Volume 4 Number 8
You Can't Stop Science
01 August 1991

Professor Eduard Kellenberger witnessed one of the great scientific breakthroughs of the century. He talks to Alan Channer about genes, ethics and society.

Between the spires of a mediaeval city and the incinerator chimneys of three pharmaceutical companies, lies the 'Biozentrum' of Basel University, in Switzerland. Here Professor Eduard Kellenberger, though now over 70, still infects his students with the enthusiasm for science that sustained his half-century of fundamental research: a half-century in which science and technology transformed the world faster than any other agent in history.

A member of prestigious European and American academies, with three honorary doctorates and 234 scientific publications to his name, Kellenberger remains unassuming. He travels to work by tram, chatting genially with other passengers about life in general. His scientific brilliance rides in tandem with a keen interest in the human condition.

`Science has progressed too fast for our materialist civilization to cope with,' he maintains. `A society whose members see the goal of life only in purchasing more and more goods is unable to apply the results of science in a reasonable manner. We are heading for catastrophe unless we can replace material goals with spiritual ones.'

Kellenberger read physics at Geneva University and became involved in developing the electron microscope, under Professor Jean Weigle, in 1946. He recalls the great moment when Weigle decided they had reached the goal of refining the instrument, and were ready to start using it. Those were exciting times in science. The electron microscope made it possible to see viruses and the fine structure of our own cells for the first time. Working nights as well as days, Kellenberger remembers being startled by the ghostly busts of former professors on the dark staircases.

Weigle joined the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, where an American, Max Delbruck, was studying certain viral parasites of bacteria, called bacteriophages. Delbruck had a hunch that studying the simplest forms of life might afford fundamental insights into life in general. He was right; and international collaboration with the Geneva team and others paved the way for the discovery that DNA is the material of the genetic code.

Kellenberger became Professor of Biophysics at Geneva University in 1961. His physicist's interest in microscopic structures merged with a biological interest in their function, and one of his research students, Werner Arber, began studying how some bacteria manage to resist infection by bacteriophages. `People said, "Why are you doing this research? What use is it?" I defended Arber, and he later won the Nobel Prize for a discovery that led to the development of genetic engineering.' Kellenberger pauses and adds with a smile, `Now Arber defends me.'

Genetic engineering is a controversial development, with startling potential. It involves a series of techniques for taking a gene from one species, say man, and putting it into another, for instance a bacterium. Thus human insulin for diabetics is now produced by bacteria. Anti-insect genes have already been transferred from bacteria into crops, lessening pesticide use; and gene technology is at the forefront of efforts to improve crop yields worldwide. The combination of advances in manipulating the genes of domestic animals with the techniques of in vitro fertilization in humans may make it possible to cure families with hereditary diseases.

Insults to humanity
A spectre is looming in the public mind that scientists are `tinkering with life', vying for a privilege which should be God's alone, and that the end-result could be horrifying. Kellenberger understands these fears, but puts them in perspective. `Genetic engineering only does faster what man has been doing for thousands of years in the domestication, selection and breeding of crops and animals. We wouldn't be here today, at least with this standard of living, if we hadn't manipulated things.

`Some say, "Stop this evil science and technology!" But I believe that science is fundamental to Western culture, that it originates subconsciously and can't be stopped. We have got to use our brains, otherwise we have no hope of sustaining more than 6 billion people at the same time as preserving plants and animals in our environment.'

Kellenberger maintains that the scientist cannot predict where fundamental research is going to lead; and even less can he or she predict its ultimate applications. How society uses science is thus in the hands of politicians, lawyers, industrialists, economists and ultimately all those individuals who constitute society. The moral choice is not whether we obtain knowledge, but how we use it.

These choices are complicated by the animosity that has developed over history between scientists and other thinkers, particularly philosophers and theologians. Kellenberger traces this, in part, to pique. Science, he says, has dealt three `insults' to humanity.

First, Copernicus and Galileo shattered the belief that we were living at the centre of the universe. Then Darwinism and modern genetics combined to indicate, not only that we are descended from apes, but that the blueprint for our make-up, and the basic building-blocks of our cells, are essentially identical to those of all organisms, even simple bacteria. Finally, the psychologists told us that much of our motivation comes from the unconscious; that conscious reason, apparently a distinctive human asset, doesn't run our lives.

Biological warfare
Kellenberger is adamant that in an age where humanity appears to be destroying its habitat, the Earth, science needs other disciplines: `What we need most is philosophers, theologians and others concerned with ethics to prepare a completely new philosophy of life, with values which are not only materialistic. By such new attitudes, popular demands will change and industry will adapt. And we need economists to think how these values can be incorporated into the functioning of society.'

Kellenberger takes his ideas into the public arena in the spirit that minds must meet `without being afraid to disagree'. A member of the Swiss Universities Board, he has proposed the founding of a federal institute to assess the risks of engineering micro-organisms and plants. He sees this as the only solution to the conflict between those who say `we must have no genetic manipulation', and those who want to profit by it as soon as possible.

He gives annual lectures on the dangers of biological warfare at the Geneva International Peace Research Institute. Recent advances, he points out, have made the manufacture of biochemical weapons both cheap and difficult to detect: biotechnology can get bacteria to produce lethal poisons in much the same way that yoghurt is made from milk.

Kellenberger believes in `something which could be called God', and sees a spiritual motivation in his scientific quest to understand the patterns of life; but he has no formal religious affiliation. He decries the notion that man is the `crown of Creation', charged by God to `subdue the Earth'; believing that such attitudes are responsible for the insensitive and environmentally-damaging face of Western civilization.

He has been a keynote speaker at a series of `dialogues between men and women of science and faith on the preservation of Creation', initiated by Cardinal Konig, former Archbishop of Vienna, at Caux in Switzerland. He finds honesty essential if people of different disciplines are to make progress in understanding each other.

You can't leave the Kellenberger household without the benefit of a good meal and a headful of ideas. Dinner-time conversation, over organically-grown asparagus, turns from Jung's notion that maturity involves the unconscious becoming conscious, to the possibility that the West has become civilization without culture. Yet the family live simply. They have never had television; even the professor's children sympathize with his view that TV is `passive consumption', and an uncreative use of time.

They've just planted their lawn with a thrifty-looking grass: Kellenberger's son believes it will need less fertilizer than already falls in the rain as pollution.

Kellenberger has been part of a great tide of science and technology which has swept mankind beyond horizons our forebears could hardly have dreamed of. And yet he remains aloof from many of the gadgets and the comforts, from the acquisitiveness, which this tide has generated. He believes clearly in the primacy of the human being over the material; in the primacy of ethics and faith over profit. Perhaps if we can see science in this perspective, we can use its fruits wisely.