Paul Root Wolpe
Director, Emory University Center for Ethics
03:03

The Ethics of Designer Brains

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The whole process of how we design and create future generations is changing. Your grandchildren, maybe your children, maybe even you, are going to reproduce differently than your grandparents did.

Paul Root Wolpe

 

Paul Root Wolpe, Ph.D. is the Asa Griggs Candler Professor of Bioethics, Raymond Schinazi Distinguished Research Professor of Jewish Bioethics, Professor of Medicine, Pediatrics, Psychiatry, Neuroscience and Biological Behavior, and Sociology, and the Director of the Center for Ethics at Emory University.  Dr. Wolpe also serves as the Senior Bioethicist at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), where he is responsible for formulating policy on bioethical issues and safeguarding research subjects. He is Co-Editor of the American Journal of Bioethics (AJOB), the premier scholarly journal in bioethics, and Editor-in-Chief of AJOB-Neuroscience, and sits on the editorial boards of over a dozen professional journals in medicine and ethics. Dr Wolpe is a past President of the American Society for Bioethics and Humanities, a Fellow of the Hastings Center, and a Fellow of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, the country’s oldest medical society.

Dr. Wolpe is the author of over 125 articles, editorials, and book chapters in sociology, medicine, and bioethics, and has contributed to a variety of encyclopedias on bioethical issues.  A futurist interested in social dynamics, Dr. Wolpe’s work focuses on the social, religious, ethical, and ideological impact of technology on the human condition.  Considered one of the founders of the field of neuroethics, which examines the ethical implications of neuroscience, he also writes about other emerging technologies, such as genetic engineering, nanotechnology, and prosthetics.  His teaching and publications range across multiple fields of bioethics and sociology, including death and dying, genetics and eugenics, sexuality and gender, mental health and illness, alternative medicine, and bioethics in extreme environments such as space. He is the author of the textbook Sexuality and Gender in Society, and edited and is a key author of the end-of-life guide Behoref Hayamim: In the Winter of Life.

Dr. Wolpe sits on a number of national and international non-profit organizational boards and working groups, and is a consultant to academic institutions and the biomedical industry.  In July, 2010, he testified to the President’s Commission on the Study of Bioethical Issues in Washington, DC on ethical issues in synthetic biology.  A dynamic and popular speaker internationally, Dr. Wolpe has been chosen by The Teaching Company as a "Superstar Teacher of America" and his courses are distributed internationally on audio and videotape.  He has won the World Technology Network Award in Ethics, has been featured in a TED talk, and was profiled in the November, 2011 Atlantic Magazine as a “Brave Thinker of 2011.” Dr. Wolpe is a frequent contributor and commentator in both the broadcast and print media, recently featured on 60 Minutes and with a personal profile in the Science Times of the New York Times.  

 

Transcript

Paul Root Wolpe: I think it’s very clear that your grandchildren, maybe your children, maybe even you, are going to reproduce differently than your grandparents did.  The whole process of how we design and execute future generations – execute in the sense of create - is changing.  And we’re going to have a power to actually manipulate the genetics of our offspring in a couple of generations - maybe next generation, maybe sooner, as usual, than anyone suspects.  And I worry about what that’s going to mean as we begin to micromanage the genetics of our children. 

Because here’s the truth about enhancement: every society will enhance itself - or every individual in every society will enhance itself; you will enhance yourself - to fulfill what you think are the proper goals for your life in your community and society.  So if we live in a country where the goal is to produce as rapidly as possible, to get ahead as quickly as possible, to achieve as much as possible, the enhancements you will choose in your life will be those that allow you to do that.  In a society where there’s more of a communal sense, in a society where achievement isn’t the be all and end all, you know, perhaps you’ll choose more social enhancements.  In a European society where you get, you know, three months of vacation and where the day ends at five and everyone closes their shops or whatever, perhaps the enhancement of choice there will be one that improves and increases social life, not productivity.  

There’s a reason why we’re all taking anti-depressants in the United States.  And there’s a reason why all our kids are on Ritalin and Modafinil.  And, you know, pretty soon, you know, Eric Kandel who won the Nobel Prize for his work on encoding memory, says we’re going to have a memory pill.  And if little Johnny is taking Ritalin because – not because he has diagnosed ADD, but because he’s not doing that well - imagine what’s going to happen when the memory pill comes out.  While in some other cultures where educational achievement at that age is not as pressured and powerful, maybe little Johnny there - little Jose - will not be taking Modafinil and a memory pill and other things so that he can get into the better third grade or the more exclusive school or whatever it is.  

And so what worries me about enhancement is not enhancement itself, is not the process of enhancement itself.  It is why we enhance ourselves and what we enhance ourselves towards because unless society sends the right kinds of moral messages, creates the right kinds of values and goals for its members, the way in which we’re going to try to enhance our lives may not be healthy. 

Directed / Produced by
Jonathan Fowler & Elizabeth Rodd

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