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Genetics, Society, and ethics. Where we're going- First, almost none of this is testable ( in the usual sense) The one point that is: neo-Darwinism. It's an attempt to encourage thinking- about the consequences- personal, societal- of what we learn. Why I’m doing this:.

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genetics society and ethics
Genetics, Society, and ethics
  • Where we're going-
    • First, almost none of this is testable ( in the usual sense)
    • The one point that is: neo-Darwinism.
    • It's an attempt to encourage thinking- about the consequences- personal, societal- of what we learn.
why i m doing this
Why I’m doing this:

Goals 5 & 6 of your General Education, p. 36, 2006-2008 catalog; it's been replaced by a general expectation of producing people capable of “ethical reasoning and action” as a result of being liberally educated.


5. Consider the ethical and moral implications of what they have learned and weigh the responsible and appropriate responses to these implications.  

6. Identify and analyze their own personal values and those of others and the merits of conflicting viewpoints and interpretations.

Liberal arts learning objective: the ability and inclination to THINK and make connections across academic disciplines


I won’t be providing answers in this section- I’ll primarily be raising questions. If I do give my opinions, they are mine- not those of UW-S.

Video clip of Will Provine & Phillip Johnson, Stanford U, ~ 1996.

my main point
My main point:

Genetics has frequently been an area with ethical and moral implications. What we learn in genetics affects our views on ethics, and our views on ethics affect what we think about genetics.


How it affects your view of ethics:

Genetics provides foundational support for naturalism, a view of people, life, and nature that can certainly affect how you view yourself.

How you view yourself affects how you live.

How people as a whole view themselves- and how they live- affects society- its actions and values.

the big questions

Who am I? Why am I here?

Before Darwin, particularly in the West:

Created in the Image of God, with a purpose.

Free will- or at least moral responsibility

Moral- able to do real good, and real evil.

Fallen- a tendency to do evil; that tendency is one that society has a responsibility to constrain.

after darwin bertrand russell
After Darwin: Bertrand Russell:

That man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labors of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system,


and that the whole temple of man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins-all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built.

“A Free Man’s Worship”, 1903.

This is a view based on naturalism (= materialism; matter and energy are all there is; in some sense a positive expression of atheism)

From this you can conclude:

We have no cosmic significance

There are no absolute morals

Free will is an illusion

where genetics relates to naturalism
Where genetics relates to naturalism:

Early: Support for Darwin- the neoDarwinian synthesis.

Early Problem w/ evolution: producing and maintaining variation (hard if genes are “liquid”)

Answer: genetics- genes, mutations, became the molecular basis for evolution- and became the neo-Darwinian synthesis.


So we now have a complete, naturalistic account of who we are, and why we are here- two questions that were once considered the domain of philosophy and religion now became the domain of science.

just so you don t think it s just me
Just so you don’t think it’s just me:

From Modern Genetic Analysis- available online through PubMed: Genetics Affects One's World View

We each acquire our individual view of the universe and of our own position in that universe gradually, from the beginning of our consciousness. This viewpoint represents our identity as individuals. It drives our attitudes and our actions, and as such determines the kind of people we are and, ultimately, the kind of society we live in. Any new knowledge has to be accommodated into this world view, or the world view has to be changed to make it fit. Genetics has provided some powerful new concepts that have radically changed humanity's view of itself and its relation to the rest of the universe.


Probably the best example of how genetics changes personal world view comes from genetic, chromosomal, DNA, and protein studies that show we are related not only to apes and other mammals, but also, more surprisingly, to all the other living things on the planet, including plants, fungi, and bacteria. Living things share a common system for storing and expressing genetic information and show homology (similarity based on evolutionary relatedness) in many structures, even down to the genes themselves. That there is a continuous spectrum of relatedness within the living world is a powerful intellectual notion that unifies us with other living organisms. This notion radically affects one's world view. It suggests a view of humanity not as the pinnacle or the center of creation, but as one form equal to other life-forms. Admittedly, this brings us into the domain of philosophy and religion, but that is the point: genetics forces us to consider issues that question how we see ourselves.

where genetics relates to naturalism1
Where genetics relates to naturalism:

Late: “selfish DNA”- Dawkins provided an explanation of life and behavior on the basis of survival, not of organisms, but of genes- we become the reason for our genes, not vice versa.

(kind of like saying the purpose of the chicken is to ensure the production of eggs)

Genetic determinism: Genes for neurotic behavior, alcoholism, homosexuality.

effects upon people and society
Effects upon people and society:

 1. No Transcendent purpose-

63% of us think that "the purpose of life is enjoyment and personal fulfillment"

Schlitz (the beer!) becomes the dominant philosopher of the day. (you only go around once in life, grab all the GUSTO you can!!)

2 legitimization of selfishness
2. Legitimization of selfishness-

“Suppose that a newborn baby is diagnosed as a haemophiliac [(this is a serious, but not fatal, X-linked clotting disorder)]. The parents, daunted by the prospect of bringing up a child with this condition, are not anxious for him to live. Could euthanasia be defended here?... The total view makes it necessary to ask whether the death of the haemophiliac infant would lead to the creation of another being who would not otherwise have existed. In other words, if the haemophiliac child is killed, will his parents have another child whom they would not have if the haemophiliac child lives? If they would, is the second child likely to have a better life than the one killed? … When the death of a disabled infant will lead to the birth of another infant with better prospects of a happy life, the total amount of happiness will be greater if the disabled infant is killed. The loss of happy life for the first infant is outweighed by the gain of a happier life for the second. Therefore, if killing the haemophiliac infant has no adverse effect on others, it would, according to the total view, be right to kill him.” Practical Ethics, 2nd ed. New York: Cambridge U. Press, 1993, 185-186. Quoted in John Piper, Brothers we are not Professionals, p. 217)

3. Increased mysticism- We often rebel against this view, but we don’t think we can respond in a rational way- “science” is telling us this. So we respond in an irrational way- we separate meaning and purpose from rationality in an effort to avoid despair.

4. Postmodernism- I won’t go there, just to mention.

effects are indirect not direct
Effects are indirect, not direct.

“trickle down culture”- George Will- Dec. 13, 1993-

He wrote about the effects of ideas on “unformed youth”-


“He (education professor Edwin DeLattre) knows that the age pushes young people into predation not merely with grinding material impoverishment, but also with toxic ideas.

The age that pushes hard against unformed youth is not something that has just befallen us. WE made it; we are making it. Much of it come from the top down, a trickle-down culture that begins with the idea that the good life consists of satisfying every impulse.”


Will then talks about some of the horror stories of America- a 12 year old boy turns without a word and shoots dead a 7 year old girl because she “diss’ed” him by standing in his shadow. Or the teenager that murders another teenager for a particular jacket.

the effects are indirect
The effects are indirect…

It’s not that the 12 year old, or the teenage felon, read Darwin, or Bertrand Russell, or Dawkins, concluded after much thought that there was no morality, and thus he had the right to kill to avenge an insult or to obtain a jacket. The trickle typically goes from the academia, to the arts (particularly movies and TV), and then down to the individual.

effects on science
Effects on science-

Why bother to do science?

Malaria vs cosmetics.

 So- my question:

Do you think you are significant? if so, why?