TED Conversations

This conversation is closed.

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.

Share:

Showing single comment thread. View the full conversation.

  • thumb
    Apr 5 2011: We become the tools we create.

    When fire and meat were around it allowed us to develop smaller teeth, and possibly, larger CNS.
    Was that good, or bad?
    When knowledge and superstition about nature allowed us to domesticate plants and animals we made them into our tools. From silk to horses and dogs.
    Was that good, or bad?
    When smaller groups of people cooperated for longer periods of time it allowed us to develop cities and civilization
    Was that good, or bad?

    Now we are upgrading our knowledge about nature and it's allowing us to develop more efficient and sustainable tools. Processes and objectives barely dreamed by people in our own generation. BAD??

    The history of human subject experimentation is NOT scandalous. It's not good, or bad, how about we think in terms of: "Was it helpful?", "Should we continue to do it?" and "Can we strip away what's unnecessarily harmful
    and solve ethical problems to move towards our intended goals?"
    Just think of all the medical trials done with countless volunteers at the edge of survival and the crossroads of human knowledge, striving to cure themselves and at the same time willing to put faith in humanity to better medicine for us all even if it costs him some time on the cosmos. We owe to the ones before us and the ones who'll follow us to be brave and move forward in the best way possible to know during our lifetime, anything less just won't cut it!

    I was wowed by the presentation, such beautiful forms, such amazing processes and methodologies. Let's crack these problems. We'll synthesize a "kill switch" protein specific for GMOs, in some protein "information band" unused by natural DNA. Let's make sure no creature capable of conscience, however we define it, can live without possibility for "natural life cycles", however we define them. I want glow in the dark fish, and a "piganoid" liver, and energy producing algae, and neuron computers, and a helmet to mentally "be" with your loved one, like sharing an awaken dream yfy!
    • Apr 16 2011: Good point. However, a "kill switch" is not so easy to engineer. What exactly will it entail? The best solution is to stop bioengineering things that make no sense, like glow-in-the-dark fish, and focus on what really matters, like the ear on the mouse. I don't understand what you mean 'without possibility for "natural life cycles"'; if it just so happens to mate with a natural creature and the offspring is a mutated, unpredictable life form, what should we do? All engineered creatures should have no possibility for offspring. Bioengineering anything is wandering off into murky waters. Some things should best be kept in the dark, like those fish of yours.

Showing single comment thread. View the full conversation.