Biophysics, Biology and bioethics: A Fusion of Horizons

- Jayapaul Azariah, Ph.D.

Professor of Zoology, University of Madras, Guindy Campus, Madras 600 025, India.

Eubios Journal of Asian and International Bioethics 5 (1995), 121-123.

The root word that is common among the disciplines biophysics, biology and bioethics is the Greek word BIOS which means LIFE. In this article an attempt has been made to consider the relevance of these three disciplines to life, human and non-human life in this biosphere. Our earth is the only sphere in this universe where there is life. Hence our one earth home has been called the biosphere, since it has in built mechanisms which can sustain life. Its positive and negative feedback systems can make corrections in the working of the ecosystems and carry out self purification when it is contaminated with pollutants. In this context, the astrophysicist James Lovelock proposed the famous GAIA theory which considers the earth as a living organism.

I want to look at how these three disciplines view life. Biophysics is the physics of life; the application of the universality of the laws of physics to the phenomenon of life. Biology is science of life. Bioethics is the rights and wrongs in living life. Biology by itself is not competent to adjudicate on matters which are philosophical and ethical, such as the status of the human fetus and the use of genetic screening or engineering. Although biology sprang up into existence earlier than the other two, Aristotle showed an interest in both biology and bioethics (Macer, 1990). However, there was no discipline called biology until the nineteenth century. Biophysics came into existence during the middle of twentieth century with the growth of secondary subjects of biology like genetics together with the advancement of knowledge of the chemistry of biomolecules. Bioethics is a newly born discipline of the mid-twentieth century which is in its very early stages of development. Bioethics can be defined as the systematic study of human conduct in the area of the life sciences and health care, in so far as this conduct is examined in the light of moral values and principles (Macer, 1990) or more simply "love of life" (Macer, 1994).

What is Science?

Science is man made in the sense that human beings are endowed with the ability to relate with the reality around them. Such a search to relate to reality has led to the modern science of the twentieth and the twenty-first century. People may say that science is "what is accepted by the scientific community" or "what scientists do!". However, in a historic lawsuit relating to the 'Balanced Treatment of Creation-Science and Evolution-Science Act (Act 590 of 1981, USA)' Judge William R. Overton summarized the following five essential characteristics of science:
1. It is guided by natural law.
2. It has to be explanatory by reference to natural law.
3. It is testable against the empirical world.
4. Its conclusions are tentative, that is, are not necessarily the final word.
5. It is falsifiable (Hickman et al 1984).

Because scientific results are falsifiable, scientists have to repeat experiments (Muller-Hill, 1993).

Difficult questions for science to answer

Let us think of five questions that are difficult to answer: What is life? What is an animal? What is human being? What is death? and What is Truth? Let us take the question of what is life? In 1937, N. W. Pirie made the bold statement on the meaninglessness of the terms life and living. Bernal (1967), being a biophysicist, followed this lead and wrote "our essential failure is not so much in being unable to answer as in not seeing that there is anything to answer. As a result, he defined life as follows: "Life is a partial, continuous, progressive, multiform and conditionally interactive, self-realization of the potentialities of atomic electron states". He added that life does not die or more accurately, life on earth has not died.

There are two generalizations in these statements: (i) Life has no meaning and (ii) conditionally interactive life is at the atomic electron states. The view of the biophysicist is that of a materialist. At the atomic state the human being loses his or her individuality and identity. For instance when we say, Chicken is the egg's way of producing another egg, then the chicken looses its identity. Similarly, human beings are DNA's way of producing more DNA, then there is no meaning in life and living. This is because the body is only the container of the atomic electron states of DNA which is more important then the individual. If such is the world view of biophysicists, they only believe that human values can directly arise out of molecules and subatomic structures and they have little importance.

On the other hand biologists have a different definition and view of life. Though no one can easily define it, Cowden,(1990) stated "Life on earth is a fact, yet we do not know where and how it began. Further, life on earth is also not a general feature of our universe. Life is unique to our planet earth and that too, to the surface of the earth. We do know that some possibilities are more likely than others. First of all there is no evidence of life anywhere in the universe except in our planet. Therefore, there is no reason to suggest that life was planted here by aliens from outer space. Such suggestions are science fictions, not science". The generalization is that we do not yet know what is life? More recently Hickman et al (1984), stated in clear terms "The question, 'What is life? ' is one that many biologists have considered almost unanswerable". Although we know the elemental physical and chemical nature of living organisms, we can only explain life in terms of its attributes that we know. The present scientific notion about life has been very aptly summarized by the famous evolutionist, Mayr (1982), "Attempts have been made again and again to define 'life'. These endeavours are rather futile since it is now quite clear that there is no special substance, object, or force that can be identified with life. The process of living, however, can be defined. There is no doubt that living organisms possess certain attributes that are not or nor in the same manner found in inanimate objects".

These generalizations again substantiate the view that life is meaningless. Secondly, it is useful to distinguish two phrases used in biological science: (1) evolutionary biology and (2) biological evolution. In the former we relate the knowledge of our biology with the process of evolution. For example, recently the classification of protozoa was modified. The Society of Protozoologists published a new classification of Protozoa in 1980, recognizing seven separate phyla (Hickman et al 1984). In incorporating this classification in a text book, it is stated that "We will adopt the new classification because it comes closer to reflecting real evolutionary relationships than the older simpler systems". In the case of biological evolution, life is the process and the mechanism of evolution. This type of viewing biology and life itself is totally western in it nature. Some claim that such a view of life has led to reduced quality of human life.

Human life is conditioned by mental images that are transmitted through our educational curricula. The main message of evolutionary biology is "Struggle for life, Life is a struggle, the fittest survives the struggle in the great and complex battle of life " (Mayr, 1982). Other sociobiologists have thought that the main metaphor is that of the "gladiatorial theory of existence" where the swiftest and the cunningest live to fight another day" (Hamburgh, 1980). There are different shades of evolutionary thoughts such as Darwinian, Spenserian, New Darwinian and the sociobiologist, with different evolutionary bases (See Azariah 1994). What is surprising is that there is no room to think of the other possibility that human being can be loving and be caring for the fellow human beings. For Dawkins (1976) has very firmly stated "much as we might wish to believe otherwise, universal love and the welfare of the species as a whole are concepts which simply do not make evolutionary sense." The essence of modern life in the evolutionary biology is the impulse to fight and violence are problems everywhere.


Bioethics deals with a development of a structured thought process that provides a systematic framework of thought and analysis that deals with questions of right and wrong and the nature of good and proper life and with the process of decision making in gray areas of life. Ethics deals with our motives and the consequences and decides the rightness of actions. If the end can be achieved by force then force is a right means. Another issue is the world view of the people is shifting from a spiritual base to a materialistic base. Once a set of people become materialistic then the traditional values and the norms disappear and there is no difference between the educated scientists and the common man. Furthermore, the ethical base of the scientists is also shifting (Muller-Hill 1993): "There is no longer any difference between a normal scientist and the normal person in a different career" and "money and fame seem to bewitch scientists". As a result, numerous publications have revealed that a corrupt trend has crept into the minds of scientists who may consider it essential not to corrupt their data with false and forged and manufactured data.

Science is actually becoming a religion. Prometheus John Tooze, Secretary of the Human Genome Organization, remarked "We are writing the bible of secular humanism" and Muller-Hill remarked "This is dangerous nonsense indeed. It essentially proposes that DNA sequences, that is structural data, will replace the norms of the Bible." He comments that he has wasted his time in defending and advocating the human genome project. Then he lays down his own outlook on life. "I do not know how many of you here and how many scientists elsewhere believe in this new bible written by scientists in four letters (A.G.C. and T.). I hope that there are not too many. But I know pretty well that very few scientists read the Old Testament and the Mosaic Law. Therefore, the question has to be raised as to what can be said to them. I know that to say 'read the Old Testament' or 'respect the Commandments' will result in laughter." He concluded " Listen carefully to your conscience!"

The essence of a true religion and the true spirit of science may give us a common hope and such an outcome may give us a "Cosmic biological bioethics" or "Cosmic bioethical biology" (CBB) for a better society. Such an approach should identify the existence of organic laws in biology i.e. in the basic make up of living organisms that are inherent/inborn in them. These laws could be otherwise called the fundamental laws or basic laws of biology.

What should be our base to decide on such ethical questions: Philosophy? Science? Religion? OR Biophysics, Biology or Bioethics? The tragedy of Prof. Muller-Hill's analysis is that his conclusion was his "very last line of defense" and all other breaks have gone. Most scientists no longer respect religion nor traditional values arising out of religious beliefs or in the existence of God. It is no secret that most, if not all western scientists do not believe in a personal God. But there was a welcome change in the view of scientists like James Lovelock, the proponent of the famous GAIA hypothesis who said, "For me Gaia is a religious as well as a scientific concept and in both spheres it is manageable. Theology is also a science, but if it is to operate by the same rules as the rest of science, there is no place for creeds or dogma. By this I mean theology should not state that God exists and then proceed to investigate his nature and interaction with the universe and the living organisms...". There are also other scientists who believe in a personal God and are religious. In fact, the originators of modern science were seeking to understand God's creation.


Therefore, it is time to cleanse the subatomic biophysicists view of human body and life. After a careful study of the western civilization and culture including the American culture, Prof. E. Mayr (1988), a world renowned evolutionist made a passionate plea for the revival of moral education in schools. He concluded "We have just passed through a period in which exaggerated importance was placed on the so called freedom of the child, allowing him to develop his own goodness. We have made fun of the moralizing in children's books and have tended to remove all traces of moral education from the schools. This causes few problems when parents perform their roles properly. But it may spell disaster when parents fail to do their job. In view of our better understanding of the origin of morality of the individual, would it not seem time again to place greater stress on moral education". The outlook of Muller-Hill is that the scriptural illiteracy of the scientists is the cause for the present crisis which is also a cause for a greater concern from an ethical view point. The outlook of the lawless biology is yet another major concern since the notion of discipline may vanish and that will augment the lawlessness of the twenty-first generation of science students.

This is our challenge to fuse horizons for real bioethics and biology.


1. Azariah, J. 1994 a. Global Bioethics and Common Hope. IN Bioethics for the People by the People. Eubios Ethics Institute.Christchurch, N.Z. pp 98-124
2. Bernal, J.D. 1967 The Origin of Life. Weidenfeld and Nicolson. London. pp 345.
3. Cowden, R. 1990 History of Life. Blackwell Scientific Publication. Boston. USA pp 470.
4. Dawkins, R. 1976 The Selfish Gene. Oxford University Press. Oxford. pp 2-3.
5. Hamburgh, M. "Is biology relevant to Ethics? Yet another entry into Sociobiology debate", Ethics in Science and Medicine. 7 (1980), 49-56.
6. Hickman, C.P. Jr., Roberts L.S., and Hickman, F.M. 1984 Integrated Principles of Zoology. 7th Ed. Times/Mosby College Publication. St.Louis pp 1065 + 47
7. Macer, D.R.J. 1990 Shaping Genes. Eubios Ethics Institute. Christchurch, N.Z. pp 421.
8. Macer, D.R.J. 1994 Bioethics for the People by the People. Eubios Ethics Institute, Christchurch, N.Z. 350-425.
9. Mayr, E., 1982. The Growth of Biological Thought. The Harvard University Press. Cambridge. pp.974
10. Mayr, E 1988 Towards a New Philosophy of Biology. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. Cambridge. pp 564.
11. Muller-Hill, B., "Science, Truth and other Values", Quar. Rev. Biol. 68 (1993), 399-407.

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