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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 24 2011: Ethics in biological sciences is something many find theoretically difficult to comprehend, yet when it comes to "decide yes or no if this is ethical" it seems to be a little clearer what is ethical. Instruction for young researchers is starting to include touching the subject, which may lead to broader awareness and acceptance of ethics within research. The challenge is the actual incorporation. Intellectual debate on ethics is essential, but what to do when you are at ground zero (i.e. the researcher or in the lab with them etc etc) and a decision has to be made or there are blatantly unethical activities that should be exposed?

    Where the issue lies for me in this talk is the activities that have potential to impinge on the quality of life of those involved. We are striving in the areas of animal research and livestock (especially food animal) production to improve welfare and essentially meet give other sentient beings access to the 5 Freedoms. When we begin to create beings and manipulate physiology (especially in the case of organic robots), we are treading into areas where there is a likely logical reasons to assume it impinges upon those animals. I know this is a personal projection, but I wonder about the brain activity in emotional/cognitive regions of the brain in the mammals that were wired to have external control of movement.
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      Mar 24 2011: I tried to stick with humans when talking about ethics, because when we start involving animals it gets even more complicated.
      From an ethical point of view do we treat a mosquito equal to a dog ? I'd say we don't. Nobody cares whether you treat your mosquito ethical or not, but, dogs are almost on the same level as humans when it comes to ethics.Why does killing a monkey or a dog intuitively repels us, when killing a cow, chicken or pig leaves us completely cold ?
      And, although, in our western culture, we hold some animals in very high esteem, in other cultures they are normal part of the food chain (e.g. dogs).
      Also, what about livestock production, transport and slaughter. PETA would scream this area is full of ethical violations, yet, most of the meat eating population has apparently little problem with that.
      • Apr 13 2011: Yo Harold Jezek, I think you are mean to misquitoes. Our life and world is changing and in order to change we must alter our perception on ideas and manipulate creations. I see your point on dogs being almost humane and mosquito being the farthest thing away, but a apple is a orange cause they are both living. Killing anything is wrong.

        Harold I see your point, but I hope all is well and that livestock production is irrevlant.

        PETA is annoying and extremly distrubing so please do not mention them with sanity.

        P.S. I am arguing with you just to argue with you.
      • Apr 13 2011: I think that Goldhawks is making a viable point. We do need to consider the affect we are having when we make the decision to change the genetic properties of these animals. I think we ought to follow that principal in every aspect of this debate.
        The argument is about ethics, and primarily what our idea of ethics really should be. I know that its a difficult thing to say, should we give animals the same respect we give people? It is difficult to say. I for one dont think we need glowing robot monkeys, but who's to say that makes it unethical. The deciding factor would be in how concious the animals are.

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