Students Consider Ethics of Genetic Engineering

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Genetic modifications to food crops and fish made possible by advancing technology have led to frequent charges of “Frankenfoods” and “Frankenfish,” and genetically modified algae as a source of biofuel has been criticized as “Frankenfuel.”

A new Herbst Humanities in Engineering course, The Ethics of Genetic Engineering, includes a close look at Mary Shelley’s classic novel Frankenstein to consider how current critiques of biotechnology draw from her images and metaphors. But that’s only the beginning.

Taught by Donald Wilkerson, a senior instructor with the Program for Writing and Rhetoric, the course goes on to consider a variety of essays by modern ethicists, futurists, and practicing scientists on the ethics and feasibility of human genetic engineering, along with genetically modifying plants and animals from algae to mosquitos.

“Many of the most radical arguments for and against genetic engineering are based on basic misunderstandings of the relevant biology,” Wilkerson says. “I do not intend the class to argue for or against the development of genetic engineering. However, I do hope that students will come to an understanding of which ethical arguments are informed by science and which are based on little or no evidence.”

Later in the semester, the class will focus on engineered crops as a response to global warming. “We will discuss the debate about fast-growing, freeze-resistant eucalyptus that some hope will be a carbon-neutral fuel source, and genetically modified trees that would sequester carbon in the soil,” Wilkerson says.

CUE: Academic Program: 
Herbst Program of Humanities for Engineers

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