Ethics Of Biology Research Paper

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This entry describes the relations between the science of biology and the ethical reflection. The general notions involved are defined and several of the main problems and issues are analyzed from a logical as well as from a moral point of view.


Although the large-scale structure of the brain is codified in the genome, a large part of the concrete neural circuitry depends on past social interactions and constitutes culture. Human nature and human culture are varieties of information. They differ in how this information is transmitted and codified and where it resides. Human nature is transmitted genetically (from parents to offspring), encodes all our permanent characteristics in the sequence of bases of DNA, and resides in the genome. Human culture encodes in neural circuits everything one has learned from other people (relatives, friends, teachers, authors) through social learning; it resides in the brain (Mosterín 2009).

Ethics and biology are different parts of culture. Biology is a science, the collective pursuit of reliable and objective knowledge about living beings. The task of science is to inquire into the nature of things and to discover and describe facts. Ethics is concerned with how things should be, how people should behave, and which norms or conventions society should adopt. So, science and ethics seem to be quite disparate endeavors. It would seem strange to speak of an ethics of physics or of an ethics of mathematics but less so to talk about ethics of biology. What could an ethics of biology be? Individual biologists are often concerned by the ethical issues involved in their research. Some of them even try to create a value system based on biological knowledge.

Philosophy of science can be applied to the analysis of the theory of evolution, but the theory of evolution itself can also be applied to the analysis of philosophy of science (and indeed of culture in general, including ethics). In a similar vein, biology can be considered from an ethical point of view, but ethics can also be considered from a biological perspective. In any case, ethics of biology should be differentiated from biology of ethics. Ethics of biology has to do with how research should be conducted in biology. Biology of ethics has rather to do with the alleged foundation of ethics on biology, genetics, and evolution. For example, Frans de Waal has emphasized the evolutionary origin of altruism and morals in bonobos and other primates (de Waal 2013).

Naturalistic And Moralistic Fallacies

Historically, the first precedents of the ethics of biology appeared in connection with the incipient medical profession in Greece, such as the Hippocratic Oath. Much later, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the development of biomedicine and the thrust in biological research confronted the scientific community with new dilemmas and ethical issues. The problems were new, but their analysis and discussion required close attention to older conceptual distinctions, like the question of the fallacies.

Neural realities are separated from social conventions by a wide chasm, reflected in language in the is/ought distinction, emphasized by Hume. Attempts to jump over the chasm often land one in the naturalistic or the moralistic fallacies. The naturalistic fallacy pretends to infer an imperative (or a deontic or value sentence) from a description of facts. It is the failed attempt to deduce ought from is. It fails because an imperative never follows logically from a descriptive sentence. G. E. Moore introduced the notion and the term (Moore 1903). He used it to criticize Herbert Spencer’s attempt to infer his moral ideals from Darwin’s theory of biological evolution.

The moralistic fallacy pretends to infer the description of a fact from values, ideals, or imperatives. It is the failed attempt to deduce is from ought. It fails because a descriptive statement never follows from an imperative. Bernard Davies introduced the notion and the term in 1978. Steven Pinker popularized it. For example, some advocacy groups fall into the moralistic fallacy when they infer that people in different groups or sexes are in fact equally adept at mathematics not from empirical tests or data but just from their values and ideals of equality. Both fallacies are symmetrical in their structure, and neither of them proves anything (Mosterín 2013).

By way of conclusion, it can be remarked that, even if values and norms do not follow from facts of neurology, even fewer facts can be derived from values. Neural reality and social conventions do not overlap. Nevertheless, there is still a valid use for neurology in the discussion of norms. As norms are conventions that have to be accepted by people, there is a role for propaganda in selling norms. This propaganda is sometimes misleading and appeals to contrary-to-fact assertions. So, a better knowledge of the systems of our brain involved in behavior and in moral emotions and decisions would contribute to a more reliable and rational discussion of moral issues, just by excluding pseudo problems, sophisms, and misrepresentations.


Moral emotions are rooted in our brain and are part of nature, but they also play an important role in our moral judgments. The main moral emotion is compassion. To have empathy for someone’s feelings or problems is to notice and understand them; no sharing of the feeling is required. To feel sympathy for someone in trouble involves, besides having empathy, to feel sorry for him (or her) and care about his problems. Compassion is a strong feeling of sympathy for someone who is suffering together with a desire to help.

The notion of compassion played an important role in the moral philosophy of the Enlightenment. Besides David Hume, other thinkers emphasized its role, for example, Adam Smith and Jeremy Bentham. To feel compassion for someone who is suffering is to put oneself imaginatively at his place, and to have the disagreeable experience of feeling his pain, and to wish to do something to relieve this suffering.

Our understanding of the neurological underpinnings of the emotion of compassion is sparse and unsure. Nevertheless, around 1990, Giacomo Rizzolatti and his colleagues at the University of Parma, while studying the brain control of movements by macaque monkeys, made the discovery of the mirror neurons. A mirror neuron is a neuron that fires both when the animal acts in a certain way and when the animal observes the same action performed by another. In the macaques, mirror neurons are found in the inferior frontal gyrus (in the frontal lobe) and in the inferior parietal lobe (Rizzolatti and Sinigaglia 2008).

Most evidence for mirror neurons in humans is indirect. Brain imaging experiments using functional magnetic resonance imaging have shown that the human inferior frontal cortex and superior parietal lobe are active when a person performs an action and also when a person sees another individual performing a similar action. Mirror neurons were soon offered as a partial explanation of our feelings of empathy and compassion. Not everyone agrees with this interpretation.

The emotions people feel depend in part on the abundance of certain neurotransmitters, neuromodulators, hormones, and other molecules affecting the mood in certain zones or systems of the brain. Molly Crockett has examined how the neuromodulator serotonin shapes our reaction to harm to others and our value of fairness and so our ability for compassion and sociality (Crockett 2010). Enhanced serotonin seems to bias moral judgment and decision-making toward sociality and to boost aversive emotional reactions to the prospective harm of others.

Several authors have analyzed the connection of dopamine concentration and dopamine receptors with impulsive antisocial behavior (Buckholtz 2010). Prior flooding of the brain with dopamine can also lead to sociopathy. On the other hand, oxytocin, a hormone that plays an important role in childbirth, acts like a neuromodulator in the brain and seems to increase empathy, trust, generosity, and predisposition to compassion (Lee 2009). The inability to secrete oxytocin has been repeatedly linked to sociopathy and lack of empathy.

Epistemic Ethics

The conduct of scientific research is implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) submitted to specific ethical norms widely agreed by the scientific community. Of course, a scientist can misbehave in non-epistemic ways, for example, by stealing money from the laboratory. But a scientist can also misbehave in typically epistemic ways by committing fraud in research through the fabrication, falsification, or trimming of data or plagiarism. Ethical epistemic norms serve the aims of research and apply to scientists, scholars, and others involved in research.

According to Shamoo and Resnik, there are several reasons why it is important to adhere to ethical norms in research. Norms promote the aims of science, such as knowledge and truth. For example, prohibitions against fabricating, falsifying, or misrepresenting research data promote the truth and avoid error. Since research often involves a great deal of cooperation and coordination among many people, ethical standards promote the values that are essential to collaborative work, such as trust, accountability, mutual respect, and fairness. For example, many ethical norms in research – such as guidelines for authorship, copyright and patenting policies, data sharing policies, and confidentiality rules in peer review – are designed to protect intellectual property interests while encouraging collaboration. Ethical norms in research also help to build public support for research. People are more likely to fund a research project if they can trust the quality and integrity of research. Finally, many of the norms of research promote other important moral and social values, such as social responsibility, human rights, animal welfare, compliance with the law, and human health and safety. Ethical lapses in research can significantly harm human and animal subjects, students, and the public. For example, a researcher who fabricates data in a clinical trial may harm or even kill patients (Shamoo and Resnik 2009).

Advanced research in biology has now extended beyond Western countries to new scientific powerhouses in Japan, China, India, and other places. Consequently, the preoccupation with ethical issues surrounding genetic engineering, synthetic biology, and similar endeavors has reached global proportions. From China to Saudi Arabia, many countries have promulgated ethical guidelines for research in biology and have established research ethics boards. Nevertheless, different religious traditions and influences have led to divergent guidelines.

The Bane Of Inconsistency

Science is a peculiar part of culture, encompassing its own norms and values. Perhaps the highest epistemic value is consistency. From the point of view of classical logic, an inconsistent formal theory (a theory that contains contradictory theorems) is identical to its language. It asserts everything and it denies everything, and so it is utterly useless. To be inconsistent is the worst bane that can afflict a theory, much worse than being false. Small wonder that scientists tend to drop a theory as soon as they discover contradictions in it. If there is no replacement in sight, a period of crisis and uneasiness ensues until a new and hopefully consistent theory is found, which is received by the community with a sigh of relief. For example, that happened when the incompatibility between Newton’s mechanics and Maxwell’s electromagnetism was solved by Einstein’s special relativity.

The notion of consistency plays the role of a regulatory idea (in the Kantian sense) in the development and progress of science. Scientists are often unsure whether their theories are consistent or not, but the discovery of a contradiction always produces a deep crisis in the community and pushes the best researchers to make strenuous efforts to find or invent a new and more satisfactory theory.

The Lysenko Affair

If consistency is mainly a logical value, freedom of research is a social value with important consequences for the progress of science. The standard methodology of science presupposes a free exchange of arguments and the open communication of data, subject only to the control exercised by peer review and repetition of experiments and observations by colleagues. Nevertheless, external powers have sometimes interfered scientific process, brought it at least temporarily to a halt, and have even induced tragic personal consequences.

In the Renaissance, it was the Church that interfered with science in the name of religious orthodoxy, as shown in the well-known cases of Miguel Servet, Giordano Bruno, and Galileo Galilei. In the twentieth century, the interference has often come from the world of politics, political ideology, and political power. It suffices to point at the interferences of the Nazi regime in German science, which provoked the flight of the best German scientists to the USA and the abrupt end of the golden epoch of German science. An extreme case of political interference, with especially tragic consequences for the whole biological community of Russia, was the so-called Lysenko affair in the years 1934–1964. This brought disgrace, prison, and death to the best geneticists of the Soviet Union and caused the complete collapse of the science of biology in that country, in marked contrast with the continuous flourishing of physics and mathematics under the communist regime. The Lysenko affair is the best known and most dramatic case of extreme interference of politics in science. The story of Soviet genetics in the period 1934–1964 is one of the most bizarre chapters in the history of modern science. An illiterate and fanatical charlatan (Lysenko) was allowed absolute dictatorship and control over both research in biology and practical agriculture (Medvedev 1969).

Animals In Research

Several ethical issues in biological and biomedical research concern the treatment and welfare of the subjects of experimentation. These subjects can be human beings, who are protected by the bioethical norms requiring that their a priori, free, and informed consent be collected before submitting them to experiments. Nevertheless, most of the subjects of biological experimentation are nonhuman animals.

The use of animals in research is a polemic issue and has always been. Claude Bernard, the founder of animal physiology, practiced vivisection on thousands of living dogs, cutting them open and submitting them to painful experiments that shocked many people, including all members of his own family. Vivisection continues to be very controversial; sometimes it has resulted in public order problems, as angry protesters try to stop such practices. In all advanced countries, explicit ethical norms and new legislation have been introduced and implemented to limit the pain of the animals involved. Many ethicists and scientists agree on the desirability of pursuing the policy of the three Rs: replacement of animals by other research models (e.g., stem cells or computer simulations), reduction of the number of animals actually used in experiments, and refinement of the experiments in the sense of diminishing the amount of pain and anguish inflicted on animals (e.g., through anesthetics, where feasible).

Ethics Of Animal Experimentation

Philosophers like simple principles that explain everything from the same point of view, but bioethical issues are complex, and different points of view sometimes correspond to different aspects of this complexity. Some ethical theories work well at certain levels but not at others. For example, contractual approaches to ethics are fine for the analysis of moral issues such as the keeping of promises or the payment of debts but fail when applied to our relations to small children or to animals or to the biosphere as a whole. Utilitarianism is a better moral theory for dealing with the pain inflicted on animals but is no reliable basis for securing individual freedoms or for dealing with ecological problems.

Contractualism (e.g., in its forms due to Rawls or Scanlon) has been fashionable in the last decades. But social contract theories notoriously omit nonhuman animals. If all moral obligations are between parties to the social contract, then there are no obligations regarding animals that cannot be parties to the contract. In that case, torturing nonrational but sentient animals would not be morally wrong. This result is absurd to many and so would invalidate the premise. In contrast, utilitarians have no difficulty explaining why it is wrong to torture animals. This seems to place contractualism at a comparative disadvantage. Can contractualism provide an adequate account of our moral obligations to animals? Scanlon offers two solutions. The first is to limit the scope of his account. Contractualism is not an account of the whole of morality but only a partial account about the obligations people owe to other persons. This leaves open the possibility that our obligations to animals fall outside this part of morality. Scanlon also explicitly puts aside any moral obligations toward the natural environment (Scanlon 1998).

To inflict unnecessary pain on animals is wrong because of the suffering the animal feels. A utilitarian will add that, once it is realized that this is what is wrong in the case of animal suffering, the same conclusion should be drawn about human suffering. It is their capacity for suffering rather than their capacity for rational agency that plays the most salient role in explaining the wrongness of torturing humans.

Groupism is the position that claims absolute solidarity and devotion to one’s own group, together with total disregard and contempt for other groups. If applied to race, it leads to racism. If applied to nations, it leads to nationalism. If applied to species, it leads to speciesism.

Anthropocentrism is speciesism of the human species, internal noble feelings for fellow humans coupled with abject lack of moral consideration for other creatures. When the use of animals in painful research is criticized, a defense is often mounted on the assumption that this type of research can lead to the avoidance of human suffering, as if any animal suffering would be justified by any human benefit. This is the point of view of extreme speciesism, and it should not be accepted as a matter of course.

In Jewish, Christian, and Islamic thought, only people are subjects of moral concern. In this tradition, there was nothing comparable to the Daoist sense of nature in China or to the Buddhist and Jainist preoccupation with ahimsa (avoidance of harm to animals) in India. In the utterly anthropocentric Western traditional world view, nature was either ignored or conceived of as just an object of exploitation, with rare exceptions, such as Francis of Assisi. Humans were supposed to have been created in the image of God and to have nothing to do with the rest of nature. In any case, humans were at the center of the Universe; they occupied center stage in creation. The Sun and all the stars circled the Earth, the human abode, and God and the angels watched humankind attentively from above the sphere of the stars. Of course, this position is unsustainable nowadays. Even in the Western tradition, Jeremy Bentham, referring to animals, wrote: “The question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?” (Bentham 1789).


The more one becomes aware of the ecological problems of our planet, the more one feels any threat to the biosphere as a matter of great concern. This is the basis of a new level of moral consciousness, which goes beyond the ethics of compassion, and which could be termed eco-ethics. Eco-ethics fosters a new sense of stewardship of and responsibility toward the biosphere. People can become the thinking part of the biota and can assume the biosphere’s problems as their own.

Eco-ethics is the appropriate level for dealing with typical ecological problems, such as the destruction of the tropical forests or coral reefs, the threats to the biodiversity, or climate change. Paul W. Taylor proposes a biocentric ethics. All organisms are teleological centers of life. Insofar as humans become rational and well informed about facts, they will develop reality awareness and respect for nature, and they will adopt a biocentric ethics (Taylor 1986).

Synthetic Biology

New developments in biology and biotechnology have opened unprecedented opportunities to produce artificial life and new types of organisms with desired properties. This endeavor has become known as synthetic biology, a field of research that combines elements of biology, engineering, genetics, chemistry, and computer science. The usual science of biology is analytical; it describes and analyzes the natural living things that are the results of biological evolution. Synthetic biology is to a large extent an active technology, and it is synthetic to the extent that it creates or synthesizes its own subjects of research. It joins the knowledge and insights of biology with the practical principles and techniques of engineering. Achievements in synthetic biology rely on artificially created DNA to create new biochemical systems or organisms with novel or enhanced characteristics.

If genetic sequencing is about reading DNA and genetic engineering is about copying, cutting, and pasting DNA, synthetic biology is about writing and programming new DNA with two main goals: create genetic machines from scratch and gain new insights about how life works. Genetic engineering maintains the usual structures of natural life but changes parts of the genome, so as to achieve desired results. Certain lines of research try to produce a minimum genome by successively eliminating genes of a given prokaryote to see whether everything continues to work. “In an ideal world, designing living systems for a practical purpose should be like redesigning a car to make it more efficient, or redesigning a computer with a faster processor. One would have the parts, the right software, the brains and the knowledge about the target system, and ‘voilà!’ a new bacteria that produces ethanol from water, CO2 and light has been created” (Serrano 2007).

A major breakthrough in the field was announced in 2010. Craig Venter, Clyde Hutchison, and Hamilton Smith created the first synthetic life forms. They had copied and modified an entire genome of a small bacterial cell, inserted it into a living cell of another species, and in doing so created a new, synthetic organism. They synthesized a circular genome of about a million DNA bases. This synthetic genome contains 382 genes, plagiarized from the minimum genome of Mycoplasma mycoides. The scientists finally managed to insert this synthetic genome into a enucleated cell of Mycoplasma capricolum so as to produce the first synthetic organism capable of self-reproduction. In fact, they produced a new biospecies (Venter 2013).

In the future, scientists could try to create artificial systems comparable with living beings but based on completely different structures: not on known proteins, but on other molecules; or not on DNA for the encoding of information; not on ATP for energy storage; perhaps even based on a solvent other than water. Up to now, these possibilities remain largely unexplored.

New developments in technology often lead to ethical discussions of their presumed dangers and risks. For example, the whole field of nanotechnology has become surrounded by alarmist ethical assessments of its risks. And most scientists do not share the perception of grave risks in genetically modified crops, which nevertheless meet with much opposition among certain groups of activists.

There are three justified reasons for alarm about a new crop or a new biotechnological development: (1) danger for human health, (2) pain or mistreatment of animals, and (3) destruction of biodiversity. It is not clear that many cases of genetic engineering, from the insulin-producing bacteria, commercialized from 1982 on, to the cultivation of genetically modified plants since 1994, to the use of stem cells and cloning in research, meet any of these criteria.

Ethical questions in synthetic biology mostly focus on risks, paying special attention to the need to control self-replicating machines that could genetically pollute the environment. This, at first sight, does not differ from the ethical questions discussed more than 30 years ago when the first recombinant DNA techniques were born. Some people question the whole endeavor of producing new gene arrangements and artificial organisms. Finally, the vocabulary of synthetic biology can foster the identification of organisms with artifacts, an identification that, given the connection between life and value, may in the very long run lead to a weakening of society’s respect for higher forms of life that are usually regarded as worthy of protection.


Researchers in biology and biotechnology are confronted and excited by a wealth of new opportunities but also alarmed by the fears and opposition they detect in parts of the public. At the interface between science and morals is a widely perceived need for a deep ethical reflection that takes into account the epistemic values of science, concern over the well-being of living creatures, and the preservation of the Earth’s biosphere.

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