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Clio Med. 1998;48:108-32.

Biology as technology.

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University of M√ľnster.


In this paper we have emphasised the technological dimension of the biosciences, especially the biosciences of our time. As a straight forward fact this dimension is less controversial than the question of its relevance is. We have argued that the existence of this dimension is a consequence of the empirical character of the biosciences (as well as of the sciences in general). Knowledge of nature can be achieved only if the subject of knowledge is able to gain access to natural phenomena, and technological means have become increasingly necessary for achieving this. The more that is already known, the greater the technological investment required to produce new knowledge. Therefore there is an interrelationship between the advancement of knowledge and the amount and complexity of the research technology required. It would be short sighted to conclude from this observation that human imagination and inventiveness have become superfluous. Nevertheless the growing preponderance of technological means for progress in science is undeniable. A particularly important insight is that this process not only involves a quantitative increase in technology within science. Our main hypothesis is that there is a close relationship between the type of means used, the type of subject required for performing research, the kinds of objects investigated in science, and the nature of the results that are generated. We have tried to illustrate this by distinguishing between three different types of bioscience: (a) a descriptive type, (b) an experimental type, and (c) and an industrial type. Without pretending this provides a universal key to the history of the biosciences and to understanding of the way science works today, we hope that such a distinction may open up new avenues of thought. We hope that this approach will provide us with a more realistic picture of science. The propositional view reduces science to its theoretical results, in particular to the theories emanating from basic research. Science is seen as a special kind of philosophy; its central aim is to provide us with a 'true' view of the world. Thus the social problems which result from scientific inquiry and from the application of its results seem to be something external to the very essence of science and thus only of secondary importance. We believe, therefore, that this picture of science is both theoretically unsatisfactory and socially misleading. An appropriate account of science cannot ignore the fact that basic research represents only a very small part of the science system of our time. It cannot neglect the fact that science today is steeped with technology and to a great extent also industrialised. And it cannot treat the social problems of science as something merely 'external'. To view science as an activity in the sense outlined in this paper permits one to integrate these different aspects into one coherent and realistic picture. 1. It is obvious that technology plays a crucial role in determining the social reality of science. This is mainly because of the high costs of contemporary research technology that science can no longer be performed by gentleman scientists like Alexander von Humboldt or Charles Darwin, who not only financed their own living but the cost of their own research too. Science today is a profession, and in many cases it can be performed only in large groups or institutions financed by the state or by private companies. At the same time this means that it is more and more dependent upon decisions made outside science. Scientific activities have assumed the economic form of wage labour. The internal structure of science is characterised by a division of labour and hierarchical forms of decision making. 2. From a more traditional point this may seem to be a development 'external' to science, without any relevance for its 'essence'. The aim of science, it may be said, is to discover the truth about the external world, and the ways of reaching it a

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