By Levi Jiorle
Assistant Managing Editor
Science and philosophy may seem like distant subjects in comparison to one another, but the recent Provost’s Colloquium tackled a subject that focused on both academic fields.
The colloquium, titled “The Future of Genome Editing” was presented by Professor Maria Kitchens-Kintz and Professor Tim Connolly on Oct. 25 in the SciTech auditorium.
“Back then, and even still now, we had to wait for mother nature to make the change,” Kitchens-Kintz said. “Today, we are trying to make the change.”
The colloquium was split into two segments. The first half was the biological side. Kitchens-Kintz explained how scientists are able to manipulate genomes to change the way organisms develop. In her presentation, Kitchens-Kintz showed pictures of different animals that were affected by editing.The organisms affected by editing looked far different in comparison to their unaffected counterparts. Kitchens-Kintz also introduced Crispr (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats), which is a genome editing technology that has benefits with cost and time.
“The techniques that I just talked about are laborious, and it cost a lot,” Kitchens-Kintz said, referring to editing without Crispr. “It took me two years to make a mouse that was carrying a human gene. You could do this now in a matter of days or weeks, and the cost is low. Crispr is easy.”
Not only is Crispr cost-effective and efficient, but it’s also precise. Scientists are now able to target specific locations of DNA and genetic codes. Autonomy was the word that Connolly brought up while discussing the morality of genome editing.
Do parents have the right to edit their offspring’s DNA? Does genome editing go against the virtue of free will? These types of questions led to discussion amongst the crowd, showing that there are no clear answers in this complicated debate.
Some leaned towards bioconservatism, while others favored transhumanism.
“Technology is moving so rapidly, and public opinion changes so slowly,” Connolly said. “90 percent of Americans know nothing or just a little about this kind of technology,” he said, referring to Crispr.
“Here are a few things philosophy can contribute: We train our students in analysis, to break down the deeper meaning of the main concepts that are involved with these issues, concepts like human nature,” Connolly said.
Connolly recognized how there are good and bad sides to genome editing. He also pointed out how many fields are involved with genome editing. Psychology, political science, and sociology were some of the fields mentioned. The first question Connolly asked concerned matters of morality.
He asked the crowd what circumstances of genome editing would be morally permissible.
“Suppose you could edit your child’s genome so that instead of having the chance to living to 28, they would have the chance of living to the age of 78, would you do it?” Connolly asked.
The majority of the audience was in favor of editing their offspring’s genome to live to 78.
This question was a ploy for the proceeding question that had the crowd more divided.
“Suppose you could edit your child’s genome to then instead living to 78, they would live to the age of 128, would you do it?” Connolly said.
The audience was concerned about the quality of life at an age as high as 128.
Another point that Connolly brought up is the difference between an intervention and an enhancement. He said that when circumstances concerning health are a matter of intervention, it is morally permissible practice to step in to help an individual. When the circumstances become only a matter of enhancement, though, that is when it is not.
While there seems to be a clear distinction between the two, Connolly showed how the lines could be blurred between these two words.
Connolly exemplified this by mentioning vaccines. Since vaccines are such a standardized part of society, the distinction between intervention and enhancement is not clear when it comes to the immunity of diseases.
“Are we intervening to bring the organism up to normal capacities, or are we enhancing it to give it a sort of immunity that it would have not had,” said Connolly.
The concept of normalcy in regards to health and aging is what makes genome editing such a complicated topic.
“Human life expectancy in the Stone Age was between 20 to 34 years. In the past 150 years, life expectancy in most advanced nations has increased at a rate of 2.5 years per decade.” Connolly said.
There were concerns mentioned of humans becoming divided if some of the population went through genome editing, while others were left “normalized.”
Society would be even more focused on traits and such as strength and intelligence rather than the goodness involved with human nature.
Philosophy student William Collier helped Connolly with the philosophical discussion. Collier’s lecture focused on how societal classes would break down even further if genome editing was abused.
His PowerPoint showed a picture of the book Brave New World. Aldous Huxley wrote this dystopian novel in the 1930s, focusing on a future society with fixed classes and psychological manipulation.
Collier mentioned many of his own concerns with genome editing.
“I think a larger part of this problem is that this will not just be because of technology, but because of access. The rich or the general wealthy will be able to do this freely,” Collier said.
The audience discussed how there are already so many advantages of growing up in a privileged background, and how the wealthy having access to genome editing would divide society even further.
There are two more colloquiums left before the end of the semester. There will be one on Nov. 8 titled “Exploring the Effects of Climate Change on our Oceans” presented by Professor James Hunt. The last one, “Living and Working in Antarctica,” will be on Nov. 29. It will be presented by President of Marathon Studios, Inc., Jonathan Weber.
Both of the remaining colloquiums will be in the Beers Lecture Hall from 5:30 p.m. to 7:00 p.m.
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