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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 28 2011: From the title on Mr. Wolpe's TED talk, I thought this would be yet another completely one sided argument against the use of biotechnology...complete with "playing as God" remarks. Once again I have learned not to judge a book by its cover, even if it has an image on it. A very thought invoking talk, and, for such a murky subject, very objective as well. As mentioned earlier, ethics morphs and changes as you cross borders. Ethics has become so fluid in this now globally connected world. In fact, the only real underlying principle of ethics in any society today is direct human well being. In other words, killing another human is frowned upon no matter where you are (things get murkier when you dive into the ethics of abortion, mercy killing, etc). Ethics in biotechnology is especially undefined, and changes so much between different people and societies. Much of bioengineering is pure scientific research or for the improvement of human lives. True, we might have the ability to make glow in the dark humans, but whats the point? Unless it somehow improves our standard of living, there is no reason to make glow in the dark humans. In an extreme analogy, being glow in the dark is like getting a tattoo. As long as it's not harmful, people can choose to get a tattoo. But it's not forced upon anybody. Should Bioengineering be monitored? I think so, just like every other industry is monitored. It should be monitored to make sure that it does not harm human beings, just like anything you buy is monitored to make sure it isn't harmful. But bringing other ethical regulations into bioengineering is a bad idea, since different people and different societies have different ethical beliefs. (As a teenager, I'm sorely tempted to insert several emoticons, but I remember that this isn't Facebook). Just my humble opinion.
    • Jay S

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      Apr 18 2011: I think everyone can agree that it is important that biotechnology is monitored to some extent. However, I think most experiments have some sort of purpose even if it is difficult to decipher that purpose. For example, the glow in the dark experiments have shown that genes from one species can be transferred to another, even from insects to mammals. Similar technology has allowed humans to engineer plants that are exempt from extremely cold temperatures. I'm not opposed to some sorts of GMOs, so I think this is a significant technological advancement that is beneficial to humans. However, some scientists do go to far. Luckily, these scientists are often at the periphery and aren't accepted by the scientific community.

      All too often, people assume these "mad scientists" are more common than they are. This is because these people are the ones that make the news because the experiments they do are newsworthy. Some of the most important experiments to modern science are incredibly boring and, thus, nobody hears about them until the practicality of the experiment is clear. However, a monkey with a prosthetic arm is interesting, but keeping a monkey in a cage and immobilizing its arm raises some ethical questions.

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