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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 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.
      • S B

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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.
      • k a

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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.

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