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Education: Higher Education

Engineering the Genes: Ethical Dilemmas in Modern Biotechnology


About the Module

Author

Nadine Weidman has a PhD in History and Philosophy of Science and Technology from Cornell University. She is currently a lecturer in the Department of History of Science at Harvard University. She is the author of Constructing Scientific Psychology: Karl Lashley’s Mind-Brain Debates (Cambridge, 1999) and co-author of Science, Race, and Racism: Social Impact and Interaction (ABC-Clio, 2004). She is currently at work on a book to be entitled “The Killer Instinct: Human Nature as Popular Science in Cold War America,” which examines the debates over a possible human instinct for aggression that engaged scientists and erupted into the popular media in the 1960s and 70s. Her publications stemming from this project include “Popularizing the Ancestry of Man: Robert Ardrey and the Killer Instinct” (Isis, June 2011); and “An Anthropologist on TV: Ashley Montagu and the Biological Basis of Human Nature” in Cold War Social Science (Palgrave, 2012).

She has designed and taught a wide range of history of science courses, including History of Ethics of Biotechnology, on which this module is based. She has also worked as a senior research associate at the Council for Responsible Genetics, a Cambridge, Massachusetts-based watchdog organization for the biotechnology industry.

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Suggested Use

Nearly every day in the news, advances in biotechnology make headlines. Patients desperate for cures seek remedies using stem cells harvested from their own bodies—and fuel a network of international clinics offering experimental treatments. Genetic testing companies like 23andMe promise (for a fee) to tell their customers something about their disease susceptibilities as well as what part of the world their ancestors came from—and adoptees use their services to identify and locate blood relatives. Whole Foods plans by 2018 to become the first supermarket chain in the United States to label products that contain GMOs—genetically modified organisms—while state legislatures ponder legal requirements for such labeling. This higher education module seeks to give students the analytical tools they need to understand such news stories by acquainting them with the history of and ethical issues raised by recent biotechnology. We define biotechnology as the manipulation and alteration of an organism’s genetic makeup for the purpose of removing or enhancing certain traits. What used to be possible only through the breeding of plants or animals— by a slow, imprecise process that took generations—now can be accomplished rapidly and precisely by acting directly on the DNA itself, the hereditary material that composes the genes.

Recombinant DNA—the process by which a gene from one organism is spliced into another—was first successfully achieved in 1973, and the module begins with the debate that this technique engendered at the time. It then considers the industry that grew up around the applications of the technique in agriculture and medicine, and focuses on one specific aspect of the industry— human gene patenting—which allows biotechnology companies to assert proprietary interests in a section of the human genome. Finally, the third part of the module turns to the assisted reproductive technologies that use genetic manipulation. Now a matter of choosing the embryos or gametes that will become our children—and perhaps one day enabling us to actually alter their genetic makeup—“reprogenetics” offers us the tantalizing possibility of directly shaping the next generation.

This three-part module is interdisciplinary in combining historical case studies with ethical debates. Each part traces a particular aspect of biotechnology back in time and explores the contexts in which it unfolded, using documents, images, and film footage to recreate the mood and setting of past events. Each part then turns to ethics by examining the values of the stakeholders in the debate over that particular biotechnology. And each part of the module culminates in an ethical debate in which students could be asked to portray the stances of different stakeholders. Ethical debate happens (and is necessary) when difficult choices face us, when there are no clear-cut answers, and when differing but equally important values, cherished by different groups of people, come into conflict. Biotechnology raises a host of ethical questions, none of which has a simple yes-or-no answer. Most often ethical debate is about deciding where to draw a line; it’s about reasoning out to what extent a practice should be pursued or a path taken. Ethics means justifying one’s stance in a way that goes beyond self-interest and impartially considers the greater good. Students usually find that participating in such debates broadens their perspectives and makes them re-think what they believe is right. Playing a role (rather than having to “be themselves”) gives them the freedom to explore and express a range of views.

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Objectives
  • Students will learn about the recent history of biotechnology (since the 1970s) and understand the historical background for the developments, discoveries, and debates that they read about every day in the news. They will gain an appreciation for the ways in which biotechnology has been shaped, over the course of its development, by cultural, political, economic, and religious contexts.
  • Students will learn about the recent history of biotechnology (since the 1970s) and understand the historical background for the developments, discoveries, and debates that they read about every day in the news. They will gain an appreciation for the ways in which biotechnology has been shaped, over the course of its development, by cultural, political, economic, and religious contexts.
  • Students will gain exposure to various ethical stances often invoked in the biotechnology debates: Kantian deontology, utilitarianism, virtue ethics, Rawlsian justice theory. They will come to see ethical debates as conflicts over deeply cherished and important values, and will learn to identify and articulate the values as stake in ethical dilemmas.
  • Students will understand that technology is not neutral but is invested with social meaning and value, and often carries with it the requirement for a particular social order.
  • Students will become acquainted with arguments on all sides of the biotechnology debates, and learn to advocate a position with which they might not personally agree.
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