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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 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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