Touching The Limits Of Knowledge

Cosmology and our View of the World


Ethics of Science
Eric Beaudoin, Dan Fournier & Maureen Raubach


Summary by Scott Herterich

Ethics of Science – Cloning, Genetic Engineering, Value & Impact

The discussion of the ethics of science was led by Eric Beaudoin, Dan Fournier, and Maureen Raubach. The topics covered in this discussion were genotypes, phenotypes, epigenetics, cloning, and gene therapy. This discussion aimed to determine the ethics of these scientific resources, how what is ethical translates into scientific practice and into application of the results.

The first part of the discussion was a general background of genetics, and the key words to understand when considering the ethics of genetic modification. The class discussed these terms and how they apply to various aspects of our lives. The genotypes, what is coded on the gene itself, and the phenotype, what is expressed, were discussed. A genetic modification is the intentional manipulation of the genome. After the class agreed on these definitions, we discussed ways that these concepts are used in science. An example of this is the gene gun, which is used to suppress HIV/AIDS. The ethics of this was discussed. Although the gene gun is a type of medicine, the shots are incredibly time consuming and painful. Many types of medicine can be a source of great pain as a disease is treated, such as chemotherapy. Although in the end it is worth it if the individual overcomes cancer, it is an incredibly trying treatment. The gene gun is even more painful, and does not offer remission; the individual must continually receive treatment. I think AIDS is an especially difficult medical question of our time, and we have not yet found a cure.

The class discussion moved to epigenetics and the promise of this growing field. Epigenetics is the study of changes in genetic expression rather than changes in the genome itself. This could be thought of as turning certain genes on or off without rewriting the code itself. There are still ethical concerns here, because this could lead to genetic engineering. The class asked if perhaps we are trying to play god in a sense. How far is too far to take our scientific meddling? The ideas of epigenetics and the research being done tie in with the questions we discussed about stem cells. Stem cells are simple cells that have the potential to become many types if cells. Many times this semester we have debated exactly what the definition of life entails. Does life include what we genetically engineer? As we advance in science, are we changing this definition? Stem cells offer medicinal promise to many if we are able to figure out how to integrate them with our individual immune systems, and implant them in the areas where they can receive necessary growth factors. Many of the ethical questions arise from how these stem cells are obtained. Can they be taken from a fetus? Can we make them in a lab? Just because we can, should we? The class was divided on these issues, as much as we want to cure disease, what morals are we compromising in the process?

Viral vectors were discussed.  A viral vector is a tool to insert genetic material into a cell. The example was given of the insertion of genes into a developing embryo. Medical cloning was discussed, and the class discussed whether this is even something science should try to do. Human cloning debates led to the discussion of the cloning of food. Genetically modified organisms were discussed, and most of the class was in favor of this technology. Although there are some advantages of being in control of our food sources, I do not think we fully understand the implications of this technology. Someone accused Europe of using more pesticides than the United States, even though they do not allow GMOs. I am not sure where this statement came from, and no source was given. As I understand it. Europe for the most part, does not know the impact genetically modified organisms may have on the human population, and a large part of America does not seem to care. I enjoy the modern conveniences as much as anyone else, but I do wonder what we will find out about our GMOs in times to come. Just like DDT, trans-fats, and cigarettes, I am afraid that these trends we so readily accept will have very detrimental health effects years down the road. I do not understand why it takes so much testing to put a new drug on the market, but a modified food is immediately considered fit for consumption. Considering the number of members of the FDA and Monsanto that are making a few pennies from the ordeal, I suppose I should not be too surprised. 

The next big question was what phenotypes classify as a disease? The class discussed Nazi eugenics, and mental disorders. Nazi eugenics idealized the Aryan race. The class discussed the problems with views like this. Some discussion arose over the topic of autism. As a psychology major, I do not necessarily see this as a disease, but another way of interpreting the world around us. None of us are identical, but some of us have brains that process things much differently than the average. A different approach to the world is not a disease, unless it interferes with essential functions, and causes harm. A mental disorder or disease is something that cripples an individual to the point they cannot perform necessary functions. This is when I believe treatment should be sought. Part of what gives humans the advantage, as we discussed in class, is that we are not all identical. As a society I believe we should embrace all of the many types of people and learn to work together, rather than let our differences separate us. I believe the ethics of science will be upheld as long as we are working for a common good, rather than individual profit.