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Biotechnology, Genetics, and the Human Future

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This course is no longer being offered.

Course Description

In November 2018, a Chinese woman gave birth to a very special pair of twins: the first children genetically altered through a technique called CRISPR-Cas9. Some celebrated the use of a new technology to increase the girls’ resistance to HIV—the virus that causes AIDS, which has no known cure. Others voiced alarm at the prospect of “designer babies” or the perceived recklessness of the Chinese scientist behind the project.

This course explores recent and exciting progress in human genetics and biotechnology, as well as the complex moral questions these developments raise. We’ll study the ethical challenges scientists confront in their practice (such as securing informed consent) and in the topics they study (such as race and disability). We’ll consider political challenges raised by these technologies involving commodification, the family, privacy, and justice. More fundamentally still, we’ll consider the role of science in a liberal democracy, and how we might control our technological future.

Our study of the ethical questions raised by new biotechnology will explore its underlying science and draw upon fields such as bioethics, social science, and philosophy. These fields help us understand how scientists do and should interact with other elements of society. Case studies of specific moments in the history of science will help us appreciate the sometimes surprising interaction between social context and scientific research. Bioethics assesses the ethical consequences of new biotechnologies for doctors, patients, and other actors in medicine. Social science will help us answer questions like, How and why does science become politicized? How does law and public policy respond to new scientific and technologies? Finally, philosophy will help us situate the specific questions raised by new biotechnology within a wider discussion about the proper role of science, scientists, and technology in the contemporary world.

Popular discourse surrounding emerging biotechnologies like genetic engineering assumes a close relationship between science and ethics. Our course asks students to reflect seriously upon this assumption. Future citizens and future scientists alike will benefit from a deeper understanding of science’s relation to human values.

Prerequisites: Only a spirit of intellectual curiosity and a willingness to question is required.

Course Information

  • Course Code: CEME0601
  • Length: 2 weeks

Program Information

STEM for Rising 9th and 10th Graders

Two-week, non-credit residential program focused on STEM subjects and taught on Brown’s campus. For students completing grades 8-9 by June 2020; minimum age of 14 and maximum age of 15 by the start of the program.

Program cancelled.

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