At this point, science is progressing like Germans on French soil, which is to say: unchecked. The question of how to respond has taken everybody by surprise. It was long assumed that technological advancement would increase the power of government.
Huxley's "Brave New World" and Orwell's "1984" popularized the idea that science was the ally of Big Brother. Later, admittedly less-well-done works like "A Handmaid's Tale" and "Logan's Run" predicted that the government would use technology to create - and destroy - human beings.
It turned out otherwise. Technology - so far - has been overwhelmingly on the side of the individual. The car, the phone, the birth-control pill, the computer and - my personal favorite - the rising-crust frozen pizza have served to liberate people not just from government interference but from all sorts of hassles.
In fact, the latest technological development - cloning - promises to liberate people from conventional human reproduction entirely.
One person who predicted the real challenge from technology was Irving Kristol. In 1975, Kristol gave a lecture asking, "Is Technology a Threat to Liberal Society?" (He was of course referring to "liberal" in the classical sense of democratic and free, not some liberal society populated solely by people who think like Jane Fonda). Kristol foresaw that just as technology would liberate individuals, it would also empower them - and not "empowered" like a feminist on Prozac.
"It's quite clear that, at the rate things are going, in 40 or 50 years almost anybody will be able to create explosives of a kind that can destroy an entire city," he said. "And if anyone can, it is possible to surmise that someone will, the world being what it is and human beings what they are."
Now, truth be told, Kristol is such a hero of mine, if Mattel came out with action figures of intellectuals, I would have bought the Irving Kristol with the Kung Fu Grip a long time ago. So maybe I'm a bit forgiving of his possible exaggerations.
Still, he was surely right in his observation that the tools for cruel mischief once available only to a handful of governments are increasingly available to countless groups and individuals. Timothy McVeigh hardly had trouble getting the supplies he needed for his Oklahoma City attack.
In Kristol's lecture to the Polytechnic Institute of New York, reprinted in the Spring 2001 issue of Public Interest, he points out that while scientific advances are always new, the debate over what to do with them is very old.
For example, there is a longstanding debate as to why the ancient Chinese and the Greeks, who excelled in theoretical science and math, failed to translate their science into many new technologies. One school of thought says that things like slavery eliminated the need for cool new contraptions. Why give everyone a car when you can be the only kid on your block carried around by slaves?
The other side of the debate, according to Kristol, is that the Chinese and the Greeks understood that "although science is beautiful when contemplated in its theoretical aspects, when it is transformed into technology it becomes a form of power. And power is the power for good (ital) and (end ital) evil." According to this theory, says Kristol, the ancients decided that certain technologies shouldn't be developed because humanity couldn't handle it.
Regardless of the merits of this debate, (END OPTIONAL TRIM) today it's simply not an option to ban any technology, at least not for long. International competition, prosperity, human ingenuity and want conspire against any meaningful long-term ban of medical, military or other technologies that raise serious ethical issues.
Because technological power is neither good nor evil, Kristol says moral education becomes all the more important, especially for scientists - because only morality can tell you what to do with power.
"There are enormous decisions that will have to be made," Kristol declared in 1975. "And scientists, because they are the 'experts,' will be called in to say, for instance, do we clone, or don't we clone? Well how do you decide ...? You cannot decide on the basis of science. You must decide on the basis ... of moral and political philosophy."
That's prophetic advice considering Congress' efforts this week to figure out what to do about cloning. It may be impossible - and wrong - to ban cloning forever, but the case for postponing it is ironclad.
Almost every responsible cloning expert - pro and con - agrees that using current technology to create a human clone will result in a horribly disfigured child. That is not progress; it is child abuse. Even the creator of Dolly, the cloned sheep, calls human cloning at this point "totally irresponsible."
It's too soon to tell what the societal consequences of cloning will be once the technology is perfected. But, since the technology is far from perfect now, why not at least ban it now until it's impossible to ban later?