"Let there be light!"1

by Ralf Stutzki, June 10, 2021

According to the creation report in the book of Genesis those were the very first words God spoke into our direction. But who knows, maybe he recited that same ‘ol line during different galaxies’ creation parties as well. The universe is big enough for sure and considering what Obama recently said about aliens (no, not about Trump)2 we might have a case here. But that's another story.

So why did he choose light in the first place? It could have been oxygen instead, right? Or bark beetles, for that matter. Instead, it apparently had to be light. Light marks beginning. There is hardly a more powerful symbol than light overcoming – defeating – darkness. Ancient mythology, religious texts and countless works of art have described the magic of this everlasting field of tension. Light is good, darkness is evil. The bad guy in a Western always wears black. So does Darth Vader. It’s that simple.

A few days ago, I read an article3 about an incredible scientific breakthrough during the course of which a blind patient partially regained vision because of invasive optogenetic treatment: genetically altered cells produce light-sensitive proteins called channelrhodopsins; as a result previously non-photosensitive cells become sensitive to light. The success of this research is a huge milestone towards treating inherited photoreceptor diseases, which are a common cause of blindness in humans. All of us here at the University of Basel are excited that one of the leading researchers of this project is Botond Roska, director of IOB and an affiliated researcher at our NCCR MSE at the University of Basel.

According to popular opinion, an ethicist’s main job is to argue against (actually, spoilsport is what I wish they had printed on my business card). But even though I tried hard on this one, I couldn’t find anything that would make my colleagues dislike me. There’s no point in arguing against light winning over darkness, it just does not make any sense. And so I take it we all agree that this is "good" science, the way it should be, trying to make this world a better place by bringing advancement and healing.

Still: the overall role of some branches of modern natural science to me remains ambivalent, as its objectives and motives too often remain in the dark. Take the role of the sciences* throughout the current pandemic, for example. On the one side, researchers from around the globe were able to strike back at the virus by developing effective vaccines in record time – which serves as yet another example that science can make a difference for the good, bring about improvement and healing to the world. On the other side, however, the citizens of numerous (not only) Western countries throughout the past 18 months witnessed a shift of paradigmatic scale towards a science-driven political executive, which revealed a fundamental problem about sciences' self-assessment of its proper role in society. Had there ever been any doubt as to whether there exists an inherent tendency towards a top-down communication preference between the scientific world and the public at large it would have been wiped out on the spot here.

The pandemic has challenged our status quo and left no stone unturned. It called for countless unpopular decisions, some of which are unforgivable. Restricting civil rights and ignoring the needs particularly of the most vulnerable members in our societies – children, patients, elderly, the socially weak – became the "new normal". Fundamental values that until then had been considered essential to our social contract and coexistence fell victim to political decisions based on the interpretation of statistics, publications and newly gathered scientific data. Daily press conferences reciting numbers about infections, death tolls and the status of orders for masks and vaccines led to record-braking ratings for TV stations.4 People learned about aerosol, PCR tests, FFP2 masks, super spreaders, 7-day incidence rates and that R better be below 1. They were told how to wash their hands and that owning a pet could get them around the stay-at-home order.

While all this happened, residents of homes for the elderly and nursing homes were locked in, left with no chance to see nor feel the touch of their children and grandchildren. All of a sudden, years of life were translated into (non-) treatment options.5 Patients in hospitals dying from COVID or other diseases were forbidden a last farewell and touch of their loved ones. Families were denied the chance to bury their dearest. Young children found themselves torn out of their living- and learning environment, suddenly locked into their homes 24/7. Not to mention the tremendous challenges single parents – women! – had to master. The price for combatting COVID-19 to a large extend was paid by our weakest; they settled the bill.

The politics-/science tandem during the pandemic surely acted with the best of intentions. Time was short, decisions had to be made and indeed, good results were achieved. But at what cost? Providing and securing a general framework in which a good and healthy life can flourish is one of the key characteristics of good governance. Defining, however, what "good" life means, and which catalogue of values a society wants to share with the vast majority of its members is something completely different. This is no business for a governing and consulting elite – this is the people’s territory. Any encroachment on the fundamental rights requires a discourse first and must be sanctioned by the majority with "everybody to count for one, nobody for more than one".6

It will be interesting to see how and when we will all be able to strip off the darkness of the past months. I have no doubt that this will happen. The pandemic has reminded us of things we knew all along and yet somehow were forgotten during this tragedy: how good it is to have a friend, to inhale the breath of the forest, to linger under the spring sun, to hug and to be hugged, to feel the human touch and most of all: to stretch out our hand towards those who live their lives in darkness. Why not follow the example of the optogenetics team mentioned earlier and find ways to bring back light to those who need it most?  "Light! More light!", Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749 - 1832), one of the key figures of Western culture once called for - supposedly, on his death bed. It’s never too late for light.

Ralf Stutzki


[1] God

[2] "What is true, and I'm actually being serious here, is that there are, there's footage and records of objects in the skies, that we don't know exactly what they are." https://edition.cnn.com/2021/05/19/politics/barack-obama-ufos/index.html

[3] Sahel, J.-A. et al. Nat. Med. 2021, doi: 10.1038/s41591-021-01351-4

[4] "Mit der Übertragung der täglichen Pressekonferenz des Robert-Koch-Instituts fährt ntv dieser Tage weit überdurchschnittliche Quoten ein." 21.03.2020 https://www.quotenmeter.de/n/116920/am-vormittag-ntv-ueberholt-kurzzeitig-das-erste
See also: "Millionenpublikum für Merkel-PK bei Nachrichtensendern", 20.01.2021, https://www.dwdl.de/zahlenzentrale/81162/millionenpublikum_fuer_merkelpk_bei_nachrichtensendern

[5] cf. Boris Palmer, Mayor of the German university town Tübingen: "Ich sag es Ihnen mal ganz brutal: Wir retten in Deutschland möglicherweise Menschen, die in einem halben Jahr sowieso tot wären.", 28.04.2020, https://www.welt.de/politik/deutschland/article207575263/Boris-Palmer-Retten-Menschen-die-in-halbem-Jahr-sowieso-tot-waeren.html

[6] Quote attributed to Jeremy Bentham by John Stuart Mill; c.f: Guidi, M.E.L. "The Principle of Equal Consideration of Interests from Bentham to Pigou" https://doi.org/10.4000/etudes-benthamiennes.182

* I realize that using the broad term "sciences" in this context is a generalization. It is owed to the limited space of this "corner". It is not my intention to place the majority of natural scientist under general suspicion.

Ralf Stutzki, Head Ethics