Science, Ethics and Ecology
- Hunay Evliya, Ph.D.
Cukurova University Center for Environmental Research
Eubios Journal of Asian and International Bioethics 8 (1998), 171-172

It is a fundamental assumption of all science that nature is lawful; that is, the results of observations and experiments may be correlated, understood, and summarized by means of descriptive natural laws. Furthermore, it is usually assumed that such laws have been and will continue to be unchanging in time. The observations and laws of science - the 'is' of Henry Bent's Poem (appendix) - are often separated from prescriptive, human laws or ethics which tell us what we "ought" to do, on the assumption that the latter cannot be verified by objective, value-free scientific procedures. Some scientists, however, have disputed the absolute objectivity of what they do and of science itself. Other have proposed a complementarity between subjective, intuitive knowledge (based on qualitative sensory perceptions) and quantitative, value-free knowledge (obtained by the objective techniques commonly ascribed to science) (1). Thus, the segregation of "is" from "ought" is perhaps arbitrary, and even worse may reduce the benefits which scientific inquiry can provide.

Observation and study of the natural world does yield certain characteristics or qualities which have a degree of universality, seem worthy of emulation, and thus may be classified as values. In the main these revolve about the perpetuation of the human race, and indeed the biosphere in all its diversity, over the geological time scale of millions of years. It has been argued that there is no rational, objective justification for such values, but most human consciences rebel at the thought that their action or inaction, individual or collective, might result in cutting short the tenure of humankind on earth.

Whether we like it not, science has changed the world a great deal since the start of Industrial Revolution. Some people may deplore this, but there is no practical possibility of putting back the clock and returning to how we were in 1800. Not that many people would want to go back. Although we cannot go back, we have to think very seriously about how we go forward from here.

To begin with, many environmental problems have similar, if not identical, characteristics. They seem to appear suddenly and unexpectedly. Often, as in the case of photochemical smog or the freon-ozone interaction, they result from seemingly innocuous actions by the average person. They cannot be solved instantaneously, and the efforts of experts from a wide variety of disciplines are often required just to establish the existence and nature of the problem, much less indicate the approaches which may alleviate it. In most cases these characteristics are a direct consequence of the interdependence and interconnectedness of ecological systems, whose negative feedback loops are capable of handling the problem up to a point. This gives a false sense of security at first, and, when natural safeguards are eventually overcome, may result in a quite complicated pathway from effect to cause.

The fact that we have suddenly been faced with a great number of environmental crises reflects in part greater awareness of possible problems, but it is also related to the exponential increase in factors such as population, affluence, and technology. These are all rapidly approaching limits set by natural laws and thus the positive feedback which has led to exponential growth must be replaced by a negative feedback which slows growth and leads to a new steady state. Otherwise we may overshoot a limit; severely damage the capacity of the environment to maintain population, affluence, and technology; and therefore make a bad situation even worse. There are still many technological optimists, who continue to believe that rapid scientific and technological growth will solve all our problems.

One thing is certain -already discovered scientific laws do place limits on what Homo sapiens (or any other organism in the biosphere) can do. The second law of thermodynamics comes most readily to the scientific mind, and a number of its important implications have been discussed throughout this book. It seems highly unlikely that, after a century of testing, the entropy law will be found to be incorrect, inadequate, or capable of circumvention. Human laws, projects, or proposals for cleaning up pollution which are incompatible with the second law will simply not work and therefore must be discarded. Other, similar limitations on human alternatives are required by insights from other branches of science.

Science and Trans-Science

Another type of limitation is inherent in the nature of science itself. Certain types of questions appear to be capable of scientific resolution but in fact are not, given the current state of scientific development. Weinberg has dubbed such questions trans-scientific since they transcend the limitations of scientific inquiry. Using social scientific theories to predict the behavior of a single individual and judgments of "scientific value" which determine priorities for scientific research and government support is difficult.

How can science be for the 'Earth'? Throughout the 20th century, most scientists and many others denied that the practice of science can be for anything other than the pursuit of objective truth. Only a revolution over the past years, in attitudes both to human impact on the environment and the nature of scientific endeavor is obvious.

The role of science and scientists is to make the facts known, insofar as there is scientific consensus, and then allow the question to be decided politically, in an arena where the scientist has no greater status or expertise than any other citizen. Noted economist Kenneth Boulding has summarized this social difficulty as follows: "The deep, crucial problem of social organization is how to prevent people from doing their best when the best in the particular, in the small, is not the best in the large."

It is interesting to see the beliefs and values held by professionals in science. Scientists perpetuate the image of objective seekers of truth who follow where the facts lead, however the reality is a long way from the ideals. This is because, however seriously we espouse the model of objectivity, the inescapable fact that each of us ,regardless of profession, is first and foremost a human being with beliefs, values and attitudes shaped by our personal experiences. The way we perceive the world is conditioned by the cultural, social, economic and political milieu in which we grow.

Gender, religion, race, socioeconomic position and physical appearance all affect the kind of experiences we have and thus the way we think. That is why in science, despite the claims of simply reporting the facts, it does matter whether women and people of many races participate.

The great survival strategy of our species was adaptability, but that now blinds us to what is going on. The cultural and social change was far faster than genetic change within a species, but still took place over centuries or even millennia. The changes have become a normal part of the way we live. We have to expect and even to welcome almost all change and regard it as a measure of progress.

In the past, people would say ' There's plenty more where that come from'. There isn't plenty more today- all over the planet wilderness is disappearing and taking with it up to 50,000 species per year. In the past, others would shrug their shoulders and say ' That is the price of progress'. But it is not progress, to use up now, what should be the legacy for our children and for all future generations.

The greatest hurdles we face in convincing people of the severity of eco-crisis are the psychic filters through which we perceive reality. Some scientists call these filters as 'sacred truth' notions that are deeply held that they are taken for granted and never questioned, yet are often the very cause of the problems we are trying to resolve.

Roles of the Scientist

I believe science itself is just one way of knowing. Science is simply a non-dictational way of directing interactions with the material and energetic world. Science is a way of enhancing sensory experience with the environment. We want to nurture the 30 million species with which we share the planet, but our culture insists that the world is made for human.

I would like to emphasize that the criterion for 'scientific' success is the rate at which we convert the rest of the biosphere to urban ecosystems. Many of the conclusions of science cannot be encompassed by a culture which puts human at the centre of all things and only values the conversion of the biosphere into human habitat. Today we face a treat which I may term as environmental disorder.

The nature of science has changed. The designation of the 19th and early 20th century is not valid anymore. There are no boundaries that are relevant to the 21st. There is no dividing line which inevitably separates them. There is a distinctive scientific approach which values a vigorous cross-checking of information with possible confirmation of prediction by deliberate experiment and discarding of beliefs when they have been shown to be wrong. This approach must be used by all sorts of people in investigating natural and human phenomena and who might conventionally be designated biologist, anthropologist or chemist. This is the soul of Bioethics.

Science is, after all, a human activity and it is human beings who produce and apply scientific knowledge, in interactions with the material world. Unluckily scientists in their interaction with environmental problems, are still at trial and error stage. In adopting strategies for the welfare of the Earth, consequently for man we have the potential of Bioethics. I strongly believe that Bioethics will help to build bridges between developers, ecological scientists and the environment.

Science can and must radically reform itself to be able to contribute to the solution of social and environmental problems. Scientists have an important role to play in their discovery and solutions, but must also interact with other disciplines (2). It rises out of Berry Commoner's first law of ecology : 'Everything is connected to everything else', or as it has been paraphrased by Solzhenitzen 'Mankind’s sole salvation lies in everyone making everything his/her business'.

This can be accomplished in science by cultivating a more holistic approach. Certainly much work needs to be done, but informed action based on hope, by scientists and citizens a like, seems far preferable to the pessimism, technological optimism or apathy which some have espoused. There will be no absolute solutions to many of the problems -only approaches which show promise of success and which must be constantly reevaluated in the light of more recent knowledge.

To deal with the environmental and other crisis faced by humanity, we must develop a research 'paradigm'- not by giving scientists more authority and status, but by bringing science down to earth.

I hope that this paper has not appeared to be pessimistic with regard to environmental problems. Certainly much work needs to be done, but informed action based on hope, by scientists and citizens alike, seems far preferable to the pessimism, technological optimism, or apathy which some have espoused. There will be no absolute solutions to many of the problems we have discussed -only approaches which show promise of success and which must constantly be reevaluated in light of more recent knowledge. Yesterday's solution becomes today's problem too often for vigilance to be relaxed.

What is needed is wisdom as well as knowledge -the wisdom to see that humankind is a part of nature, not its master. Marston Bates has put it very well: In defying nature, in destroying nature, in building an arrogantly selfish, man-centered, artificial world, I do not see how man can gain peace or freedom or joy. I have faith in man's future, faith in the possibilities latent in the human experiment, but its faith in man as a part of nature, working with the forces that govern the forests and seas; faith in man sharing life, not destroying it.

These critical reflections hopefully will help and contribute to the development of such wisdom.


1. A. M. Weinberg, Science 177, 211 (1972).
2. B. Commoners, Chem. Technology, 4 (5), 258 (1974).

Appendix: Necessary Ethic - Henry Bent
Science and human values, Is and Ought,
May be two sides of the same thing,
A Moebius-twist to time, Merging, one into the other.
Science itself has a two-sided one-sidedness.
Science past, "Ready made, public, Is facts found.
Science-as-an-institution Is about Is.
Science present, Being made, private,
Is fact-finding. Science-in-the-making Is a bout with Ought:
One ought to behave
As Galileo did To discover What free-fall is.
Is is hen Ought's egg. And the hen?
They say One can't get Ought from Is.
But don't Is-finding Galileos Behave as they do
Because free-fall is what it is?
Ought begets Is, Is begets Ought.
That is all we know, and all we need to know
Darwin would understand.

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