May 26, 2021
PROMPT 16: SHOULD SOME KNOWLEDGE NOT BE SOUGHT ON ETHICAL GROUNDS?
Object 1: Da Vinci’s Drawings of the Heart
The prompt I have chosen to address is “Should some knowledge not be sought on ethical grounds?”. The objects selected will focus on the acquisition of scientific knowledge, and the ethical considerations associated with its pursuit.
These anatomical sketches were produced by Da Vinci in the early 1500s. He initially delved into the area of dissection in order to achieve the highest degree of accuracy in his work. His drawings of the heart are particularly famous, as they offered a very accurate representation of this organ and its function. He was the first to propose that the heart was composed of four chambers rather than two, and by drawing on his understanding of fluids, weights and engineering, he was able to closely analyse the workings of the heart’s valves and the flow of blood.
The majority of his conclusions are still accepted nowadays, and were verified by contemporary dissection. Cadaver dissection however was viewed as immoral and unethical for a long period of time, as it violates the principle of autonomy. This principle may be defined as the right or condition of self-government, that claims that all individuals should have autonomous control over the treatment of their bodies after death. His activities were also problematic on a legal basis, as physicians were the only individuals permitted to carry out dissections.
Ultimately, this image enriches the exhibition as it encourages reflection on the weight of ethical considerations when measured against the value of acquired knowledge. There was no treatment for cardiac disease in the 16th century, and surgeries were often unsuccessful due to a lack of anatomical knowledge. As his work remained hidden due to the criminal nature of his activities, Da Vinci’s studies could not be used as a guide; had they been made public, they could have potentially served as the trigger for a paradigm shift in the medical field. This raises the question of whether knowledge should be sought regardless of the ethical concerns attributed to it, particularly when views on ethics are susceptible to change over time. From a contemporary perspective, heeding to the ethical values of his time would have hindered the generation of knowledge.
Object 2: Photograph of Henrietta Lacks
Henrietta Lacks was a young African American woman that passed away in the early 50s, following her battle with a grave case of cervical cancer. Months prior to her death, samples of her cancerous cells were taken by the hospital treating her. Without Lacks ’consent, some of her tissue was given to a researcher, who came to discover her cells ’unbelievable ability to undergo mitosis—cell division—and reproduce. These samples were then shared to such an extent that they became an essential actor in the acquisition of biological knowledge.
Decades after her death, scientists still failed to ask for her family’s consent when they published Lacks’s name, medical records or her cells ’genome to the media. Confidentiality and consent are principles that doctors must unerringly uphold, as is stated in the Good Medical Practice document, which outlines doctors’ ethical and legal decisions. Her situation is ethically very interesting, as her cells have contributed immensely to modern medicine in various fields including cancer, immunology and infectious disease. As such, the choices made by the doctors and scientists involved with Henrietta Lacks encourage thorough deliberation on the pursuit of knowledge beneficial to society, and whether it should be sought on ethical grounds.
The knowledge acquired through the use of her cells was invaluable to the advancement of scientific knowledge, but it was obtained by forsaking ethical standards. On this account, this object contributes to the exhibition, as it raises the question of how important ethical absolutes are in the grand scheme of things. Had the hospital asked for authorisation before sharing samples of her tissue, they could have risked refusal, hence rendering it impossible for her cells’ exceptional circumstances to be discovered. At the cost of abandoning ethical code, numerous lives were saved or significantly improved, which calls into question the role of ethics in the search for knowledge.
Object 3: Dolly the Sheep’s Stuffed Remains
Dolly the sheep is the product of the Roslin Institute’s experimentation on genetically modified stock. As she was the first mammal to have been successfully cloned from an adult cell, her situation offers food for thought on an ethical basis. More specifically, it promotes discussion on the arguably unethical practice that is animal experimentation, and the controversial subject of the manipulation of nature.
Animal experimentation is an exhaustively debated topic, as it puts the lives of living organisms in danger with low chances of success, solely to advance scientific knowledge. Another ethical concern that arises with cloning science is the concept of “playing God”. Many would argue that it is not our role as humans to seek to create life, or tamper with the purity of nature as it stands. The argument stands that meddling with nature extends the scope of human control beyond what we may be capable of handling, and that interfering with life in its natural state is unethical. This object is indispensable to the exhibition as it explicitly addresses humans’ desire to seek knowledge, despite having to set aside compelling ethical principles.
By proceeding with their experiments on Dolly the sheep, the scientists at Roslin Institute directly opposed the ethical absolutist approach, which holds that ethical code must be unyielding and forever unchanging regardless of the given circumstances. However, her birth was pivotal in the synthesis of personalised stem cells—more widely referred to as iPS cells—which are applied in multiple areas of medicine including gene therapy, disease modelling and drug discovery. Essentially, her situation encourages further introspection on the advancement of human knowledge at the expense of established ethical boundaries.