By CRG Staff

from GeneWatch 27-3 | Sept-Nov 2014

This issue of GeneWatch is dedicated to the memory of Liebe F. Cavalieri (1919-2013).

Liebe Cavalieri was a founding member of the Council for Responsible Genetics. An early pioneer in nucleic acid research, Liebe was educated as a biochemist at the University of Pennsylvania. The focus of his many scientific publications was on DNA and DNA polymerases. His career was spent largely as a Professor at Sloan-Kettering Institute for Cancer Research in New York City, now part of Memorial-Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. 

Liebe was a frequent writer, lecturer and commentator in the public media on the impacts of science on society. In the early days of genetic engineering technology, Liebe was among the first scientists to alert the general public to its potential dangers, with an article in the New York Times Magazine published Aug. 22, 1976 titled "New strains of life-or death," where he wrote that "recombinant DNA technology is so overpowering and far reaching in its potential for harm that decisions on how to handle it must not be left to scientists alone." Later he offered public commentary and the seminal book The Double-Edged Helix: Genetic Engineering in the Real World (1981 & 1985). In it, Liebe noted the high social price that often has to be paid for scientific innovation:

We must ask ourselves whether a continuing process of scientific discoveries and technological applications is what we need for the advancement of mankind. We already have an abundance of goods (whether or not they are equitably distributed), yet evidence abounds that we are experiencing a generalised malaise throughout the industrialised nations of the world, which strongly suggests that we do not need more hardware but that we should utilise more humanely what is already at hand.

He reminded us that we "shouldn't be carried away with fantasies promised by scientists and companies engaged in biotechnology research":

Science is, however, of necessity committed to its sources of support: government (including the military) and industry. They themselves are inextricably intertwined to form what some call the corporate state, the single most important determinant of modern industrialised society, characterised by a primary drive for self-perpetuation and expansion. The corporate state controls the economy, and in so doing it mandates, directly or indirectly, the direction and growth of science and technology. Economic necessity thus presses the public to accept indiscriminately the technological system as a whole, in spite of its antisocial tendencies.

Liebe advocated an early moratorium on recombinant DNA research until appropriate safety studies had been conducted and raised concerns that the technology might be used to "create an atmosphere in which genetic procedures in general become an accepted solution to many sorts of problems - problems which are basically social and political. To deal with them at a genetic level enables us to accommodate the social and political trends that give rise to the problems - but not to overcome them."

Following retirement from Sloan-Kettering, Liebe moved to the State University of New York at Purchase and pursued his longtime interest in mathematics to analyze procedures for controlling the environmental spread of foreign genes in agriculture. 


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