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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.
  • Mar 27 2011: Wisdom is what we need, we must have it. Somebody posted that he'd like to see a human-chimpanzee hybrid beacuse it's "cool" What!!
    Change the first letter of cool to describe that person!!
    Why have glowing mice or chimpanzees? Just beacuse we can doesn't mean we should.
    We're still finding new species, still exploring the oceans etc so are we ready to mess about this??
    What is the point of crossing a buffalo with beef? Is US beef not good enough? Do we need this to feed 9bn people? Just beacuse it's cool is not enough to proceed.
    • Apr 1 2011: Actually, so long as you're not doing anything cruel or dangerous to others (and it's your money not someone else's) I'd say 'just because it's cool' is a pretty good reason to do stuff. Glowing mice are fine in my book - they don't care whether they glow or not. Glowing chimps is a different matter because they are at a level of sapience which confers a moral obligation on us not to harm them if at all possible. And when it comes to chimp-human hybrids, a whole new set of obligations come into play - they could be close enough to being people that we ought to impute to them all that is due to a human being, which includes our obligation as creators of a new person. That obligation is that when you find yourself responsible for (a significant part of) the creation of a person, you have to create that person in such a way that they are as happy, successful and good as you can make them (within reasonable limits on your effort). This formulation covers the duties of parents and teachers, and generalises those duties to biotechnologists, AI researchers, and so on.
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        Apr 16 2011: I, on the other hand, disagree that we, as humans, who contain moral values, should execute experiments merely for our self-interest or pleasure. Science should coincide with ethics. Where do we draw the line? Will there ever be an end to humans not being fascinated by something cruel as glowing animals? By doing so, we are not only pretending to be superior, but also going against nature and the way of God. I realize that religion and science cannot agree, but ethics needs to be a factor in the way we perform science, or else we would lose all humanity.

        Several people have mentioned that ethics changes to the way that the world molds, decade to decade. I fully agree, but WE are the ones who change ethics. We need to remember, what we consider acceptable would be cruel to generations before us. And what others will do in the future, we will consider cruel. The cycle never stops and it won't.
      • Apr 18 2011: I agree with William Parker and S B.

        Just because we have a means to make mice glow or insert chips into the insects doesn't justify that we are allowed to do everything upon non-speaking animals. How do you know " they don't care whether they glow or not?" To what extent are we allowed to perform experiments on animals behind the "reasons" that it wasn't cruel or dangerous?

        I understand that clinical experiments on animals are inevitable before approving new trial drugs for human uses. However, cross-sexed buffalo with cow? Human-chimpanzee hybrid? I'm not sure what greater good these experiments will bring to the humanity.

        The "coolness" can't be the sole factor to allow such experiments.
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        Apr 20 2011: Whether something is cool (or not) it does not mean it is right. After the millions of millions of years that the planet has been in existence, there is a reason why we have not had any glowing mice or chimps. If that was the way life was supposed to be, then it would have been that way! I do not see how being "cool" can suffice to do such an experiment.

        As Mat said above, what greater good will these experiments bring to humanity? Unless you want to make it easier to find mice in your house, I do not see why a glowing mouse will help end world hunger or cure cancer. If there is going to be experiments for such things, I believe that the funding (private or public) should go towards a cause that matters! Not because its fun or cool. Scientists gave up such juvenile experiments in high school. We're adults now, lets think like one.
    • Apr 15 2011: I have to agree with the response above mine. I would love to have a miniature koala crossed with a red panda that glows in the dark. Because its "coolness factor" would sky-rocket! I was just having a conversation with a friend of mine. We want to make a CRT monitor into a fish tank and we found no better animal than a glow-in-the-dark fish to inhabit this makeshift monitor-tank! I mean, chimp-human hybrid seems a bit pointless, (I fail to see the awe of that) but if he so wishes, let it be done. I believe in the phrase, "No harm, no foul" for it directly depicts my feeling towards this scenario. As long as it isn't harmful, it isn't out-of-possibility. Regarding the beefalo, I am unaware as to whether you know that we already use the genes of a fish in Alaska and implant that into strawberries to allow it to grow during winter without dying. These forms of innovations are what allow society to thrive even more than it ever has before. What could possibly be wrong with that? And, quite frankly, a beefalo burger sounds delicious right now. The fact is, if beef production increases, as with the scenario of corn (King Corn!!), the price for that object diminishes so it become cheaper on the consumer. But that is just my idea. Regarding the ethics of it all, i feel that nothing is beyond our realm of possibility just as long as it isnt harmful to others.
    • Apr 18 2011: I think that the whole point is being overlooked here. Scientists aren't making glow in he dark animals for the sake of making glow in the dark animals! That would be rediculous and certainly a cause of issue. Rather, the reason scientists work with engineering these traits is because they are very easy to test for. It would be much more difficult to engineer DNA to to express a random gene that creates a random enzyme that has to be tested for with specialized equipment. Glow in the dark is just much simpler because we can see it in plain sight. But what does this mean? Well, when bioengineers can master these techniques with easily testable genes, then we can move up to genes that can make a positive impact on the human (and other) species.

      So yes, there is a point to all this strange experimentation going on lately. Perhaps it may seem strange to give a fish the ability to glow in the dark, but such experiments are the precursors to being able to insert a gene into the human genome that would increase our thinking capacity, or changing a gene to prevent cancers, or deleting a gene that leads to Alzheimers. Making fish and other animals glow is just the building block towards all that is possible through manipulation DNA sequences.
  • Mar 26 2011: Of course we argue about ethics, and there are disagreements. We also argue about science, and there are disagreements, but no one suggests that science is arbitrary. When I suggested that ethics does not allow us to do an unethical experiment to save lives, I was reflecting the ethical consensus we have arrived at as an ethical community.
    Ethics is, in my view, a conversation that evolves over time. So we have generally reached a consensus - internationally, by the way - that there are certain ethical principles that should guide human subjects experimentation. That does not mean noone disagrees, or some nations don't, but it is remarkable that in virtually all developed, scientific nations, we have a set of ethical standards for how we can experiment on human beings.
    All societies condemn murder. Even Nazi Germany had laws against murder (ironically). Different societies have different standards of what murder is, and some are, in the view of most of the rest of the world, very misguided. But note: even those countries who violate our standards of murder CLAIM they don't. That is, by claiming that the person they framed actually committed murder, or convicting someone of a crime they did not do, or denying that the government did not assassinate that political opponent, they are implicitly ACCEPTING the general ethical standards of the world (or else they would just say "Yes, we assassinated him, and we believe that was the ethical thing to do.").
    Ethics evolves over time, and we as a society, and as a world community, reach ethical consensus. As the world has gotten smaller, and communications faster and more ubiquitous, the global conversation about ethics has allowed more of a world consensus than was possible in the past. So the interesting thing about ethics today is that it is more universal than any time in history.
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      Mar 26 2011: Have we really arrived at that consensus as an ethical community? I somehow cannot remember when and how. Of course we all agree that killing others is generally not ok, but even here you have enough disagreements when it comes to special cases.

      Take this great question on decision making that I discovered some time ago:
      A group of children were playing near two railway tracks, one still in use while the other disused. Only one child played on the disused track, the rest on the operational track. The train is coming, and you are just beside the track interchange. You can make the train change its course to the disused track and save most of the kids. However, that would also mean the lone child playing by the disused track would be sacrificed. Or would you rather let the train go its way?

      So, do you sacrifice the "wiser" kid playing on the disused track to save the others or the others instead for playing on an operational track? Or did they even know which is operational and which is not?
      Not applied ethics like bioethics here, but still a quick thought experiment to show we are nowhere near a consensus.

      And in my opinion the same applies to bioengineering. I didn't see it linked here so far, so I'll mention Gregory Stock's talk "to upgrade is human" (
      I think he is totally right when he assumes that it is normal for us to want to upgrade and change, and that we should not kid ourselves into thinking that we can truly control this development, if a ban is instored in a certain place, it will be done elsewhere.
      I'm afraid consensus will - if we ever happen to reach it - come by learning the hard way, and not short-term.
      • Mar 26 2011: Those are the kinds of ethical dilemmas that people like me use all the time in class. But note: the problem there is that there are TWO ACCEPTED ethical principles in conflict, and the question is how you balance them; no one would argue that it is not an ethical dilemma at all, because it is OK to kill people. The fact that we argue over ethical specifics does not mean that there is no consensus over ethics, any more than arguing over whether the 1972 Dolphins or the 1962 Packers were the greatest Football team ever means that we have no consensus over what makes a great football team.
        The vast majority of ethical principles we all agree upon. The vast majority of cases we all agree upon. That we can construct cases where there is disagreement is not remarkable. It is what ethics is all about.
        • Apr 17 2011: I agree that we DO as a country have a standard for what is ethical and what is not. It is known as the Constitution. However, just because we have a set standard does not mean that standard encompasses all cases. The Supreme Court works daily to establish an ethical standard for topics which the Framers could not have ever foreseen. However, even they cannot keep up with the vast array of technological innovations in the past few decades. Bioethics at this point discusses these issues, but even then a consensus is not always reached. In fact, even in ethics for topics not science-related, it is hard to reach a general consensus. Prop 8, the anti-gay marriage proposition in California, passed, receiving 52% of the vote. That is barely a majority, and recent trends are showing that this number will decline in the near future, bringing it even closer to a 50-50 split. That is in absolutely no way a general consensus.

          But back to the biology. I agree with the introductory paragraphs stating that science and ethics should go hand-in-hand. We do have a consensus on some issues, and the ethics of those issues should always be followed. However, for some issues, such as stem-cell research, there is still enough of a polarization between the two sides that the only way to achieve progress in the field is to go against what a significant portion of the population would say is unethical. If other ethical issues surrounding stem-cell research arise, as there often is, then society's view on the topic will change.

          Science relies on ethics to ensure the research receives enough public support. However, there are many cases where a consensus cannot be reached, and scientists and researchers in those cases will have to go with their instinct in order to make the best decision for them. There is some consensus, and it is greatly appreciated, but there are plenty of areas where no consensus can be reached, and those areas find their way into bioethics classrooms.
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      Mar 26 2011: I think science and ethics are a bit different in nature. In science you come to conclusions through observations and measurements of natural phenomena. So you are dealing with something tangible.
      In ethics, we are talking about conventions we might or might not agree upon, but which have no objective foundation. What is the source of our ethical principles ? Just because the majority of people agrees to an ethical principle, doesn't mean that it is right (there was a time when the majority of people believed the earth was flat and as we know, they were wrong).
      If there wouldn't be any religion and no legal system, how would our ethics look like ?
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        Mar 27 2011: I would hope that care and respect would prevail........
        Also the basis of my ethics or BELIEF SYSTEM is the Golden Rule. Wouldn't all agree to that ?
      • Apr 15 2011: I believe Harald makes a valid point about the difference between science and ethics. As you stated, science has corrected many misconceptions, but ethics isn’t quite as simple. It’s impossible to create a enduring standard for ethics. Where science can establish a correct and incorrect answer, ethics relies on creating an acceptable belief. It is constantly changing as it is relative to our own beliefs and morality.

        You mention two foundations for our ethics: religion and a legal system. Really it comes down to religion, as a debate over creating laws is often an ethical debate with a religious foundation. For this reason, acts such as cloning are deemed illegal due to their “unethical” nature. The issue with religion as a foundation for ethics is that it is largely unchanging, while ethics constantly changes. Therefore what is changing is our interpretation of religion, which in effect alters our ethical beliefs. This can be very dangerous as religion can then be adapted to justify what we would see as unethical practices (such as slavery).

        Scientific research and experimentation such as this then challenges our ethical boundaries and debate cannot be settled until enough people hold a particular belief long enough for it to be largely considered “right”. It is not necessarily an imposed belief, but one that develops in enough people over a large period of time that creates an ethical standard.
      • Apr 15 2011: To the original poster: though it is a universally held principle that science and ethics are two vastly different fields, one of their points of intersection is at the point when new technology comes into existence in any field. An instance of this is the creation of the Gatling gun and several new weapons in the late 1800’s/early 1900’s as a way to end war by making casualties few and wars short unprecedentedly creating some of the bloodiest and longest wars that we have had in history. I respect your opinion humbly, but I disagree with it completely.

        To Helen: I think that the Golden Rule is a moronic concept to follow involving morality. One of the major problems with it is not everyone has a positive morality. Would the golden rule apply to someone who is a masochist?

        I also agree with Bryan in his belief that religion and most metaphysical beliefs can be twisted and warped to an individual’s whim. However, I would like to add that I believe that, over time (except in the case of Islam and most strains of Fundamentalism), most of the major religions and religious denominations that exist have become increasingly tolerant since the world has become increasingly tolerant as a necessity towards altruism. Also, I believe that “religion” is merely a strand of philosophy that has extraneous metaphysical beliefs attached to it in order to create an argument from authority as well.

        I apologize for not responding to Johnson Tao. I would have if I understood your point. I also apologize for myself and my fellow students for resurrecting a dead thread. We are doing this for a bioethics class as an assignment, and are studying the different uses of stem cells. I am not sure if my teacher will allow me to do this, but I would gladly post the website where we usually post our opinions about various ethical issues.
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          Apr 15 2011: Hi Loren, I'm not familiar with the history of the Gatling gun and what led to its invention. However, you say that it was created with the intent to reduce causalities as well as the time of a given conflict. So, if that was the real intent (and not just an excuse) then, from an ethical point of view it was the right decision. That it turned out differently, is a different story.
          You said you disagree with me. On what exactly do you disagree and why ?
      • Apr 18 2011: Of course I agree with Harald when he says that there is a difference between science and ethics. That much is obvious and there is a very evident difference between the two topics. However, I believe it to be nothing short of imperative for the two topics of interest to be intertwined when either is being considered. Science and its progression is independent of ethics, however, its implementation is a different story and should always be based upon ethics and the morality of what is being performed. Without ethics being taken into account when science and its findings are put into practice, we could very easily become barbarians performing horrendous actions without any regard for the ethical price. I think we can all agree that this would be a dangerous realm to step into, that being a world were science is not limited by morality. While I do not believe that one organization (i.e. the Catholic Church) should limit everyone’s ability or access to a certain medical treatment, for instance, the advancement of the research of stem cells, I do believe that people should always question the implementation of these advancements and the ethical dilemmas behind them. I am a member of a Bioethics class, and I have come to realize that without careful consideration of the principles of a our actions, especially in regards to science, we become like cavemen with large clubs, swinging them about without any reflection upon what the consequences of our actions may be. Subsequently, I believe that science and questions of ethics should always be integrated.
      • Apr 18 2011: I agree with Harold that science and ethics cannot be wholly reconciled. They are not entirely opposed, but rather occupy differing ends of the same spectrum. In that sense, the ground that each concept concerns can be shared, and this common ground is what bioethicists focus on.

        Indeed, a great deal of our modern understanding of ethics stems from modern religions. However, proper morals and ethics can stem from secular sources all the same, which demands an integral balance be found when allowing religion to become involved in science, particularly when imposing limits on the science we pursue. Considering this, I would argue that the field of biotechnology, a lack of religious ethics is not anything to fear. Basic human decency dictates the Golden Rule as much as Buddha or the Bible, so "slippery slopes" regarding a contested topic such as euthanasia becoming forced eugenics is unlikely. Atrocities committed by the likes of Nazi Germany were enacted by average people with religion in their hearts. Ethics should not be a catch all method of shoehorning religion into science, but deciding in what ways applying that science can benefit humanity the most.
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      Mar 27 2011: I take the debate hereby between Paul Wolpe and Sabin Muntean as an example for the nature of debates taking place in this forum. Sabin Muntean summarizes in detail and well enough the general disagreements with Paul Wolpe.

      I shall clearly say from the beginning that I completely support Paul Wolpe’s arguments against those raised by Sabin Muntean. I don’t say that the arguments by Sabin Muntean are false. What Sabin says is true, but it’s not sufficient to invalidate Paul Wolpe’s theme and arguments.

      We don’t have to give up trying to reach common ethical basis just because we cannot reach such basis in ALL possible cases. Exactly like, we don't have to entirely give up trying arresting robbers as many as possible just because we cannot arrest all the robbers on earth. The example Sabin gives of children playing on rails is an extreme case where the decision is difficult. And even in that extreme case the debate is which choice is more moral. Nobody claims either choice would be totally immoral. The point is that either of them wouldn’t be fully moral. The only immoral thing would be if one would say, “I don’t care who would die on the rails”, or, “let them all die”. Because we all agree that we have moral obligation to do the best we can to save the children’s lives. This shows the common moral basis which we all have is much more significant than the moral controversy we face sometimes.

      This means that Paul’s efforts in trying to reach certain ethical principles within the topic discussed are justified and most worthy. I also agree with Paul that since it’s a complex matter, it would take time until we will evolve through such debates toward broader common ethical basis. But certainly this does not mean we have to dump the all ethical foundation into trash box due to some difficulties arising from different points of view in some new or extreme cases
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      Mar 31 2011: I hear you Paul. And I definitely see this as a monumental debate/discussion that will decide all of our futures to some degree - especially when we talk about modifying the genome of organisms. For instance, can we be certain that eating genetically modified salmon won't, in the long term, harm our bodies? Does anyone have this answer? And if not, is it ethical in any shape to begin selling genetically modified salmon as food?

      I know well that we've had more than a decade of GMO in agriculture. Some of the staple ag products are all GMO if they're not organic. And yet we face a massive health crisis, for instance, in the U.S. I don't at all suggest that GMO ag is solely responsible - there's way too many factors. Yet, I believe it is fair to say that we don't actually know the extent of how modified soy or corn or canola affect our health. And now, with these crops having been in the wild for a long time, it would be very difficult to undo if we found GMO soy was dangerous to eat.

      For me, I don't think it's possible to discuss ethics without including commerce. So often we see everything from companies right on down to individuals willing to bend, even break, agreed upon ethical principles for the all-might buck. I'm perfectly fine with science exploring new frontiers. What I don't trust at all is when companies decide to make profit off of things that could harm our lives. It happens every day in the pharmaceutical industry. Companies make and sell drugs that are rushed to market for profit rather than the betterment of life. How can we be so sure that playing around with the genome won't just be another method for large companies to make huge profits on technologies that we simply have no idea of the long-term consequences?

      Funding clouds the clarity of research, technological advancement, corporate decision making and government oversight all the time. How can we possibly have a discussion on ethics and leave out financial gains? Seems moot otherwise.
    • Apr 13 2011: I agree with what you are saying. it is confusing how it is considered murder within nazi germany yet there are different ways we as humans perceive murder. that is one extremly good point that i will support. Your best point though is when you say ethics is developeed overtime. Looking back we can all see that slavery is wrong and that the things that occured during nazi germany were terrible and that it will never happen again but it took many years for people to realize this. Time will show that stem cell research was good and that our ethics will change as the time tends to go on.

  • Apr 2 2011: I am just very glad that there are bioethicists around.
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    Mar 31 2011: I don't think it's 'time to question it, I believe it's time to campaign to stop it
    It is in my opinion 'completely unethical "
    • Apr 1 2011: Why? Suppose we learn how to render humans immune to cancer, the same way naked mole rats are. Would you be able to look your children in the eye, knowing that you'd condemned them to suffer a horrific disease just because you thought it a bit icky to alter their genes? How about people who are starving and suffering malnutrition due to, say, drought? Could you look them in the eye and tell them that you'd stopped development of a genetically modified drought-resistant crop that could have fed them and their families, because you didn't like the idea of transgenic plants? This isn't about having a remote-control beetle to play with, this is about transforming people's lives for the better. So consult your conscience and rethink your ideas.
      • Apr 18 2011: While I totally agree with your original intentions, stating that the future of science may revolutionize and alter the life’s of countless humans beings in ways we cannot even fathom. I am not against the progress of science for the sake of ones health. However I also know that opening the doors to such new research does cause a few scientists to go crazy, creating these “remote- control beetles simply for the sake of “science” and creating something new. Sadly not everyone in the world is always looking out for what is the best for humanity, and while I agree with science progressing to help humanity, I also know that you cannot completely disregard or disconnect the science creating the remote-control beetle because there are those people out there who are willing to do whatever it takes to create something that is profitable. I am by no means condemning science or the progress of science or even the use of stem cells, I am just saying, something so new is scary and putting so much trust in the hands of the scientists is hard to do. However I hope that we can move on to the point where science and the mindset of all the scientists is for the general well being of all.
  • Mar 30 2011: Yes it is time to question bio-eng. Unfortunately there are many other more important questions to be asked before we can arrive at a consensus regarding bio-eng. I'm able to, fortunately, multitask so lets give it a try. I have over my 60 yrs. of living developed less and less respect for scientists. Do I blame scientists for this ? no I do not! So what has changed? I will tell you . in my formative years I was taught that education was everything, it will determine your success in life. I naturally thought that the more education you had the more intelligent you would become thus assuring your success! I soon learned the difference between intelligence and intellect. Intelligence has little to do with education and more to do with the person, some call it emotional intelligence, the ability to make "good" decisions. I concluded that earning a PhD will not make you more intelligent, more knowledgeable? yes. The ethical problems we face have more to do with our collective emotional intelligence than anything else, for example MONEY will often have an effect on our emotions and therefore the choices we make. It should not be difficult to make ethical choices if we are honest with ourselves and others.
    • Apr 18 2011: Why does this make you have less respect for scientists? I think that it's a combination of both emtional intelligence and how much you know. You have to base your opinions both on how you feel emotionally and how much you can understand about the given subject. You can think stem cells are wrong, on an emotional level, but before you make a decision you should also make sure you fully understand the topic. I agree with you that money has a lot to do with how we make our decisions. I think that almost every ethical debate would be solved if money and religion were taken out of them. A PhD will not make you a better person but I think it will improve your ability to answer ethical questions, rather than bringing in other things like money or religion. I think that intelligence determines some people's success, it all depends on the individual. Some people define success by the money or things they have, some define it by the knowledge they have and their contributions to their fields. Intelligence can mean success if the person isn't too driven by the need for money. What questions do you think we should be answering about bio-engineering? Do you agree with it?
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    Mar 30 2011: I don't see the purpose of having an opinion about this, as it proceeds undaunted. So what if I feel deep revulsion at the direction of this research? It's not like that work will at any point be suspended until some of these supposedly critical questions can be considered. The researchers may have asked themselves the questions and have apparently satisfied themselves that their work is leading toward something worthwhile, or perhaps simply valuable ($), which is the only criterion that seems to need to be met. Personally, I deeply dislike where that kind of prioritization has gotten us.
    • Apr 18 2011: Being indifferent never got anyone anywhere. Having the opinion that this kind of research needs to be halted is one thing, but apathy in the face of something that you think is wrong is another. It seems as though you assume that all scientists need to do is make sure that their work satisfies their own moral compass, but in reality, there are a lot of checks and balances involved (one of them being protesters).

      That being said, while I respect your opinion, I'd like to express my belief that science progresses not in the pursuit of the almighty dollar, but rather, in the hope of bettering humanity. I support stem cell research in all forms because sooner or later, science figures things out, and if there's a chance that this research can help prolong/improve the quality of even one human life, it is worth the time, arguments, and effort.

      As hard as it is for me to say, it's better that you openly oppose stem cell research and try to fight it than resign yourself to the idea that you are powerless.

    • Apr 18 2011: Having an opinion about this is very important. Is it morally right to genetically alter these creatures? Yes and no. They were bred for this purpose and so it is only right we do what we intend to do with them for the benefit of research. However, not everything we do to them is making a clear benefit to research. Take the glowing animals for example, it benefits research in the sense that it shows we can effectively alter the genes of an animal and implant those altered genes into an egg which then becomes the animal. Even though it benefits research it serves no useful purpose for the animals to glow in the dark.
      I think work will greatly be suspended if laws are passed to stop the research on animals. Simply because researchers think that their work will lead them to something worthwhile or valuable does not mean that they have a right to do their work. They must consider the opinions of other people and find out what they think about the subject and whether or not they also think that it will benefit them as a society. If researchers were the only ones who chose the criteria that needed to be met I think that science would be a lot further along than it is right now. Society has stopped science from progressing as fast as it would have without considering ethical questions. It is the considerations of others that make scientists think whether what they are doing is right or wrong and the progress of science also influences their decision.

      -Jonathan D.
    • Apr 19 2011: It is important to have some people that at least care about the human consequences, morally and ethically, to keep the evolution of science on a secure and stable track. Although you may not want to have an opinion, it would certainly ease the minds of the masses if some people in the science field, or with the knowledge, cared about the impact that these experiments might have on the world. In this day and age, common people are more in tune with what science is leading up to; paranoia and shock are basic exploits that the media uses in order to spread the word.

      Personally, I would be more content about an experiment if the scientist at least thought of the possible consequences of their actions. Heartless experimentation with cold demeanors towards “feeling” is a one sided and biased way to operate. It is important to at l least hear both sides and try to not overly experiment beyond the public’s comfort zone. Yes, I do believe that in order to move on forward in the world, we must take a leap, but to just blindly leap off a cliff is foolish.

      This whole “this is useless” aura I’m getting from you reeks of negativity. Sure, these scientists might be in it for the money, but whatever gets us to a new and better world is fine by me. Just because these motivations might be “impure” or “just,” opinions on what they do to make that dough must be discussed to prevent utter mindless and immoral research.
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    Mar 29 2011: As I have wrote in my comment on the presentation I believe the real problem is that we start to ask questions when it is too late. I am not naive in thinking that those experiments were made without regulation but do we believe the regulations were enough? Or is it real that scientist that believe it is ok to do what they do would find a place to do it no matter what?

    The problem is at the core of how we raise our society and how we shape our education. Our education leads us to do, and focuses on the doing and for most of the cases leaves the thinking as an elective experiment.

    The power at hand is a power that is not even the concern of one country but of the whole human species and my belive is that until we can find a way to communicate with each other globally at the species level, forgetting all other political or economical boundaries we are not evolved enough to experiment with such a power.

    How the Hermetical knowledge was transfered is the perfect example of how our educations should be structured. This would have allowed to have Plato's Philosopher Kings and Real Masters capable of critical thinking and having perspective.

    If you want to read how the ancient Egypt approached education I have written about it in my post: Creating Masters in Love! How did we reverse education
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    Mar 25 2011: Paul, I enjoyed the talk and have a question for you:

    What is your opinion of the fact that different ethical standards apply in different parts of the world? Does this lead to competition, in the same way that some countries use lower taxes to attract investment? If country A allows something that country B doesn't, what happens in a company from country B opens a lab in country A? Is that country subject to the ethical standards that prevail in it's home country?

    Is a company from country A bound by the 'lower' standards of it's home country when doing business? Is it ethical for people from the country with the 'higher' standard to enjoy the benefits of research done somewhere more lax?

    And what if it's not a company, but an individual? Can a nation ethically prevent it's own citizens from travelling overseas to do their research, even if that research is banned in his/her country?

    Ultimately, all countries are in competition with each other to gain some advantage. Natural selection takes place in the world of business, even if the 'evolution' is designed by lawmakers and entrepreneurs. Without a global consensus, research is free to migrate to whichever regime supports the appropriate ethical standpoint - which is influenced by the desire for wealth and power.
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      Mar 29 2011: Exactly! I believe only when we are evolved enough to be able to discuss at a global level transcending all political, racial and economical conflicts we can start to consider the ethical implications of this subject.

      It is pretty obvious to me that the human race as for today is not "mature" enough to play God... It is worse then letting a 2 year old play with a loaded gun...
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    Mar 24 2011: Paul, yes, ethics and science should go hand in hand, but, honestly, can we say they always do ?
    Another point is, what does ethics mean ? It probably means different things to different people (clear example is the never ending discussion about abortion). So who should determine what is ethical and what is not ?
    In the case of bio engineering, my main concern wouldn't even be the ethics issue, but that the technology can fall into the wrong hands and used for sinister, rather than benevolent purpose. Or we start playing around with something of which we don't really understand the long term implications.
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      Mar 24 2011: You know, even issues like abortion can be somewhat ameliorated when individuals are presented with sufficient information and facts. Throughout my life I had real ethical qualms about abortion and still wish it wasn't a reality in some ways but after reading Freakenomics and learning about the change in murder and rape crime patterns 20 years after abortion became legal - I started to question my individual stance. At least it stopped being such a black and white issue to me. It became clear to me that unwanted children who grow up with neglect and abuse because they were unwanted boomerang to take some sort of heinous revenge on society.
      Ethics always struggle in light of scientific exuberance. People tend to see it like parental interference. Just when we were having such a good time.......someone comes along and urges caution.
      As a society we have certain obligations to each other. That includes acting prudently to avoid getting into unsolvable dilemmas- like underwater oil spills and nuclear reactor meltdowns where the people who pay the price are not the people who made the profit.
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        Mar 24 2011: I agree, but all these dilemmas just show how difficult this issue of ethics actually is. In some areas it's easy to come up with an universally accepted ethical principal such as killing another person is unethical. But then, in other areas, the waters become murky, especially when it comes to new fields where we don't have much experience yet, such as genetic modification, bio engineering, cloning, etc.
        The question is also at what point do ethical considerations become stronger than the desire for scientific progress (or vice versa) ? Example: let's assume that science comes up with a possible solution to AIDS. But to be really sure, one would have to conduct human experiments that are considered unethical. But if the experiments were done and the cure really worked, millions of people could be saved. Now, would it be correct to just overlook the ethical considerations and do the experiments, or is the correct thing to refer to ethical limitations and not go ahead with the experiments, which can lead to millions of deaths ?
        Frankly, I don't have the answer and I hope I'm never in a position where I have to make this kind of decision.
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          Mar 24 2011: I do understand the point you are making but the types of experiments that you said were unethical are routinely done with dying patients who agree to participate for the hope of a cure or the advancement of science. These studies are done with ethical oversight and are done in the most ethical manner possible. It would be the same for a cure for AIDS. Ethics committees oversee most research that is done in universities in developed countries.
          No one is suggesting that we stop advancement in thorny areas but most people are saying that leaving it up to individuals to decide based on whether it 'can' be done is not the best way to move forward.
  • Apr 18 2011: "Science and ethics must go hand in hand. When they don't, science has done unconscionable things."

    And I agree. Ethics is what grounds scientists to their feet of morality. As we have seen in the past, reason can be used for the unreasonable - or even for the atrocious - and we must always remain vigilant and keep "science" within the realm of con"science".

    Despite that, however, we must also remain vigilant and keep ethics in check. While science has done unconscionable things, unethical ethics has stunted and hindered beneficial science. Logic must be used to reason - to decide what is reasonable - and prevent the dogmas of old Christianity from hindering future scientific progress. While I am a church-goer, I believe that faith or religion should not interfere in the matters of science (and to an extent, political legislation regarding science). The ethics of science, the ethics of reason, I believe, is a whole different sphere from religion. Reason must be kept within reason and I'd rather not have another Dark Ages.

    We should not fear scientific progress, but rather steer it to the way as it is most beneficial to our society.
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    Apr 12 2011: I think what scares us the most isn't what can be done but that it will be done. Regardless of a society's ethics there are always outliers (and even those in the mainstream) who will do the unethical. Paul mentions "the history of human subject experimentation is scandalous" and it will continue to be so. Whether it be politicians or unscrupulous media people, we have debated, talked and thought about many important aspect of our society both on a local and world wide scale and nothing has been accomplished other than a lot of hot air being blown around. The quesiton of ethics in science is moot because there is no one to report or enforce any code of conduct. This is more than apparent in the fact mentioned by Paul that most of the food we eat is bio-engineered and we the consumers of that food are not even told on the package. If they are hiding something, there is something to hide. And yet, Paul asks us to think about and debate ethical issues regarding bio-engineering? Why? So science can remain unethical? Science has hidden bio-engineered food on our plates and we are talking ethics after the fact? Before we can have any discussion on ethics, we first need to have the discussion on how to punish unethical behavior because if we refuse to do anything about unethical behavior then all this talk about ethics is just a bunch of hot air.
    • Apr 14 2011: While it may be true that many of the debates concerning ethical issues in biotechnology have had little to no effect, the fact remains that before we can punish those who are "unethical", we first have to establish what is or isn't ethical. The reason why the majority of our food is genetically manipulated without any protest is because we never actually drew the rather fine line between what is moral and what is immoral. Before we can decide how to punish unethical behavior, we first have to decide who needs to be punished, and to do that, we have to determine what actions should be punished, which goes back to the ethics debate that you consider so unnecessary. I would also love to see some reform in the system, to require companies to inform the consumers of whether or not their product is genetically engineered. But before we can write laws, we have to decide what exactly these laws should combat, and which practices by scientists should be encouraged or discouraged.
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        Apr 18 2011: I agree with Colin in that I feel that ethics are important to dscuss in order to determine which behaviors by scientists and companies should be punished. It would be rather difficult to go around stepping on the toes of the producers of genetically modified foods if we have not yet established that it is immoral to provide unlabled goods. In addition, it is also exceptionally difficult to know and regulate foods that we perceive to be genertically modified when plants cross breed, seeds travel, and the genes become mixed. Many organisim that are thought to be completely organic are in fact genetically modified and the regulation of these goods is more difficult than Colin suggests. Nevertheless, I fully believe that Mr. Crawley has made excellent points about the study of ethics and hope that you, Mr. Mihalko, take them into consideration.
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    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.
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    Apr 4 2011: Human beings function at their most humane as individuals.

    Groups of individuals are a completely different beast. The larger the organisation, the more eroded the humanity until unfeeling, inflexible rules become some kind of default setting.

    Humanity's salvation lies in each imperfect, struggling being communicating with other individuals as much as possible.

    PS. It's never "science" that does unconscionable things, it is always the wielders of science that do those things.
  • Apr 2 2011: My background: Engineering and science. Science and technology always promise to deliver better qualify of life, but often fail and, worse, are often used for nefarious purposes never intended by the inventor or scientist. The failure is often not in the technology, but in the darkness of the human heart. The people in these threads extol the altruistic possibilities of bioengineering...we are creatures driven by hope. We hope for the best, even when warning signs of the worst lay right in front of us.

    We fail to see what history has written about the fruit of human nature: Good and evil are within us all, with a bent toward the latter. The atrocities of Auschwitz started as ideas in the universities and scientific communities of Nazi Germany - the desire for the "master race", free from handicaps and physical imperfection; free from the "undesirables" (i.e., most of us). Those ideas ended in the massacre of 20 million people.

    If the technology exists to recreate man in someone else's "image", to take away his autonomy using bionic implants, as was done with these other creatures, do you naively believe that power and control will go unused? You see the control experiments being done by DARPA. The natural conclusion of that work is the "perfect soldier", mere avatars under someone else's control. Wake up, people!!

    Everyone talks about "ethics". In the absence of an absolute, transcendent being, who defines ethics and morality? Do we merely count noses in a vote? Does might make right? Or, as is usually the case, does it boil down to the almighty dollar, euro or yen and who gets richer?

    We already kill human babies by the millions (50+ million since 1973 in the U.S.) mostly because of economic and life style reasons. (Pro-abortionists bring up rape and incest, but those are less than 2-3%.)

    We have forgotten God, the source of ethics, the source of morality, justice and truth. We have sown the wind and are about to reap the whirlwind. God help us all!
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      Apr 2 2011: Masochists are also driven by hope. Some can stay in abusive relationships hoping that they will turn out well for them, some sit around passively hoping for the best and burying themselves in denial. Then there are others who manage to get out of that, who see the "danger signs" and attempt to be agents and do something about it. So hope is not even valuable to the human condition in my opinion, agency is. Here are some things that can be attributed to agency.

      Scientific progress, our population has only been growing and so has our quality of life. We have ups and downs but you take away what science has given us and your life span would probably be about 30 years. The existence of democratic governments, which existed prior to Christianity. Ethics and the idea of a virtuous life which also existed prior to Christianity and were later adopted by many Christian thinkers. Utaltiarian and Kantian ethics are also major themes of discussion when it comes to modern day justice. Christian morals are just one segment of the ethical pie.

      Babies and many others die world wide because the prevalent economic system we have adopted is capitalism, which allows for such things to happen. The problem is not that many capitalists have abandoned God, if you follow American politics you would notice that many of them claim that they are devoted followers.

      Finally Nazism did not emerge in the universities. Most intellectuals were actually democratic socialists which Hitler despised. Most philosophies were framed to support the propaganda of the Nazi regime after Nazism rose to power. Nietzsche's idea of the superman for instance. But if you even read a grain of Nietzsche you would realize it's absurd that to think he would support a dictatorial regime. Heidegger supported Hitler but then again you put a gun to my head and I'll support anyone.
    • Apr 13 2011: It seems interesting that you have a background in science yet you seem so religious. Somebody who is science has to believe in it, when you see it as an evil we have inflicted and failed at because of the "darkness of our hearts". You also talk about the Holocaust, but why would God (if there is one) let something so evil happen? There is no answer to my question. Ethics is always essential in science since we need to make sure the science is being used for good. I don't think we need to look towards God for our source of ethics, but rather our own reasoning and science.
    • Apr 14 2011: Human nature is balance. It is controlling our baser evils, while retaining our humanity in the face of emotionless reason. Scientific progress can and has caused numerous amounts of suffering and devastation but on the same token it has brought hope to the hopeless and alleviated human suffering. Do these new technologies have the potential for "evil"? Yes, but they may also end the sufferings of many, bring untold prosperity, and unlock even greater progress. I understand your concerns, human's beings are fickle creatures, with qualities both to be admired and despised. However, is it not the benevolent being you look to that believed in the redemption of our race, sending it's only son to die for our sins, and if not that did said omnipresent power not also grant us the freedom of choice when it so easily could have made us in a manner similar to the robotic organism we are now creating? No matter what you believe, we cannot allow fear of possible disaster keep us from progressing. If things get out of hand we as species will have to face the consequences. Can we truly say the humanity would have been better off stuck in Plato's cave, do you really believe that Prometheus made a mistake when he stole fire from the gods? Knowledge is a heavy burden but it is one we must bear, we must progress for it is our nature, but that is not say we cannot do so ethically. When fear is the dominant factor in ones decision, regret will soon follow.
  • Mar 30 2011: I am just going to trow an idea out here

    What about a questionair type of thing that is the same globally and is made globally, and controlled by a global organization that has members in every country that biotechnology is being practiced in.

    I think ideally it should also have questions about the possible risks in 20 years, if a power hunger human were to be in control of this technology. And if the risks out whiegh the benifits then it should be denied.

    as humans we are short term brilliant, long term stupid. we really should start taking this into acount.
  • Mar 29 2011: I think it's rather unfortunate that many people are getting the impression that these experiments are completely unregulated. In academic science in the US, before conducting any human research, the scientist has to propose his detailed method to the Institutional Review Board (IRB), a group made up of both scientists and non-scientists. They strongly consider the ethical impact and potential harm of the research before giving any approval. The science has to be proven to be ethical, necessary, and useful.

    For animal research, thanks to animal rights activists, the guidelines are often more strict than they are for human research. Every institution must have an Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC). The experiments must be original, have a specific purpose (or future benefit to society), and must minimize or eliminate any animal suffering. Moreover, the researcher has to show that their research cannot be done without the use of animal testing.

    There is an obvious necessity in asking questions about ethics in bioengineering. But it's important to point out that many of the examples in this talk are on the periphery of the ethics debate, not the norm. At least in the US, researchers are required to consider the ethical impacts of their experiments. More importantly, scientific research must first be approved by standards largely agreed upon by (the majority of) society.
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        Mar 30 2011: What is it we all think the military is going to do with these engineered insects? Why is it OK to cross these lines so that one country can spy on or bomb another?. Sometimes we have all just been on the slippery slope so long we do not realize that we are sliding ever downward where the military is concerned.
  • Mar 28 2011: and, in theory, WMD, i.e. bioweapons.
  • Mar 28 2011: Billie, human cloning.
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    Mar 28 2011: Can you offer an example of a scientific or technological advancement that has not been pursued or developed because of ethical concerns? Thank you for the wonderful talk.
  • 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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    Mar 27 2011: A very interesting discussion indeed!

    I hope my earlier post has not been misunderstood as a call to stop trying to reach an ethical consensus in bioengineering. By all means I think this is a goal worth working towards, however I am quite skeptical to what extent this can truly be achieved, to what extent people will come to agree with one another and accept the other's position when it comes to something as fundamental and with such implications like bioengineering, changing ourselves and species around us by our own will.

    I appreciate your optimism, Paul, but I cannot help but believe that this issue will not be easily solved.
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    Mar 27 2011: I think, after reading all of your thoughtful comments, that the thread may be sort-of jumping the gun; the discussion seems to be about what is or is not ethical, as if ethics is the discipline of providing near-perfect answers to our questions (or its inability to do so).
    However, the subject of the talk (and thank you for it Paul, excellent stuff!) is to question, specifically bioengineering - ethics being a method of designing the questions. So to investigate the concept of ethics (as I believe is Paul's purpose of this discussion, given its title), rather than trying to answer the ethical dilemmas (such as Sabin's), we should look at how those dilemmas were designed, or formulated, and why.
    I believe that ethics is the process of finding out which questions need to be asked with regards to whichever topic is chosen - as such, it resembles the scientific process, which also is trying to formulate a question to which we want or need an answer, precisely *because* the answer is beyond our grasp to begin with.
    (We should remember that a basic tenet of science is falsifiability, by the way)

    The difference is that science is (or should be) a tool for the acquisition of knowledge, and ethics is (or should be) a tool for seeking wisdom - it should be obvious that I agree with Daniel in his definition of the twain.

    By this token, ethics should be an evolving process, again just like science, and the questions we design should be posed in the search for a greater wisdom than whatever such we may posess at present. It is, in my opinion, a clear misunderstanding of ethics to think of it as a simple exchange of opinion, or that any ethical question that has us scrambling for an answer that eludes us somehow indicates that ethics "don't work" or are not important - the lesson of such questions depend entirely on how they were designed.
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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.
  • Mar 24 2011: I think people underestimate how much ethical consensus there is. We accept as given most ethical principles, and there are relatively few we fight about - but because they get so much attention (eg, abortion) we think ethics are arbitrary and issues hard to resolve. Societies are supposed to debate ethics at the margins - Emile Durkheim, the founder of modern sociology DEFINED society as a group of people having a shared moral sense, and the process of ethical debate as society-building.
    It is also common to think that it is hard to reach ethical consensus, and that there are no or few established tools to do so. But ethicists (religious and secular) have been thinking about these issues for thousands of years, and most ethical issues eventually get resolved. Ethics does change over time, but eventually gets resolved again. In fact, the most common ethical fights happen when something that seems resolved by one generation or time is overturned by another (role of women, sexual mores, abortion, gay rights). But if you take gay rights as an example, American society has changed fundamentally in its attitude towards gay rights; even those who oppose gay marriage, no longer generally think gay people should be executed, jailed, or shunned, and most states have domestic partnership laws. That is a sea change in a long, historical view of homosexuallity, so of course there is going to be fights and debate about it. But note that it is in the process of being resolved. My children (both in college) grew up with a very different attitude towards gays and lesbians than my generation did.
    So we will resolve some of these tough issues in biotechnology as well. But to answer your last point, Harald, no, it is not ethical to do an unethical experiment even to save lives. Ethics does not permit such a calculus, or else we would be sacrificing people right and left to save others.
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      Mar 24 2011: Paul, here are 2 points I'd like to make.
      1) you look at ethics within the boundary of the US. Let's take the example of gay rights. As you said, the US came a long way in this area, but there are other countries that are probably more advanced than the US and others less. That shows us, that there are differences in how ethics are perceived and interpreted.
      I think even within the US, you will find that that not everybody is equally open to gay rights.
      2) In your last sentence you say "ethics don't permit such an calculus". Is that really so ? What about the topic of killing ? I think we agree that killing another person is unethical, however, we conduct wars (not always just ones) and kill people, and suddenly our concerns about ethics vanish.
      Or take the issue of the death penalty ? Is it ethical to execute another human ? Is it possible to right a wrong doing another wrong ?
      Another one: take torture, a heavily debated issue in the US. Is torture justified as a tool to obtain critical information that could save lives ?
      So, it might seem, superficially, that there is consensus on ethical principles, but when we dig deeper, we find that these principles are not always that clear.
      • Mar 25 2011: The fact that you bring out "look at ethics in the US", it came to my mind to think about ethics in the context of science. As our friend, Paul Wort, so clearly knows many top scientists who are all supportive of bioethics (nothing wrong with the sentence, but the overall idea of the paragraph is a little "iffy), I am curious what would happen if we consider the top scientists, or in fact, just science "for the world", and science done within governmental facilities?

        I have always supported the open source community and would rather work at minimum wage for the science that is for the people, than deal with industrial giants whose only intentions in science is to make sure they come out with a marketable product, or even worse - science that is not benefiting the people despite great breakthroughs being made (because it is "classified" and/or has "private investors"). We are arguing over the importance of ethics while there are much bigger concerns regarding the whole scientific system.

        "Top" scientists posses great skills in "practical wisdom" and can see the limits themselves. We do not need to further create obstacles for scientists who work with the sole intention to benefit the society. I would rather worry more about how do we move science out of the private sector and perhaps invest in explaining scientific values (in general) to the bigger public and current/future scientists.

        Somehow, religion is able to give us a much better understanding (framework) for defining the values (incl. the value of what is good, what is bad in science) than we, as a community, are able to come up with through our endless discussions that do not progress the world.
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        Mar 27 2011: After I viewed "Dead Man Walking" the movie, I could never be for the death penalty. I keep wondering why our justice system is punitive ??? Punishment is a human construct. Why not rehabilitation (where possible) and keep the mental cases and violent people out of the general population...............Oh yeah ...Just because we can do it does not mean we should do it.
    • Mar 27 2011: I'm very glad that Paul says there's a lot of consensus about ethics as I got the impression that Dr Venter and Juan Enriquez are the Dr Panglossian types worthy of Voltaire's sharp ridicule.
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    Mar 24 2011: As soon as I finished watching your talk, I submitted a topic for debate: "Are the developments featured in Paul Root Wolpe's talk ethical in your view? If there is a line to be drawn, where would you draw it?"I thought you were scrupulous about giving no bias of your own opinion during the talk but I was hungry to hear about the opinions of others about what was coming out of labs.
    Thanks so much for drawing our attention to these important issues. I agree that we need to start a dialogue on the issues of ethics and not simply be swept along by what our most fertile minds can do or create.
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        Mar 24 2011: Thanks Johnson Tao for sharing your thoughts and your links.
      • Mar 25 2011: Couldn't agree more. If only we lived in a world of logic, respect and justice. :)