Biotechnology & Politics

The inaugural program focused on the theme of Biotechnology and Politics. Steady advances in the field of biotechnology, epitomized by the human genome project, have opened a new frontier of ethical and political questions.

Without doubt, gratitude is the most appropriate response for the many developments in biotechnology that have done much to alleviate human suffering.

At the same time, however, we find ourselves on the threshold of an unprecedented power to shape the character of human life itself – a “brave new world” that brings with it a number of fundamental questions that warrant serious and sustained examination. Indeed, many have argued that the explicit and implicit questions of value raised by the biotechnology revolution constitute the most far-reaching set of challenges for our time, currently at the center of American politics.

“Biotechnology and Politics” integrated two distinct types of material. The first consisted of classic texts in the history of political thought, supplemented by classic religious and literary texts that bear directly on the theme of the course. The second drew upon the work of the most influential contemporary thinkers who address the underlying ethical issues embedded in the biotechnological revolution. A unique aspect of this course is that it included campus visits and lectures by scholars or public intellectuals who are on the cutting edge of this debate. Students had an opportunity to interact with three renowned speakers in both formal and informal ways during the course of the term.

The course provided students with a brief overview of the kinds of issues raised by classic texts in the history of political thought as they bear on biotechnology and politics. Students were challenged to examine critically the often competing perspectives raised by these authors – from Socrates’ claim that an unexamined life is not worth living, to Bacon’s vision of a utopia ruled by scientists, to Rousseau’s insistence that moral improvement does not accompany scientific progress. Against this backdrop, students read a variety of contemporary authors whose engagement with the revolutionary new technologies in biology led them to grapple with questions about what it means to be human, as well as the relationship among the competing authorities of science, politics and religion in the modern world.

2010 Lecturers

Robert P. George: "Science, Philosophy, and Religion in the Embryo Debate"

Robert P. George holds the McCormick Chair in Jurisprudence at Princeton University and is the founding director of Princeton’s James Madison Program. He is also a member of the President’s Council on Bioethics and the UNESCO World Commission on the Ethics of Science and Technology. His books include In Defense of Natural Law and Embryo: A Defense of Human Life.

Lee M. Silver: "Choosing the Genes of Our Children and the Future of Humankind"

Dr. Lee M. Silver is a professor at Princeton University in the Department of Molecular Biology and the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. His most recent book is Challenging Nature: the Clash of Science and Spirituality at the New Frontiers of Life. He has testified before both state governments and the U.S. Congress on biotechnological issues, and has been a frequent commentator on national television programs, including 20/20 and 60 Minutes.

Peter A. Lawler: "Stuck with Virtue in our Pro-Life Future: The Persistence of Human Nature in the Era of Biotechnology"

Peter Augustine Lawler is Dana Professor and Chair of the Department of Government and International Studies at Berry College, and a member of the President’s Council on Bioethics. He has written or edited a dozen books, including Aliens in America: The Strange Truth About Our Souls and Stuck with Virtue: The American Individual and Our Bioetechnological Future.

2009 Lecturers

Francis Fukuyama: "Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution"

Francis Fukuyama is Bernard L. Schwartz Professor of International Political Economy at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) of Johns Hopkins University. He is also director of the SAIS International Development program, and a member of the President’s Council on Bioethics. His many books include The End of History and the Last Man (1992) and Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution (2002).

Leon R. Kass: "For Love of the Game: Biotechnology and the Adulteration of American Sport"

Leon R. Kass, M.D., Ph.D., is the Addie Clark Harding Professor in the Committee on Social Thought and the College at the University of Chicago and Hertog Fellow in Social Thought at the American Enterprise Institute. He was chairman of the President’s Council on Bioethics from 2002 to 2005. He has written widely on the moral questions raised by modern science, including his 1984 book Toward a More Natural Science: Biology and Human Affairs and in (2002), Life, Liberty, and the Defense of Dignity. His latest book, The Beginning of Wisdom, is a commentary on the Book of Genesis.

Virginia Postrel: "Biotechnology and the Self-made Man: Beyond Horror and Glamour"

Virginia Postrel is contributing editor to the Atlantic Monthly, and former editor of Reason magazine. Her columns have appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, and many other publications. She donated a kidney to a friend in 2006, and speaks frequently on the subject. She has written two books, The Future and Its Enemies (1998) and The Substance of Style (2004).

Course Syllabi