Transdisciplinarity: a task faced by genetics in the past, and by bioethics education now

- Eliane S. AzevÍdo, MD., PhD.
CNPq Researcher in Brazil Av. Euclides da Cunha, 16 - apt. 102
40.150.121 - Salvador, Bahia, BRASIL

Eubios Journal of Asian and International Bioethics 8 (1998), 13-14.

The confluence of knowledge from several disciplines to yield a new kind of knowledge always poses a pedagogical problem ( Felice, Giordan & Souchon, 1985). Let us take the example of Genetics . To develop the idea on the mechanism of inheritance Mendel (1865) had to unify, in his mind, the concepts of horticulture and probability. The merit of this achievement put him a head of many scholars of his time. Even now, very few scientists would be capable of integrating and applying two kind of knowledge as well as Mendel did. Thus, one may well assume that the lack of a transdisciplinary concept integrating horticulture and probability among members of the scientific community in the second half of last century held back the understanding of Mendel's paper (AzevÍdo, 1997). In addition, the title of Mendel's paper "Experiments in plant hybridization" was not indicative of any great discovery leading to the birth of a new kind of knowledge but was strongly suggestive of being one more paper within the framework of a normal science in the sense of Kuhn's normal science (Kuhn, 1975).

Three decades later, 1899, Bateson, got the importance of the idea in Mendel's work and wrote a paper with a strong appeal to a novelty in science by giving to his paper the following title: "Hybridization and cross-breeding as a method of scientific investigation". However, it seems that Muller, few decades after the rediscovery of Mendel's work, was the one to get the full understanding that a new kind of transdisciplinary knowledge was emerging. In 1922, when the rediscovery of Mendel's work was well established, Muller published a paper entitled "Variation due to change in the individual gene". In this paper Muller anticipated the understanding of the molecular make up of the genes adding one more type of knowledge (biochemistry) to the make up of this new science named Genetics. Not only that, but Muller also reveal a clear concept of the need for a transdisciplinary type of knowledge in Genetics by writing: "Must we geneticists become bacteriologists, physiological chemists and physicists, simultaneously with being zoologists and botanists? Let us hope so."

Thus, conscious or not of a transdisciplinary education in theory, every genetics student had to achieve, in practice, a transdisciplinary input of knowledge to become a geneticist. Even within genetics specialization, the confluence of knowledge from two or more disciplines became the rule in all areas of genetics education. If one prefers to keep the genetics terminology in mind one can say that genetics successfully "hybridizes" several kinds of knowledge (disciplines) to yield a new transdisciplinary science.

Once again, here comes the lesson that the division of science into disciplines is arbitrary and artificial. Outside the planning of curricula in schools, the concept of discipline is of very little help. However, the idea of the division of science into disciplines is strongly inserted in our scientific and education culture. For the better or for the worse, we learn and we teach under a "disciplinary" framework. Even recognizing that the crossword of disciplines is a rich ground for new ideas in science, our education tradition is strongly marked by the fragmented view of nature under a disciplinary imprinting. Without demolishing the barriers of the disciplinary concept in last century horticulture, genetics would ever be born. In this century, many other disciplinary barriers had also been demolished as genetics successfully expanded in so many areas.

Recently, a similar transdisciplinary challenge is faced by Bioethics. It is ineffective to attempt bioethics education without the "hybridization" of knowledge (transdisciplinarity) from philosophy, cultural anthropology, ethics, philosophical anthropology, law and human rights plus medical knowledge itself. The fundamental differences between the silent transdisciplinary history of genetics education and the urgent need for a transdisciplinary education in Bioethics is a matter of velocity of the scientific development experienced by genetics in the past, and by bioethics today. Genetics, right after Mendel, went back into a conceptual gestation for more than five decades, ended by having a second birth. After being born and reborn, genetics grew before the electronic communication era. Thus, the transdisciplinary incorporation of knowledge happened smoothly through many decades. So, the necessity for identification of a pedagogical model to build genetics became imperceptible.

Bioethics is facing a different challenge. Born in the electronic era, bioethics grew very rapidly, rapidly became an applied science and a new kind of knowledge was urged to be passed on in graduate and undergraduate schools. To understand Bioethics and to use it for solving conflicts in medicine is necessary to "hybridize" in the expertise mind, knowledge from philosophy, ethics, human rights, philosophical anthropology, law, cultural anthropology and medicine. The simple idea of putting together scholars from different disciplines under a traditional multidisciplinary concept in education does not satisfy the requirements of bioethics (Bruhn, 1995; Pasetti, 1995). It is fundamental that the first generation of bioethicists find the most efficacious pedagogical way for demolishing the barriers around the disciplines that integrate in the bioethics universe. Bioethics do not have the time that Genetics had. Taking Muller's words (in analogy) we must learn that to be a bioethicist one has to became a philosopher, a lawyer, an anthropologist, an ethicist, besides being a medical doctor or other health professional. How to achieve it? That is the task of bioethics education now...

Presently, I became responsible for creating at the State University of Feira de Santana, in the State of Bahia, Brazil, a nucleus for research and education in bioethics. My experience as a medical doctor trained in genetics (Ph.D. in USA), having nearly three decades of research and teaching work in a university hospital in Brazil, plus my interest in bioethics, convince me that transdisciplinarity must be the basic educational concept to work out this nucleus. Thus, for joining the nucleus, I am inviting university professors from law school, education, philosophy, anthropology, biology, genetics and medical sciences. As a group, we intent to develop, among ourselves, a program of studies and cross teaching of bioethics and its related disciplines. The idea is to achieve a conceptual unity of the various knowledge that nourish bioethics. As the study group advances we shall evaluate the efficacy of this project. Meanwhile, we appreciate having from the readers of EJAIB any relevant information, comments or reports of similar experience.

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