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Science sometimes has unintended consequences

By Geoff Hart

Previously published as: Hart, G.J. 2003. Science sometimes has unintended consequences. the Exchange 10(2):6,7.

[Source: New Scientist,]

We're all familiar with the notion of "unintended consequences", since most scientific discoveries have ripple effects that the scientist responsible for the discovery never anticipated. Sometimes the consequences are disastrous, as in the case of the environmental impacts of DDT, memorably chronicled in Rachel Carson's book Silent Spring. But sometimes the consequences are quite remarkable and beneficial.

For example, men around the world aren't the only ones benefiting from Viagra. Oddly enough, many species of animals are every bit as excited about this new anti-impotence drug. For the reason behind this unusual consequence, you need only remember that traditional remedies for impotence often required sacrificing animals—many of which now belong to endangered species—to obtain body parts believed to cure impotence or restore desire. For example, various species of seal have been slain simply to collect the animal's penis, with the rest of the animal discarded. Antler moss on Alaskan reindeer is harvested for similar reasons.

Frank von Hippel (University of Alaska) and his brother William (University of New South Wales) recently investigated the trade in three Alaskan species, and were surprised by the results: worldwide demand for certain animal body parts used in impotence cures has dropped by more than 70% since 1998, when Viagra was introduced. Viagra is cheaper to obtain than many animal products (even though prices for these products have fallen by as much as 85% since Viagra's introduction), and is both safer and more effective. Although tough economic times in some regions of the World, particularly Asia, may be partially responsible for this decline, similar declines have been observed in regions with flourishing economies.

Von Hippel suggests that wildlife conservation agencies may be able to enhance their efforts by providing free supplies of Viagra to locals in regions such as Africa and Asia. An interesting hypothesis to be tested, and one can only wonder about the unintended consequences.

My essays on scientific communication have now been collected in the following book:

Hart, G. 2011. Exchanges: 10 years of essays on scientific communication. Diaskeuasis Publishing, Pointe-Claire, Que. Printed version, 242 p.; eBook in PDF format, 327 p.

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