Plenary and Welcoming Address by Carl B. Feldbaum, President, Biotechnology Industry Organization -- Keeping the Faith
Ladies and gentlemen
Islam has the Koran. Christianity has the Gospels. Judaism has the Torah. Now we, many here in this room, have gone up the mountain and come down with what: the map of the human genome.
Well, let me pretend to be your prophet for a few minutes. I have a warning for you: Do not bow down to this. Let’‘s not confuse the profundities of science with the depths of faith. As an industry, and as individuals, we will have to work intimately with both.
Assembled here in San Diego this week are the explorers of our small but expanding universe. Allow me to say that the technology you have achieved is remarkable. The technology you will be talking about this week is astounding, and its intended uses are compassionate. Our temptation is to tell people: “Wait till you see what we have for you! We are going to change your lives for the better. Feel free to show your gratitude any time now.”
And somehow: All of them are not entirely grateful. Many are suspicious. Some are even angry.
It''s not that folks reject your valuable achievements. And this isn’‘t the stereotyped confrontation between scientists and so-called Luddites. It is, for the most part, a lack of trust and a lack of communication between our industry and people of good faith, many of them people of deep faith. And the costs to our industry and global society will only grow unless we work with these people, to the fullest extent possible.
As president of BIO, I hear their questions. Recently, I’‘ve been asked:
My talk today is on “Keeping the Faith.” I want to cover religion and science, scriptures and the Constitution, revolution and faith — in the next 20 minutes. Am I crazy or what?
Crazy or not, we have no choice but to address these issues. And we will need to keep addressing them long after my 20 minutes are up.
I believe the fundamental truth to keep in mind is this: Science is a method, not a faith, and the two are not mutually exclusive. I do not need to point to the many leading figures in biotechnology who also are firm believers in God and adherents of various religions. They are not hypocrites. They do not keep their faith in a little box for use only on weekends and holidays.
They have come to understand, and I count myself among them, that scientific method is not antithetical to religious conviction, and that religious principles can give greater meaning to the work of the scientist. Albert
Einstein put it well when he said, “Science without religion is lame. Religion without science is blind.” In any case, I see no point whatsoever in standing on either side of the chasm between science and faith and shouting across:
“You’‘re wrong! You’‘ve got it all wrong!”
Let me tell you about a group BIO met with recently in a semi-rural community in Virginia.
Most were Protestant and socially conservative, but on the whole this was a typical group of middle-class American adults, ranging in age from their late twenties to a few in their mid-sixties. They watch TV shows like “Survivor,” “The Sopranos” and “Will & Grace”; they pay the mortgage; a few play golf; most have kids and pets, and some have grandchildren. We asked to meet with them because all of them identified themselves as deeply religious. They attend church regularly and say that God is very important in their lives.
You’‘ll be happy to know that most of them also turned out to have a favorable impression of biotechnology. They associated our industry primarily with advances in medical care and cures for life-threatening diseases. One participant said: “Anything to improve society, to improve medicine, I’‘m for.” A couple of people mentioned that day’‘s FDA approval of a targeted medication for leukemia. So we can see that the tangible achievements of our industry mean more to people than the alarms raised by critics who attempt to portray us as either “godless” or “playing God.”
When we asked these people about the insertion of new genes — gene therapy — most were apprehensive but willing to keep an open mind. Several said they didn’‘t want to interfere with “God’‘s
plan” and would rather deal with the consequences of disease than try such therapies, but others took no issue with gene therapy. Concerns centered on what some considered eugenic applications: They don’‘t want biotechnology used at IVF clinics to design made-to-order children. Neither do we.
Xenotransplantation — the transfer of cells or organs, hearts, livers or lungs, for example, from one species to another — was considered more acceptable, as a way to deal with our dramatic shortage of organ donors.
There was a discussion about our distinction between reproductive and therapeutic cloning. Even the most accepting people in the group rejected the concept of experiments and therapies that involve destroying embryos. One young mother said: “The embryo is where I draw the line.” For the record, BIO opposes the use of cloning technology for reproductive purposes. We believe the safety, ethical and moral issues require us to draw the line — and to continue our self-imposed moratorium on the implantation of a cloned embryo. At the same time we have urged the Bush administration and Congress to allow the therapeutic cloning of cells, genes and tissues that do not lead to the birth of a child. This has been a tough distinction to make with many politicians.
And yet, the idea of therapeutic cloning is no longer so alarming to people, despite years of talk from our critics and decades of creepy movies on late-night TV. In our focus group session, Len, a diabetic in his fifties, said: “I don’‘t have any nerves in my feet. I can walk on
needles and not feel it. And I have wounds that won’‘t heal. So if they could do something to clone or develop a new pancreas for me, then, yes, I would be for some type of cloning.”
Regarding embryonic stem-cell research, one of the staunchest opponents in our meeting — a mother in her thirties who said she would never consider stem-cell-based therapy for her own arthritis — said her reservations would go out the window if the health or life of one of her children were at stake. Almost everyone in the group agreed.
Finally, we had an older woman in the group, Janet, who said flatly that all cloning and embryo research were wrong. She recounted how, many years ago, she gave birth to a son who died after only a week from a lung disease. She said that she would not have used a therapy based on stem cells or cloning to save this much-loved child, whose birthday she still marks, along with the anniversary of his death. She said: “If they could have changed anything, I still would have let God have His way, but the doctor is not God.”
We may never win over Janet. We will never win over Jehovah’‘s Witnesses on blood transfusions, either. It would be foolish and arrogant of us to say that people must abandon the positions dictated by their faith.
A science teacher in a small Missouri town once described to a reporter how she taught evolution, crafting her approach with sensitivity toward religious concerns without shortchanging the science. She told her students a bit about Charles Darwin, who studied to become a minister but was deeply interested in nature. She described the scientific discussions of his time about how plants and animals could change over generations. She talked about what he saw during his five-year voyage on the Beagle after he graduated from college, and how he came to the revolutionary idea that natural selection for favorable traits could account, over long periods, for the evolution of new species. She assured these students, these children of strict Christian fundamentalism, that Darwin was not looking to attack anyone’‘s religious beliefs — that he worried about the distress many people felt over the revolutionary nature of his theory.
And when he was vilified, in fact, his greatest anguish came from the pain inflicted on his deeply religious wife. Finally, this teacher described how the discoveries in the decades since The Origin of Species — in geology, paleontology, genetics and other fields — reinforced Darwin’‘s basic premise. The particulars had to be revised, but scientists no longer doubted that Darwin was right.
As for whether these students would accept it as well — that was up to them. The teacher was not going to attack the faith of her friends and neighbors, and she would not look for some way to keep her students from hearing beliefs that conflicted with her science. But she was determined that these children learn about evolution.
Her story brings to mind another small-town science teacher: John Scopes. Why couldn’‘t he have done his job in the obscurity of Dayton, Tennessee, and been forgotten? Because the fundamentalists of his era chose to attack science through the legislature. Science is alive only when it can be taught and discussed, and Tennessee outlawed the teaching of evolution. Scopes agreed to serve as the test case. Never mind that he was convicted — that was guaranteed, and an appeals court threw out his hundred-dollar fine. What mattered was that his spectacular trial crystallized in the public’‘s mind the folly of letting the church dictate to the state and restrain the teaching of science. What is also clear, at least in the United States, is that we can no more impose a complete separation of church and laboratory then we can a complete separation of church and state.
But when people understand what’‘s at stake, even deeply religious individuals will frequently be on the side of scientific inquiry and discussion, and so will the United States Constitution.
Let me again drop back in time, and say a few words about Galileo’‘s run-in with religion. It’‘s actually quite instructive. Galileo stirred the rage of Pope Urban VII with his 1632 publication of a treatise called the Dialogue of the Great World Systems, Ptolemaic and Copernican. The very basic idea — Copernicus’‘ theory that the earth circled the sun, rather than vice versa — was already in circulation and was hardly revolutionary. Galileo’‘s chief offense appears to have been arrogance: Although a devoted Catholic, instead of a dialogue, Galileo initiated a diatribe in which he knew he would have the pleasure — based on science — of trouncing the naysayers. Such pleasures are dearly bought. He ended up under house arrest, and the church banned his so-called Dialogue until 1822, almost two centuries later.
Now here we are in the middle of our own revolution — an extension of Darwin’‘s, and as profound as Galileo’‘s. We ought to expect a certain amount of opposition and suspicion from defenders of established social and religious doctrines. We can get a taste of that opposition and suspicion right outside this building.
But the world has changed for the better: No one’‘s going to put us under house arrest for our work, as the Vatican did with Galileo. No one in biotech risks being burned at the stake for cloning a sheep or mapping a human chromosome. And it would be inhumane to ban knowledge of our discoveries for even two weeks, much less two centuries, as were Galileo’‘s, because desperately ill patients deserve hope – and knowledge of new therapeutic options.
Instead of all that, we have even people of faith ready to support us, at least to some extent, and discuss their differences with us. For them, keeping the faith includes engaging in the issues of the day and bringing their perspective to bear. When we came down from that mountain with the map of the human genome on a Web site, there were bishops and imams and rabbis celebrating the triumph of human achievement and the prospect of relief to some human suffering.
Just two weeks ago, I met with a group of religious leaders ranging from a Baptist preacher and a Greek Orthodox priest to heads of national religious organizations to academic theologians. They were eager to join our discussion of the increasing intersection between biomedical research and religion.
As a group, we pursued questions that touch on the fundamentals of the human scientific endeavor: Are science and scientific applications inherently flawed processes because the human beings behind this work are flawed? How much can humans ever know and understand? Are humans morally equipped to handle the great power conferred by technology and, specifically, biotechnology?
One participant said, “Christianity sees human beings as morally imperfect. We are corrupt and continuously corruptible.” Thus, just as the scientific method embraces skepticism about the superficial appearances of nature, so does religion about the superficial appearances of human nature.
One theologian was particularly struck by the revelation in February that the human genome has only about 30,000 genes, a number that seems insufficient to account for the complexity of a human being. “A theological approach says that God has created an incredible ecology even at the level of the genome,” he said. “Everything relates to everything. A lot of our environmental and agricultural models haven’‘t fully appreciated that.”
The group also shared passionate economic and social concerns about biotechnology. They wanted to know who benefits from our work and how we can manage the industry to ensure its advantages do not accrue just to the wealthiest nations or individuals.
As we wrapped up the meeting, the pastors and the academics were bubbling with ideas, many of them grass-roots-level proposals – writing Sunday school curricula on bioethics, educating seminarians, getting seminarians and clergy into our labs to get a more tangible understanding for these matters.
Medical biotech is hardly the only area where we can develop productive discussions with religious leaders and their followers. Consider the biotech solutions on the market and in the works for industrial pollution and waste; we would be fools not to explore the common cause we have with those who devote themselves to the biblical injunction to be good stewards of the earth. With agricultural biotech, we can safely intensify the production of crops for food, fibers, fuel and building materials. Doesn’‘t the Bible tell us to feed the hungry, clothe the naked and shelter the dispossessed?
Our goals are simply to alleviate suffering: to treat and cure Alzheimer’‘s, Parkinson’‘s, breast and cervical cancers, and allow many nations represented here to provide more than the barest levels of nutrition to their populations. Florence Wambugu of Kenya says, so simply and eloquently, “Those who protest biotechnology do so with a full belly.”
Ninety-five percent of Americans surveyed in a Gallup poll this spring said they believe in God, 68 percent reported membership in a church, and 65 percent said religion answers problems. U.S. policy-makers cannot ignore two-thirds of the public. Neither can our industry.
When Congress considers sweeping bills to ban human cloning, we need to reach people of faith and discuss the distinction between its reproductive and therapeutic applications — and the ethical objections they and we have. When the president withholds money for stem-cell research that carries such great promise in treating Parkinson’‘s, Alzheimer’‘s, spinal cord damage and other grave health problems, we need to discuss the competing moral issues as broadly as possible.
We will never overcome all objections and satisfy every concern. Fear of the unknown is powerful and persistent, and so we hear protests over biotech foods long after they are proved safe. We can’‘t simply dismiss people’‘s misgivings: There’‘s something primal in people’‘s relationship with their food, their bodies, and we should be thoughtful in responding to that.
Then there stands a principle: A devout Buddhist who would not countenance the killing of animals — even vermin — would find animal testing and the harvesting of animal organs reprehensible. As I said earlier, there is a fundamental difference between faith and science, and good science cannot follow all religious dictates.
I also know — from years of experience — that a lot of people in this industry and in this room enjoy a good argument, a good controversy. We succeed in part because we embrace mavericks, because we are mavericks. The prospect of consultation and consensus-building on ethical and public-policy questions isn’‘t all that exciting. Yet it must be done. Just as religious leaders recognize their responsibility to learn about biotechnology, we have a responsibility to work with them, to educate them and to learn from them.
The companies, universities, foundations and governments that support us have given us the chance to do this amazing, exciting science, and get paid for it, with the understanding that we will use this gift responsibly. That means being responsible in choosing which research to pursue — and which to forgo. That means being responsible in the conduct of that research, and then in the marketing and even more important, in the access to our technologies and products.
Our revolution is about more than science. Make no mistake, it touches the whole earth, potentially every individual, and we have to keep faith with global society. Only then will we be doing our jobs and delivering on the promise of our distinct revolution, which so far, we can all be very, very proud of.
At the very end of my meeting two weeks ago with the religious leaders and theologians, the former head of a prestigious seminary who is now leader of a national alliance of churches stated, “This has been a timely, significant meeting; I think we should look at it as the first second of a 24-hour discussion. We’‘ve got to lift this to scale.” He said, “We don’‘t want to go away today, on June 13, 2001, and then come back together in 2007 to have lunch together again. Yes, there are crazies on the right and left, and there are anarchists. But there is a core of thoughtful people who are religious, and we need to start a new wave of conversation. What you do is too important, too central to the human condition.”
Ladies and gentlemen, let that conversation come up to scale right here, right now in San Diego, and let us continue forever to keep that faith.