A Guide to Ethical Innovation

There’s no consensus yet as to how we should think about a lot of these biotechnologies.  It’s what we’re working out.

A Guide to Ethical Innovation

When we are on a cutting edge issue as a society, when you think about reproducing and whether you are going to genetically modify your offspring, when you think about modifying yourself and whether it’s okay to take an attention-enhancing drug. You’re involved in the conversation about ethics. We’re all involved in that conversation.  Ethics is negotiated by a society.  I talk to you, you talk to your friends, we read an op-ed article, we watch a television show, we’re on the Web, and this information flow goes back and forth, the kinds of debates friends have standing next to the water cooler or in the bar.  That’s all part of the ethical conversation that a society has.  

And through that, societies begin to negotiate a kind of ethical mood, and hopefully what happens is that ethical mood gets transmitted to our courts, to our legislatures, to the people who actually make the decisions.  And when they go too far outside that ethical mandate they’re given, the people let them know and then you have the Tea Party or Occupy Wall Street or whatever the movement might be at that moment.

When it comes to biological innovations, nobody gets to make that call directly.  You may think that some innovation is unethical, you may think we shouldn’t be using embryos, for instance, and you have a right to make that claim in the public forum. You have a right to lobby your legislators. But I think what’s going to end up happening for wide swaths of biotechnology is they’re going to basically go unregulated.  And what’s going to happen is that what is going to control those biotechnologies will be popular opinion and what society tolerates.  And what that means, of course, is you’re going to get a wide range of behaviors as we already have in different countries and even in different states.  

So if you take stem cell research for example right now, the 50 United States have very, very different policies in each state.  If you look at the European Union, which was a union that was supposed to be put together to create common policy, all of those countries have completely different ideas about how we use embryos, whether you can create embryos for research, whether you can take them from fertility clinics.  So nobody really knows yet, nobody really understands yet.  There’s no consensus yet as to how we should think about a lot of these biotechnologies.  It’s what we’re working out.  

And as societies begin to converge toward some consensus, that’s when you’re going to really begin to see a convergence of policy.  In the meantime, conservative countries, like Germany that are very worried about biotechnology, they’ll have bans on a lot of this stuff.  The UK also in the European Union has a very open policy toward these things.  We’re very confused as a world and as a society about how to think about the enormous power of these biotechnologies.

And I think it’s a very good thing because it keeps the argument going. It means that we have little micro experiments in different states, in different countries.  Some countries are trying some things, some countries aren’t.  When we really step over a line, people will respond and they’ll stop it.  We have a basically a ban on human reproductive cloning all over the world. There’s some rogue individuals who may be trying to do it, but no states are trying to do it.  

There’s already been some reaction to some of the things, for example, that China is doing that some other countries don’t like and they’re trying to put pressure on China to not to do those things.  And I think that’s how it’s going to go.  And we’re eventually going to reach some sense of global agreement on what kinds of things are within and kinds of things are without the range of acceptable behaviors around biotechnology.  But it’s so new and it has changed so rapidly that that’s going to take a while. 

In Their Own Words is recorded in Big Think's studio.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

How tiny bioelectronic implants may someday replace pharmaceutical drugs

Scientists are using bioelectronic medicine to treat inflammatory diseases, an approach that capitalizes on the ancient "hardwiring" of the nervous system.

Left: The vagus nerve, the body's longest cranial nerve. Right: Vagus nerve stimulation implant by SetPoint Medical.

Credit: Adobe Stock / SetPoint Medical
Sponsored by Northwell Health
  • Bioelectronic medicine is an emerging field that focuses on manipulating the nervous system to treat diseases.
  • Clinical studies show that using electronic devices to stimulate the vagus nerve is effective at treating inflammatory diseases like rheumatoid arthritis.
  • Although it's not yet approved by the US Food and Drug Administration, vagus nerve stimulation may also prove effective at treating other diseases like cancer, diabetes and depression.
Keep reading Show less

Just how cold was the Ice Age? New study finds the temperature

Researchers figure out the average temperatures of the last ice age on Earth.


Credit: Pixabay
Surprising Science
  • A new study analyzes fossil data to find the average temperatures during the last Ice Age.
  • This period of time, about 20,000 years ago, had the average temperature of about 46 degrees Fahrenheit (7.8 C).
  • The study has implications for understanding climate change.

Keep reading Show less

Best. Science. Fiction. Show. Ever.

"The Expanse" is the best vision I've ever seen of a space-faring future that may be just a few generations away.

Credit: "The Expanse" / Syfy
  • Want three reasons why that headline is justified? Characters and acting, universe building, and science.
  • For those who don't know, "The Expanse" is a series that's run on SyFy and Amazon Prime set about 200 years in the future in a mostly settled solar system with three waring factions: Earth, Mars, and Belters.
  • No other show I know of manages to use real science so adeptly in the service of its story and its grand universe building.
Keep reading Show less

How exercise changes your brain biology and protects your mental health

Contrary to what some might think, the brain is a very plastic organ.

Mind & Brain

As with many other physicians, recommending physical activity to patients was just a doctor chore for me – until a few years ago. That was because I myself was not very active.

Keep reading Show less
Surprising Science

Here's a 10-step plan to save our oceans

By 2050, there may be more plastic than fish in the sea.