In this article I examine similarities between the science and ethics of biotechnology on the one hand, and those of alchemy on the other, and show that the understanding of nature and naturalness upon which many contemporary ethical responses to biotechnology are predicated is, in fact, significantly similar to the understanding of nature that was the foundation of the practice of alchemy. In doing so I demonstrate that the ethical issues and social responses that are currently arising from advances in the field of biotechnology are interestingly similar to those that arose in reaction to the practice and prevalence of alchemy from its inception in Europe in the mid-twelfth century until at least the early modern period. I argue that a proper conception of the ethical issues and a sensible interpretation of the power and the promise of the science of biotechnology are most likely if we understand such attitudes to nature, and to the ethical issues surrounding technological and scientific developments, in terms of an historical and cultural continuum. That is, we should regard biotechnology as merely the latest in a string of technological and scientific developments rather than, as is often alleged, as something entirely new, requiring its own special ethical response. Finally, I suggest that examining the parallels between the ethical issues generated by alchemy and by biotechnology show us that such issues are best situated and discussed within a framework of virtue ethics, as it allows us to think seriously about the relationship between art and nature and the proper role of humans in relation to their technology.
|Journal||Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A|
|Publication status||Published - 2009|