Life sciences in society today: Modern Biology and Visions of Humanity

March 23, 2004

Brussels, 22 March 2004

On 22-23 March in Genoa European Capital of Culture 2004 a unique conference will bring together scientists and leading personalities from the arts, humanities and politics to debate the influence of life sciences on education and culture in today's society.

The event will examine why science and biology inspire both fascination and fear.

During the Renaissance or Enlightenment, geographical discoveries and new arts and sciences expanded the frontiers of knowledge. By contrast, our epoch brings a new understanding of the nature of life and of the cosmos through molecular biology and contemporary physics.

But it also brings scepticism. The conference will try to explain why. Striving to represent a wide spectrum of interests and viewpoints, participants at the event will include scientists, philosophers, sociologists, psychologists, politicians, writers, poets and other artists.

The high-level conference is organised by a group of personal advisors to Research Commissioner Philippe Busquin, the European Group on Life Sciences (EGLS). A book entitled "Modern Biology and Visions of Humanity" will also be launched at the event. The book reflects the views of some of the panellists and will be published in English, French and Italian.

"The public debate on the role of life sciences and biotechnology in today's society is important to understand the consequences of modern research and its impact on the wider usage of new technology," says Research Commissioner Philippe Busquin. "Today we cannot talk about research without taking into account what science is able, or unable, to achieve. Scientific and medical breakthroughs have dramatically improved our quality of life, but they have also created many social and moral dilemmas. The impact of these advances on Europe's society and culture cannot be ignored and will be central to the panel's discussions."

Progress in life sciences progress in understanding?

The latter part of the 20th Century and the beginning of the 21st have witnessed a surge of scientific discovery in the field of biology. New knowledge has generated new products, processes and services that have had a huge impact on our lives, not least in the medical field. These advances have included products such as human insulin, factor VIII to moderate blood coagulation and interferon to stimulate immune reaction; the enzymatic process to replace chemical processes; and services including genetic testing and profiling as well as in vitro fertilisation.

New questions and dilemmas

However, scientific knowledge has also triggered many new questions and challenged us with new dilemmas. What is the impact of this knowledge on individual human beings, society, and humanity's perception of itself and its destiny? The consequences of breakthroughs, such as the mapping of the human genome, are considerable and have a fundamental impact not just on the lives of citizens, but also on the way citizens look at their own lives.

Science: has it gone too far, or not far enough?

For centuries, many have equated science with progress and believed that the knowledge acquired through scientific inquiry is of a different, or higher, order to other forms of cultural or artistic understanding. At the same time, scientists have insisted on the objective nature of their discoveries, giving access to a realm of 'reality' beyond the reach of value judgements and social ideologies. But there are voices challenging these interpretations. Is it really possible for scientists to work outside their social and cultural environment? What are the dangers of biological discoveries being abused, and at what point should research be subject to democratic control?

The conference

To tackle these and other questions, four discussion sessions, which are chaired by members of the European Group on Life Sciences (EGLS), have been planned:

  • life sciences and the belief in progress,

  • the challenge and limitations of reductionism (1) in life sciences research,

  • life sciences and democracy,

  • science fiction as a cultural spin-off from biological exploration.
The event will include many leading personalities such as Federico Mayor Zaragoza, former Secretary General of UNESCO, Ladislav Kovac, biologist and former Slovakian Minister of Education, Helga Nowotny, sociologist, Evandro Agazzi, philosopher, Christopher Bigsby, author and broadcaster and scientists such as Steven Rose, Axel Khan, Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard, Nobel Laureate and Luigi Cavalli-Sforza.

The European Group on Life Sciences (EGLS) was established in April 2000 for high-level advice on the state and development of life sciences and biotechnologies, to engage scientists in a debate about life sciences with all groups of society and to encourage the dissemination of the new knowledge. For further information, please see: .

For a detailed conference programme with background information (in four languages) please visit: .
(1) reductionism is the attempt to explain all biological processes by the same approach (e.g. physical laws) that chemists and physicists use to interpret inanimate matter.

DN: IP/04/372 Date: 22/03/2004

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