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UCLA Magazine Fall 2004
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The Next Wave
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Fall 2004
The Next Wave
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NOT EVERYBODY IS HAPPY with the march of science into the 21st century. In a 325-page report, “Beyond Therapy: Biotechnology and the Pursuit of Happiness,” published last year by the President’s Council on Bioethics, Leon Kass, the Hertog Fellow in Social Thought at the American Enterprise Institute and chair of the council, decried the looming biotech-enabled world as one that “cheapens rather than enriches America’s most cherished ideals.” A year earlier, in his book Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution, the noted author and political scientist Francis Fukuyama expressed a fear that “biotechnology will cause us in some way to lose our humanity — that is, some essential quality that has always underpinned our sense of who we are and where we are going, despite all of the evident changes that have taken place in the human condition through the course of history.”

Such criticism is hardly new to scientists, and many of them feel it’s unfair. “It’s asking too much of science to provide answers to everything, as was once the case with religion,” says Roberto Peccei, a theoretical physicist and UCLA’s vice chancellor of research. Yet the debate between scientists and ethicists is a serious one. “The sum of the crises that have to do with genetic manipulation,” Peccei predicts, “will raise issues for individuals that are on the scale of what nuclear weapons once had to do with the globe.”

Biotechnology is already under scrutiny and nanotechnology is increasingly being seen as a cause for concern. Last year, the Prince of Wales, who has led a successful campaign against genetically modified crops and foods in Britain, created banner headlines with his reported pronouncement that self-replicating nanorobots would transform the planet into “grey goo.” And in an article that he wrote for a British daily in July, the heir to the British throne warned that although nanotechnology is “a triumph of human ingenuity,” it could unleash a disaster similar to the one that was caused decades ago by the “wonder drug” thalidomide, which led to the births of thousands of deformed babies.

Nanotechnology does have potentially adverse health, safety and environmental effects, as a major new report by Britain’s Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering recently concluded. The report warns that while nanoparticles contained in computer chips are not known to be harmful, free-floating nanoparticles and nanotubes used to produce such things as pharmaceuticals and cosmetics could have negative side effects. The report also expressed concern about the possible military use of nanotechnologies leading to “entirely new threats that might be hard to detect or counter.”

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