Medical and legal authorities spoke about the ethics and future of biotechnology at a Friday panel hosted by the Program on Science, Technology, and Society at the Harvard Kennedy School.
As part of the 20th anniversary of the STS, Harvard Medical School Dean George Q. Daley ’82, Harvard Law School professor I. Glenn Cohen, and Harvard Medical School genetics professor George M. Church participated in a panel moderated by Jenny Reardon, who directs the Science and Justice Research Center at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Other panel participants included Christina Woopen, director of the Center for Life and Ethics at the University of Bonn, and Northeastern professor Patricia J. Williams.
During the panel, Church spoke about the inefficacy of discussing ethics in terms of dichotomies like “good versus evil” and “human rights or not having human rights.” He also criticized the binary logic of the trolley problem, an ethical dilemma where one must choose whether or not to sacrifice one person to prevent the deaths of multiple others.
“Do you have the trolley go towards the 100 kittens or human embryos, or do you have it go towards some felon?” he said. “The problem with the trolley problem is that none of these individuals should be on the trolley tracks in the first place.”
Daley said advances in biotechnology have given humanity more power to manipulate natural processes.
“If the evolution of life on Earth is the play, humans are becoming the playwrights,” he said.
Daley also discussed the ways in which medical treatment and human enhancement are becoming increasingly conflated, pointing to gene editing as an example.
“What is genetic variation in a normal sense, and what is pathological?” he asked. “And where do we draw the line between disease treatment and human enhancement?”
Woopen added that humans should refrain from being “emperor” and trying to “control nature” but should instead shift to becoming its “custodian.”
Cohen explained that recent biotechnological advances can have “huge spillover effects” that cannot be contained or regulated, because regulatory policies differ from country to country.
“You cannot contain them merely to your polity, to your countries, and whatever policy you like,” Cohen said of the spillover effects. “[Woopen’s] suggestion was deep international regulation, but the truth of the matter is that kind of regulation is by far the hardest to achieve,” he said.
A self-described “techno-pessimist,” Williams also cautioned the audience about what she perceives as a “crisis of loneliness” resulting from technological advances.
“A crisis of seeing and being that allows us to impose our most solipsistic imaginative constructs upon cartographies in ways that eliminate the who, the what, the where — it is literally before our eyes,” she said.
In closing remarks for the panel, Reardon said she believes society must assess the ethical concerns raised by emerging biotechnologies.
“We need to reconceive of each of these things, and as we reconceive science, technology and education, we’ll be reconceiving what society has to,” she said.