of life. No attempt has been made to understand their ethical implications. The importance of basic education on a new unifying value system is seen clearly in the potential for both good and evil of genetic engineering. If the use of the new technology is not based on moral principles, then the consequences will be disastrous to humanity and to life on the planet. It is the responsibility of all concerned to lay down the correct guidelines based on universally recognised norms of moral conduct.

So the role of the educators at all levels is to help and to formulate a unifying value system where technology is directed towards the improvement of life and the preservation of the bio environment.

Challenges to bioethics

There are challenges in today's world of consumerism and globalization to bioethical thinking and living. Under the concept of globalization the world market brings in the consumeristic spirit which in turn brings the international market - The attractive advertisements and the artificial creation of craving for new products brings one to the conviction that he/she should buy the new products on the market. This affects the economy in the developing countries and enriches further the industrialized countries. Further, there are a few more things that are brought in under the concept of modern and healthy life. For example, assisted suicide, euthanasia, transplant especially from animal tissues, cloning etc. Though science has advanced so much to venture into the realm of such advanced vistas of science, the bioethical thinking would be, whether it is necessary for the good of the people.

In the area of assisted suicide and euthanasia, we have to ask ourselves how much we respect the worth of the fellow human beings. Just because one is not productive and useful anymore to the Society, does it mean we can "dispose" of them just like getting rid of old racks at home? Of course, the other side of the problem is that one has the right to death with dignity especially when one is suffering from coma beyond any hope of recovery or Alzheimer disease. Recently, from the case of Dr Kervorkian in the USA, it has been brought to the notice of people that assisted suicide is nothing but murder and euthanasia is anyway not acceptable to any religious minded people - It is the summit of 'use and throw' culture of the consumeristic society. When we discuss organ transplant it is not that easy to draw a line. On the one hand it is necessary to help out our suffering fellow human being through 'sharing' of our vital organ such as eye, kidney, etc. Here the deciding factor is the sharing of the organ should not affect the well being of the donor - For example, at death one could pre-arrange for eye and kidney transplant or kidney donation when enjoying good health. However, the recent attempt to make use of animal organs or animal tissues in such occasion might be seen as bringing down the human dignity and it might also lead to subversive and even abhoring scientific activities in the name of scientific advancement - However, if this process could save someone's life or making his/her life more meaningful by giving another span of active life, perhaps we could do it as and when necessary. The most recent one is cloning - Here we, as scientists, seem to play God. Here the question is not whether we are capable of cloning but the question is whether it is necessary. We have to draw lesson from the film Jurrasic Park where we could imagine the destructive outcome of our own invention.

From the point of view of many religions and cultures, the question arises that we should not play God. In practical and day today language, one could say: Well when the time comes for you to become one with nature (that is, death) through sickness or accident, then it is meaningful to go as it has been 'destined'. But at the same time, it can be said that God wants us to lead a full life and we should work for the fullness of life, namely, joy and happiness. So why don't I resort to any means and way that could not only prolong the span of my life but also to make it more useful to me and to others and more holistic. Here we need the criteria for such scientific practices such as mentioned above.

The first principle is: I have a legitimate right to lead a full and meaningful life. Hence I can make use of the resources available in nature. However, I should not affect the wellbeing of my fellow human beings as well as the environment since as human being I am the steward and guardian of the environment. We might 'exploit' the nature, though not destructively, for our own well being provided the environment remains sustainable. Hence the criteria in a nutshell is: keeping in mind and respecting the good of our fellow human beings as well as the sustainability of the environment we could make our scientific progress and make use of natural resources for our own well being. This balanced approach is not basically opposed to religious as well as cultural heritage anywhere in the world.

Bioethics in our curriculum

In order to achieve the above mentioned criteria in our day today life, it is very much essential and important to incorporate bioethics in our curriculum. This can be achieved under three stages, namely, conscientization, evolution of principle and value system, and finally personal conviction to follow up and practice the principles based on the environmental value system.

In the first stage the students should be exposed to the deteriorated environmental conditions which are the results of various 'developmental' activities. For example, taking the students to field trips to polluted aquatic systems, degraded forest areas, human sufferings and miseries due to poverty and environmental pollution. After such field trips and exposure, students are made to think about the impacts of what they have seen and observed on the holistic life of fellow human beings. At this stage values, based on religions and local cultures, are discussed which are for the well being of all fellow human beings as well as the environment such as respect for the nature and for the human rights of all around oneself. Here we could help out the students to bring about a set of values that each one is convinced of. This would be effective in individual life. In the next stage, the teacher could follow up the students how much this value system has affected them by having follow-up or refresher programmes in the educational institutions. Thus the teacher plays a pivotal role in not only making the students aware of each one's responsibility, but also to practice the value system in each one's life. This would bring about the desired fruit over the years. And the teacher is thus the vital person in bringing about a new society in today's ever changing world. Thus the teacher acts as the yeast in bringing about the spirit of service and mutual cooperation for the human society and the universe at large.


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