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The world of science is constantly discovering new information that changes the way that humans live, their knowledge about the past, and their hopes of health for the future. Over the last two hundred years, knowledge about evolution, cell biology, DNA, and many other fields has changed humanity’s perspective on their place in the greater scheme of the world. In particular, there have been three very specific, recent discoveries that have had a significant impact on the scientific community. In terms of society, health, and culture, the three most important recent scientific discoveries in this area are the Tiktallik fossil, the human genome project, and genetically modified organisms that are used for food. Each of these discoveries and inventions has radically altered the human perception of the world and ability to remain functional and healthy in it.
The Human Genome Project was one of the greatest scientific undertakings of the twentieth century, and had the goal of mapping the genes of the human being. It was undertaken in 1990, and was declared completed in the year 2003 (Genome, 2012). In order to do this, there were three different criteria that were established. They were: determining the sequence of all of the bases in the human beings DNA, making maps that would be able to show the location for the genes in the major sections of human chromosomes, and producing linkage maps so that they could trace inherited traits over the course of many generations (Genome, 2012).
There were many different social implications that were created as a result of this project. Before the tests even started, people started to express concerns about the privacy of the genetic information, and how it could be used to track people in the future (GHR, 2015). This led to the creation of new ethics guidelines for the testing and tracking of human genetic information while it is being utilized for tests, but left many unanswered questions about how the mapped human genome could be used. In particular, the social qualms about this test hinted at the possibility that the human genome could be used as justification for certain discrimination against ethnic groups (GHR, 2015). Another, more important, qualm that has arisen as a result of having too much information on a human being’s genetic code is that it could be used by insurance companies in the future. This information would be able to tell them about the human’s associated risk for cancer and several other life-threatening ailments which could be used to deny them coverage (Boehm, 1999).
There are also broad cultural implications for the human genome project as well. However, these implications are not based upon changes that the human genome project has revealed, but rather what completing the project reveals about human beings. The fact that the Human Genome Project is so divisive about the morality of human beings shows that humanity is divided on the issue of morality. Some people wish to believe that our mentality and actions are predetermined by our genes, while others take the route of believing that the culture in which a person is nurtured ultimately determines their future outcomes (Leno, 1999). This has touched off a battle between these two camps on a cultural level, yet there is a more nefarious cultural concern. It is predicated on the question: if we understand human genomes, can we influence or change them, effectively changing the individual or their offspring? Of course, at this point in development it almost seems laughable to make a link between genome outcomes and a human behavior, but it has created controversy around the subject. Perhaps it is best if humans are not able to completely unlock the genomic potential of all human beings.
Yet, these concerns have to be tempered by the potential medical uses that are offered by uncovering the human genome. The human genome project has had a tremendous impact on the medical community because it offers an in-depth look at the genes that are responsible for long-term and potentially fatal illnesses such as cancer and Alzheimer’s. One of the ways that the Human Genome Project has already changed the way that human beings live and approach medicine is through genetic counseling sessions. People who want to know about their specific potential for having an illness such as cancer or a rare defect that they could pass on can go through genetic counseling. This process allows a person to go to a medical center and have their genes tested to see if they have a high potential rate of inheritance for an ailment or of passing one on to their children (Genome.gov, 2015). This is incredibly important to prevent some individuals with damaged genes from passing them on and having a severely disabled child.
The possibilities for medical implications of the Human Genome Project are seemingly endless, and could unlock a future where humans live longer, healthier lives. While this has changed the entire face of the medicine in general, there are concerns that human beings are going to use gene counseling and therapy to change the human race, inadvertently altering our genetic destiny for the worse.
One of the other most important discoveries in recent years has come from the field of evolution. While there are always new and exciting discoveries from this particular field of science, a recent discovery of the Tiktaalik fossils show a definitive intermediary step of evolution between fish and amphibians. This new fossil is nicknamed Fishapod because of the varying features of fish and tetrapods that have been attributed to it. Most notably, the Tiktaalik has fins and gills as well as stout legs that allow it to support itself in shallow waters. This fossil was first discovered in 2004, near the Canadian Arctic, and represents a momentous occasion, when fish were first able to venture onto the land (Monoyios, 2013). Most importantly, it shows a link between fish and four-legged vertebrates which would later go on to become amphibians, dinosaurs, mammals, birds, and humans. This fossil find has had several impacts on the cultural, social, and medical communities.
While some may question the implications of a fossil on the modern medical field, the act of the matter is that this fossil represents an important stepping stone for vertebrates. As such, it shows some of the definitive steps in the development of the vertebrae in prehistoric creatures. This knowledge is being used a means to develop a timeline of vertebrae development that can be used to model the ongoing development of vertebrae in other creatures in the future, such as human beings (Keillor, 2010).
The social impacts of the discovery of the Tiktallik fossil have been painted across internet forums as well as in classrooms around the United States. Being that this fossil fills a gap in evolutionary history, it shows a distinct period when evolution was occurring on Earth, challenging the Creationist theory of life. As a result it has led to several people being upset that it was being portrayed directly as a rebuttal against religion as it was a scientific discovery. Dr. David Menton, renowned for his work in both the realm of religion and science, was appalled, saying: “the media’s excitement seems to stem not so much from being able to report a real scientific discovery as in being able to discredit the biblical account of creation” (2014). The discovery and subsequent media parade that was caused by the discovery of the Tiktallik fossil showed that there were elements that wanted to discredit the finding of the fossil and those that wanted to hail it as proof that creationists were wrong.
This social challenge that was produced by the finding of this fossil was that it deepened the divides between those who were coming from a scientific and religious background. The hard-line religious individuals were not willing to readily accept that this fossil was from a single creature or that it was as much of a prominent discovery as the scientific groups were making it out to be (Menton, 2014). This provoked new circular discussions from both sides on the issue that did not want to give any ground on their beliefs about the fossil. Socially, this finding was incredibly divisive, but it showed that there was a fundamental problem in culture as a whole.
The finding of the Tiktallik fossil did not alone have the power to change the culture of the world, but it reveal that there are severe limitations imposed upon the scientific community by religious factors. Arguably, the most important factor when it comes to science is that there is the ability to disseminate information about the topic that is not confounded by factors with no scientific merit. In the case of the Tiktallik fossil, there were several news sources, such as the New York Times, that were hailing the discovery of the fossil in the context of its affect on religion (Menton, 2014). The issue is that the cultural values, in the United States at least, consistently create friction between the elements of science and religion. In fact, the discovery of the fossil was incredibly important from a scientific standpoint, but unless it was addressed through the lens of religion as a severe disavowal, it was not newsworthy. This shows that there is a poisonous culture against both science and religion that must be remedied so that science can be produced and celebrated on its own merits, without having to directly challenge religious elements.
Another one of the most important developments in science over the last fifty years has come from the field of biotechnology. This development is in reference to the broad and controversial topic of genetically modified organisms, also known as GMOs. While these genetically modified organisms come in a wide variety of plants and animals, they have forever changed the way that the world grows food and experiments for the betterment of mankind. After all, GMOs are used to grow plants that have a much higher yield than previously possible, and also produce animals that are primed for experimentation that could one day lead to cures for devastating illnesses (ENHS, 2003). Yet, there are some ethically unsound practices that happen with GMOs that must be explored in contrast to the incredible benefits offered by these products.
Perhaps the greatest impact that GMOs have had on the modern world are medical. Plants that have been modified and engineered, such as tomatoes and corn, are able to produce vast quantities of food in comparison to their counterparts that have been left to grow and reproduce on their own (Schulman, 2014). Aside from being able to feed more people, even in nations where hunger kills more people than disease, GMOs are being developed so that they are more resistant to weather and plant diseases that have killed crops in the past (Schulman, 2014). The result are “supercrops” that are powerful enough to survive harsh weather and reduce the number of deaths from starvation.
The more important medical aspect that is coming into play is that animals are able to be bred produce more meat, milk, and even genetic predispositions for diseases. While the first two aspects are crucial to feeding people and lessening output of carbon dioxide, the final one has advanced the way that human beings are able to perform medical testing. Specifically, genetically modified mice, through specific breeding, have been developed so that they will be carriers to a variety of ailments that can be experimented upon (Anft, 2008). The result is that researchers will not have to wait and hope that a mouse develops a certain condition to be a part of a medical experiment; they can be bred for that specific purpose. This has accelerated the mouse breeding and experimentation that has taken place over the last 50 years. New treatments for cancer, vaccinations, and many other treatments are being produced all the time, with one scientist surmising that 80 percent of all experimental successes will be traced back to mice in the next 25 years (Anft, 2008).
There have been many social ramifications since the usage of GMOs has become commonplace in the United States and around the world. On one hand, they have been lauded as being able to advance science for the future benefit of people around the world, and for the immediate use of people who need food and vaccinations the most. On the other hand, there has been a large movement of people that are against using GMOs because they believe that there is inherent danger in genetically modifying food because it can change the way that it interacts with human bodies (IRT, 2015). They have cited some studies that show that feeding mice GMO food has produced cancerous growths and adverse effects in the digestive tracts of animals (IRT, 2015).
There have been profound cultural impacts since the rise of GMOs being utilized in food as well as medicine. The greatest cultural significance is the willingness of human beings to utilize the lives of animals, on a massive scale, to further humankind. While human beings have always used animals to meet their needs, the fact of the matter is that the scale is now massive and terrifying in its abilities (Anft, 2008). Another cultural shift that has happened as a result of GMOs is the government’s willingness to step in and make rulings about scientific products. For example, the United States government has allowed famed food GMO producer Monsanto to actually patent certain modified organisms and continue to use ones that may cause health conditions (Global, 2013). This move has caused outrage and contempt by other businesses and citizens alike.
The scientific ramifications of these three developments are far-reaching and indicative of the incredible power that humans have to affect the world around them. With such momentous developments in various areas of science, it appears as though the future holds potential and promise for those who are willing to engage in the sciences.
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