The Powers of Science: Are there things we shouldn’t do?

Viruses are infamous, and have become this way by no accident. They are responsible for widespread disease, and some have very real lethal capabilities. However, as dangerous as they are, it’s not that simple. The world wasn’t drawn in black and white, and many things can’t be so narrowly defined, or characterized in one light or perspective. Pioneers of molecular biology have begun to view these infectious agents in a new light, and draw conclusions about the roles and effects of viruses in a manner that is characteristically antonymous to how we typically think about them.

The article, Darwin’s Surprise, encompasses these breakthroughs comprehensively, from the perspective of multiple biologists, researchers, and teams. Michael Specter immerses us in a new discipline of molecular biology brimming with potential. The researchers he follows in the article are passionate about their work, and very conscious of the fact that their work stands against thousands of years history that place organisms as the victims of these deceptive agents.

Of course, their work, as with all kinds of scientific research, is subject to the opinions of all kinds of individuals. After combing through genomes of various species of organisms, they analyze nucleotide sequences left behind by extinct retroviruses, and due to the high mutability of retroviruses, use statistics to piece together, and reanimate molecular biology’s version of Jurassic Park’s dinosaurs; they literally resurrect these ancient viruses. “It’s a power science has come to possess and it makes us queasy, and it should.” John Coffin, distinguished molecular biologist comments. “[This] is wild stuff.”

When it comes to science, there is always a risk, but that isn’t the research’s fault. There is always the possibility that individuals will take knowledge and abuse it to realize malicious intentions, and there is no way that these researchers aren’t aware of this. They, more than most, understand what their work can do, for better or for worse. In my opinion however, this shouldn’t paralyze; with so much potential, we shouldn’t let our own feelings of discomfort and fear stop us from pursuing knowledge. What we choose pursue and not to is ultimately a decision resolved by informed conversations that we as a society should continue to have, but I personally admire the strides these scientists strive to make, and the courage it takes to further and deepen our understanding of the nature of the world.

One of the researchers, Harmit Malik, “thinks deeply about the link between what he does and the benefits such work might produce. [It’s] is an entirely new way to look at the purpose of scientific research.” This trait, this new orientation that scientific endeavors have assumed, I think, is an important one: it emphasizes the importance of what knowledge can do for us. When it comes to the question of what science should or should not do, I think one of the strongest arguments for what we should do is deeply related to what knowledge can lend to us as a society. When it comes to resurrecting viruses, the article is not shy about it: advances in molecular biology pertaining to endogenous retroviruses can assist in our efforts to combat contemporary viruses, such as H.I.V., grant us a more complete understanding of our evolution, and of the condition of life on earth between organisms and the forces that act upon them.

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