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Paul Wolpe

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Misunderstanding Ethics and the purpose of this talk

It is interesting to read the comments this talk has elicited. People project onto the talk their own fears or beliefs. The talk has one purpose, and I suppose it has achieved that: it is to get people debating and thinking about the ethics of biotechnology. That is why, nowhere in the talk, do I give my own opinion as to correct answers; I want the viewer to ask themselves the questions.
On the other hand, some of the claims in the comments are pretty surprising. I am involved in quite a few biotechnological projects, so the idea that I am anti-technology or a Luddite borders on the absurd. When Craig Venter first decided to create his minimal genome, he hired my Center at Penn to examine the ethical issues involved, and the two articles were published side by side in Science. So is Craig Venter a Luddite because he was concerned about the ethics of biotechnology?
Science and ethics must go hand in hand. When they don't, science has done unconscionable things. All good scientists understand this, which is why top scientists generally support bioethics, and believe in the importance of incorporating ethical reflection into science and science education. The purpose of bioethics is not to stop science, but to make sure that it is both performed ethically (the history of human subject experimentation is scandalous) and that society, and scientists, carefully consider the best use of scientific funds and the direction of scientific inquiry.
As far as what is done in one's private lab, that too must be constrained by ethical standards. Just because a lab is private does not mean we should allow it to manufacture a virulent virus, do cruel experiments on animals, or release an engineered organism into the ecosystem. Science is part of society, and has no special purchase from which to excuse itself from the ethical reflection or standards that the rest of society is subject to.

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    Mar 26 2011: This sounds like a debate between wisdom and intelligence, where intelligence is knowing how to do things, and wisdom is generally knowing why to do things.

    Calling someone a luddite because they choose not to engage in some activity shows an incredible lack of wisdom. We could even go back to Aristotelian ethics here: virtue exists in moderation. Bravery is virtuous, but cowardice and reckless bravado are not.
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      Apr 15 2011: I agree with you. The only issue is in finding the correct level of moderation... Unfortunately, moral lines are clearly defined. Since every person goes by a slightly (or immensely) different set of moral values, is it ever possible to come to some sort of consensus over the happy medium that we are searching for? We as human beings need to find a way to negotiate a middle ground between “intelligence” and “wisdom” in the sense that they are used in your comment. Or, rather, we need to recognize when our intelligence exceeds our capability to manage it with an adequate level of responsibility. We need to realize when we should take a step back and allow our wisdom to catch up with our rapidly expanding technology and understanding of the components of life.

      Throughout Paul Wolpe’s discussion, I was simultaneously awed by the power of the human mind and its capacity for good (the most amazing thing was the creation of a robotic arm driven by brain waves) and horrified at the unnecessary steps that we seem to be taking (making bug-bots or glowing kittens, for instance?). I am a science person and I plan on majoring in biology as I go into college. I understand the curiosity and the temptation to meddle with the very structure of life. However, I don’t think that we as human beings should be tampering with such a delicate subject until we can understand its overarching effects on the future (I am a proponent of saving endangered and even extinct species through cloning, but it is unsettling that they still possess the mtDNA of other creatures. Where will we draw the line with speciation? This is especially prominent in my mind as we are taking part in the Barcode of Life Initiative, which bases its genetic information on DNA gathered from mitochondria.) . I hope that we will one day be able to reach a position in our development as a species where we can truly be stewards of our planet and only promote scientific endeavors for the good of all creatures.

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