Maxine Singer: Ethics and Scientific Progress

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In the early ’70s, when scientists first learned to manipulate the living gene, they put a moratorium on some kinds of molecular experiments to give themselves time to think about what they were doing and set some guidelines for the research. In the late ’80s, genetic research is in full swing, as scientists were working on projects ranging from developing more fertile chickens to curing cancer. But even as the discoveries mounted, the dissenting voices were rising. In this episode of World of Ideas, Dr. Maxine Singer, a geneticist, discussed her concerns with the ethics of science, the dilemmas of choice, and the consequences that so often accompany scientific progress. She also talked about the image of scientists in our society and the ethics of genetic engineering.

Maxine Singer


BILL MOYERS: [on camera] Good evening. I’m Bill Moyers. Back in the early 70s, when scientists first learned to manipulate the living gene, they stopped doing it for a while. They put a moratorium on some kinds of molecular experiments. They gave themselves time to think about what they were doing and set some guidelines for the research. Now, generic research is in full swing, as scientists work on projects ranging from developing more fertile chickens to curing cancer. But even as the discoveries mount, the dissenting voices are rising too. “Are we doing good for humankind?” they ask, “or meddling too much with nature?” My guest tonight has some thoughts on that subject. Join me for a conversation with Dr. Maxine Singer.

[voice-over] Maxine Singer is a biologist who’s field is genetics, perhaps the most intimately human of the sciences. Recently named president of the Carnegie Institute of Washington, a research center in the nation’s capital, Dr. Singer has spent most of her professional life at the National Institutes of Health, where she was head of a laboratory for cancer research. One of her long-time concerns has been the ethics of science, those dilemmas of choice and consequence, that so often accompany scientific progress. In 1975 she helped to organize the Asilomar conference, where she and other scientists drew up guidelines for the do’s and don’ts of genetic re-search. I talked with Dr. Singer at her office in Washington.

[interviewing] Many years ago the popular image of the scientist was either Dr. Frankenstein or Dr. Strangelove. You were either creating monsters you couldn’t control, or you were plotting to blow up the world. Do you think that image still prevails?

MAXINE SINGER: I think it prevails in many places still. I experience it personally. People meet me casually, Washington dinners, cocktails parties, don’t know what I do, and ask what I do. And if you say, “I’m a molecular biologist,” they go to the far end of the room. I suppose they’re puzzled by the fact that I don’t look like Dr. Frankenstein, and don’t act that way, but they somehow are frightened and somehow think that I must live in a world apart, without the same kind of human concerns that they have.

BILL MOYERS: What does it say to you about a society which has such a negative image of scientists? Even in television and movies, the scientist is often an unsympathetic, sometimes inhumane, creature.

MAXINE SINGER: It says that science was not an integral part of their upbringing and education and they didn’t come to understand that it was one of the grand human activities as they were growing up. It uses the same kind of talent and creativity as painting pictures or making sculptures. It’s not really very different, except that you do it from a base of technical knowledge. It’s not an in-human or superhuman activity. Science is something humans invented, and it speaks to one of our great needs: to understand the world around us.

BILL MOYERS: Given the negative image of scientists, why did you, as a young woman, decide to become one?

MAXINE SINGER: I’ll give you the answer that, in fact, many, many scientists give. I had one marvelous chemistry teacher in high school. It’s really interesting how many of my colleagues, when asked this question, give this same answer. She was a woman who was an exciting teacher, very demanding, and interested in me because I was interested in what she taught.

BILL MOYERS: And you said she was demanding. That’s not a term you hear very often these days of many teachers, I’m sorry to say, and, in fact, since I called you and asked you to do this interview, there was another report saying that kids coming out of high schools are increasingly, more so, scientifically illiterate.

MAXINE SINGER: Let me tell you a story that goes back to the days when my now grown up children went to junior high school. Each of them, in turn, came into a biology class that was taught by a superb teacher in a Washington junior high school. Within two weeks of the beginning of the school year, on each of those four occasions, I began to get calls from parents of other children in the class asking whether I would join a delegation to the principal. The delegation was going to complain about the amount of work that this biology teacher gave. The parents thought it was too much homework. They also somehow didn’t think biology was that important, and they were shocked to learn that I would not join the delegation — quite the reverse. These were well- educated people. They had great expectations for their children, although none of those expectations included science. And they just didn’t feel that it was worth the effort on the part of their children.

BILL MOYERS: This happened not just with one child of yours?

MAXINE SINGER: It happened each time.

BILL MOYERS: Four times?

MAXINE SINGER: Four times in a row.

BILL MOYERS: The other parents wanted to protest the teacher’s demanding assignments.

MAXINE SINGER: That’s right

BILL MOYERS: What does that mean?

MAXINE SINGER: It means that the parents didn’t see the opportunities that there are for an individual in being a scientist They didn’t understand the profound importance to the society in which they live of scientific discovery, of technical competence. Now, not every person needs to be a scientist, but there are some big ideas about the nature of the world that everyone ought to have, as part of his baggage. People ought to know that we all get information in the form of DNA from our parents, and that our competence, our capabilities, are, to some extent — and I mean both physical and mental — are, to some extent, dependent upon that. We all ought to know that if you take down a great deal of green stuff from the earth, that you put less oxygen into it. It’s amazing, for example, to realize that most people don’t know that the oxygen isn’t just up there for the taking. It’s put there by living things called green plants. They somehow think the oxygen was there from the beginning, it wasn’t. They have to appreciate certain fundamental kinds of things.

BILL MOYERS: What are you working on right now in your research?

MAXINE SINGER: I’m interested in human genetics, and in aspects of the structure of human DNA, what we call the human genome.


MAXINE SINGER: Right. That’s a word which is just a collective. It says, that’s all the DNA in a human cell. It’s called its genome. The whole collection of genes, and other pieces of DNA that are not genes, all together make up the human genome.

BILL MOYERS: Just so that a scientifically illiterate journalist would understand the analogy, would it be alright to say that the gene is to the human make-up what, say, the thread in this suit is? That it’s sort of the basic stuff?

MAXINE SINGER: No, that’s not really the best way.

BILL MOYERS: Correct me, then.

MAXINE SINGER: The best way to look at it is that a gene is like a sentence in an encyclopedia. It’s a piece of information, and it’s buried in the genome, the whole encyclopedia, which is a vast store of information. The gene instructs the cell how to do some one thing, and altogether the billions of cells in your body do all the things that make you who you are, that make a corn plant what it is, that make a yeast cell what it is.

BILL MOYERS: And you’re trying to explore what about it?

MAXINE SINGER: Well, in fact, what my colleagues and I in my lab do is not quite looking at what a gene is like. It turns out there’s a lot of DNA which doesn’t really have any information, at least as far as we know now. It’s as though you had an encyclopedia and on every third page there was a lot of jabberwock. And then you turn six more pages and you repeated exactly the same thing again.

BILL MOYERS: The same jabberwock?

MAXINE SINGER: The same jabberwock. And two pages later, there it was again. It doesn’t look like a gene. That is to say, it doesn’t look like a meaningful sentence. I can’t figure out what it is, and I’m certainly confounded by the fact that it occurs so many times. My colleagues and I are looking, in fact, at a sentence in the human genome that occurs, probably, on the order of 100,000 times, and altogether makes up about five percent of the DNA in every cell. Why? We don’t know. What is it doing? We don’t know. We do know that new copies of it can be made.

BILL MOYERS: In the human?

MAXINE SINGER: In a human cell, and put in a new place in the DNA. And we know, thanks to the work of some human geneticists at Johns Hopkins, that it can cause mutations. That was a very exciting finding in the last year for us, because what it says is, this piece of genomic jabberwock can pick itself up from one place in the genome, and settle down somewhere else where it can cause a mutation; in this particular case, two instances of the disease of hemophilia. It’s very real, and very serious.

BILL MOYERS: There’s a lot of talk in this city about the Human Genome Project costing billions of dollars.


BILL MOYERS: What is it?

MAXINE SINGER: Well, if I use the analogy that I’ve been using, it would be equivalent to saying that we could write out that encyclopedia for human DNA, that we would know what all of the information is in a human cell. We would know how to find it, as we do when we look in an index of an encyclopedia, or when we look up something alphabetically. We turn to part “C” and we find “Churchill.” We would know how to “turn” to the gene that causes hemophilia when it’s mutated. We would know how to turn to the page that says, “This gene is going to be important in causing a certain tumor.” We would know how to look at that gene in a person and, perhaps, make some guesses as to whether they were likely to develop a certain tumor or not

BILL MOYERS: So, if you knew that, then you could begin to think about altering the genes to prevent the disease.

MAXINE SINGER: Right the Genome Project is defined that way, very grandly.

BILL MOYERS: But why should the public buy into this project with such vast sums of money; two, three billion dollars?

MAXINE SINGER: Well, first of all, let’s say that those sums of monies are going to be spent over a very long period of time. The grand and glorious answer to that, the nice answer, is because the public is curious about itself. As curious as we are. We will do the work, but we will all share in the understanding that it gives us about ourselves and the world we live in. The public will also be interested because it is with that knowledge that we’re going to be able to deal with starvation. We’re going to learn how to grow plants in Africa that can’t now be grown in Africa. That’s because it’s more than the human genome. We’re going to learn how to deal with disease. We will improve the lot of all mankind.

BILL MOYERS: New cures for cancer, new vaccines?

MAXINE SINGER: Eventually, new cures for cancer, new vaccines, and things unimaginable to us now, but which we know we will learn by doing this. We can’t even describe them. And the reason we know that we will know things that we can’t describe is that’s been the history of science. We do things to learn something we can define, and wind up knowing things we never imagined even asking about.

BILL MOYERS: But a lot of us, Dr. Singer, are nervous about the whole idea of genetic engineering. We’re not sure we should be fooling around with our genes.

MAXINE SINGER: Why aren’t you sure? What bothers you?

BILL MOYERS: I’ll show you a picture from The Economist, which gives us –that’s the thing that scares people. That’s a picture of what’s called a “geep.” A scientist at the Cambridge University crossed the embryos of a goat and a sheep and got a three-legged “geep.” People see this and they imagine a future of horrible mutations, of something beyond human beings. That’s one part of it.

MAXINE SINGER: Well, hmm — how to answer that? The “geep” is something that someone did in order to learn whether it could be done, basically. But it’s not something that people are going to be making, except on an occasional experimental basis. And it is surely not something that will ever be done with human beings in any similar way.

BILL MOYERS: How can you say that with such certainty?

MAXINE SINGER: Because scientists are human beings, as human as those who are not scientists. They share the same values. The greatest resistance to doing any genetic engineering on human beings, has come from the scientific community. There are very strong feelings within the scientific community about doing genetic engineering on human beings. And the evidence for that is the level of review and discussion within the scientific community prior to doing even very small things; nothing that comes even close to a “geep.”

BILL MOYERS: But, in the end, the scientific community is not, itself, responsible for what happens to its discoveries. I mean, when engineers created the oven I don’t think they expected a Christian nation in the heart of Europe to put human beings in it and put them to death to the scale of millions.

MAXINE SINGER: Well, what you’re saying then is something I would agree with. That if the knowledge that is gained is misused, it is not because of the science or scientists. It is because of the same old human problems that have done evil for eons.

BILL MOYERS: There’s a will to use it.

MAXINE SINGER: And whether it uses technology that’s new, or technology that’s old — as people used in the Biblical era, or before then — the thing that motivates it are human problems that have nothing to do with the developments in technology. And to make the technological and scientific developments the scapegoat, because it gives evil people new tools to do evil, seems to me missing the boat.

BILL MOYERS: There was an interesting poll not long ago which showed that 40 percent of the people in this country said they thought it was morally wrong to alter the genes, the genetic code, but 80 percent of them went on to say that they would be willing to risk it if they thought taking that risk might prevent a disease they had themselves.

MAXINE SINGER: I find those polls very puzzling, and very hard to understand. What they tell me is what we were talking about before, a lack of understanding about the science. Because for people to simply give you a response that says, “I just don’t think it’s right to meddle with these genes in this way,” and if you ask, “Why isn’t it right? What’s really wrong about it?”-they don’t understand enough about what you’re doing to be able to sort out for themselves what’s right or wrong about it.

BILL MOYERS: You hear people say, “Well, will it be possible for human beings, for parents, to seek hormones that will produce a 7-foot basketball player, a 7-foot football player, so that I can train my kid, raise my kid, have my kid to go out there and make money as a professional basketball player.”

MAXINE SINGER: Yes, it is possible to do that. Today you can do that without any genetic engineering of humans, because genetic engineering has made growth hormone available cheaply. We need the growth hormone to treat people who are diseased in the sense that they don’t make it them-selves. It’s available, and it’s cheap, and people are buying it in order to give to their children to make them good athletes. That’s not a problem of the scientist who cloned the human growth hormone gene in order to help children who suffer from an absence from it, and would be dwarfs otherwise. The problem is the same old problem — human problem — of greedy, thoughtless parents who are using something to achieve an end that the scientists who developed it never dreamt of.

BILL MOYERS: What about the weightier concern I’ve heard in some quarters that if we start manipulating genes for profit, we will be giving a powerful economic incentive to the view of human nature as essentially a materialistic phenomenon.

MAXINE SINGER: Yes, I think it’s bunk. I must tell you straight out, I think it’s bunk.

BILL MOYERS: Don’t mince your words.

MAXINE SINGER: I’m not mincing my words. Let me put it to you this way. It is now possible, easily possible, we do it every day in the lab, to synthesize a gene out of chemicals.

BILL MOYERS: Make one?

MAXINE SINGER: That’s right, in a purely chemical process. I can make in the laboratory, synthetically, a human growth hormone gene. There is no way to tell the difference between that gene and the gene I would isolate from a human cell.

BILL MOYERS: And, this means-?

MAXINE SINGER: Why is this somehow mystical? Why are we dealing, when we deal with genes, with something which is given a quality, because it came out of a human being, which it doesn’t really have?

BILL MOYERS: Well, I think most of us are raised with a sense-many of us are raised with a sense of the reverence for life, of the sense of human beings constituting a special creation, a divine creation, and we’re not certain about mucking around with it

MAXINE SINGER: We are special. We are special. And we are marvelous, and there are many things in the world that are marvelous. But in what sense does it diminish our sense of ourselves if we understand that we are the product of a lot of molecules coming together in a marvelous way? We are not those molecules. We are all of them together. Let me say a couple of things. One of the things these people very often mention in this context is the uniqueness of the individual; that each one of us is marvelously different from every other one. Modern genetics has told us that that is absolutely true. There are not two of us that have the same DNA molecules, except for two identical twins, who are identical. And biology says that each of us, with our different genetic make-up, is unique. It’s the same splendid notion that we came to for a lot of other reasons and biology underscores it. We are all different, and knowing how we work in no way diminishes that, in no way changes how we look upon our children, how we look upon people we love. It’s all there, because putting all these molecules together makes us a unique product of our planet. The physicist, Richard Feynman, I think, put this in another context, in the context of astronomy. He talked about poets, and he asked the question, why wasn’t it that poets could write about Jupiter when they thought Jupiter was like a man? What kind of a man can’t write as a poet about that same Jupiter if he knows that it’s a great, whirling sphere of methane and ammonia? When you look out in the sky, and you look at Jupiter, it brings in all of us the same wonder, the same awe about the universe. I would tell you that I think the astronomer has more awe and wonder, because he knows what it is up there. It doesn’t diminish it, it enriches it for him.

BILL MOYERS: And you think the biologist may have more awe and wonder of the human body by knowing what’s in there?

MAXINE SINGER: I know that that’s true. My wonder at the kinds of things that we’ve learned in molecular biology beats anything that anybody can tell me in, sort of, grand terms that doesn’t understand, indeed, how extraordinary a human being is. How incredible it is that a few genes changed have given us this tremendous gift of language, of communication, of being able to write down our history, of having culture, of drawing pictures, of making paintings. I think that I appreciate that more, not less, because of what I know.

BILL MOYERS: You like your work, don’t you, even if it means being ostracized at a cocktail party or at dinner?

MAXINE SINGER: Oh, that’s a fair bargain as far as I’m concerned. I was a graduate student in 1953 when Jim Watson and Francis Crick announced what a DNA molecule looked like. They started an incredible 40 years for biology, and have allowed us to understand things about living things that, as a graduate student, even, I couldn’t imagine. It isn’t that the answers were unimaginable; the questions were unimaginable. So, I’ve lived through an extraordinary time in biology, and I’ve been part of it, and there hasn’t been a day when I’ve wanted to do anything else.

BILL MOYERS: Do you get mad at this image of the scientist as Frankenstein and Strangelove?

MAXINE SINGER: Yes, I get angry with it. Because what it makes me realize is that a lot of wonderful, curious, bright young people are never going to have the privilege that I’ve had — to live 40 years without a boring day, to think of something new every day, to learn things that no one has ever known before, no matter how small it is. And I myself have not learned big things in my own research. I’m not a Watson or a Crick or a Weinberg, for that matter. I’ve learned small things. But to learn something one day that nobody ever knew before is something that, I think, everyone should have a chance to do. And to the extent we are turning off young people in our country — quite apart from the fact that we’re turning them off from wonderful careers in terms of good incomes, wonderful careers in terms of the availability of great jobs — we’re turning them off from the possibility of sharing in this great world of discovery that scientists now have, that explorers no longer have because we’ve explored every nook and cranny on the planet, and we’re not yet able to go to Jupiter or Mars, and I’m sorry about that. And if part of what turns them off is that they think that we’re somehow not part of the species, it’s too bad.

BILL MOYERS: You really do feel that you’re working on human values, and humane values, are you not?

MAXINE SINGER: I don’t think that there is much going on on our globe that’s more humane, and more concerned with humanity, than science.

BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] From the Carnegie Institution in Washington, this has been a conversation with Maxine Singer. I’m Bill Moyers.

This transcript was entered on August 19, 2015.

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