The Topic: Creating Superman – is it ethical to genetically modify organisms?

Across the world GMO technology is a hotly debated topic with fierce proponents on both sides of the fence. Given that we were dealing with these issues on a daily basis we thought a great outreach project would be to have the ethics of our science contested in a verbal boxing ring. To do so we organised “The Great Debate” in collaboration with our schools society Babsoc. On the table was the broad spectrum topic “Creating Superman: Is it ethical to genetically modify organisms?”. The two teams were sourced from enthusiastic Science undergrads who went head to head on a balmy Friday afternoon. A range of convincing arguments were communicated by both sides. Some of the team’s’ key points are summarised below.

The Affirmative Team

Potential risk-benefit analysis, with examples of how such technologies have helped humanity in the past The near limitless potential of genetic engineering, and how with it many of the world’s current problems can be alleviated. Examples included achievements such as the use of Golden rice to combat vitamin A deficiency. The foundational benefits of how research into GMO’s will expand our basic understanding of the universe and our place in it. Honouring nature by re-using its pre existing solutions. How addressing this issue with an anthropocentric attitude will assist the growth of humanity.

The Negative Team

Argued how the ethics of this debate are often looked through only the eyes of humans and not objectively by nature; a case against anthropocentrism. “Just because we can doesn’t mean we should”, tampering with the natural world is not a trivial matter and should not be taken lightly. The Genetic Arms race, the use of toxic genes/chemicals leads to the rise in resistant organisms. This was discussed in length with regards to genetically modified crops, in particular BT corn and RoundUp ready varieties. Mother nature always finds a way, this argument was used in two contexts. First of all, if there is a problem in the world somewhere a solution to that problem already exists and instead of artificially recreating that solution we should be tapping into what is already there. Secondly it was used as argument in the “Genetic Arms Race”. The science of molecular biology as a whole is significantly unpredictable. If a transgene escapes its host confines it is essentially impossible to get back, there are no second chances. After the teams had concluded their cases the verdict was decided by audience vote. In an unexpected turn of events the voters were swayed to the side of the negative team. Perhaps this is an good case in point of the importance of how we as scientists, present our cases in a public forum.

Conclusively

Overall the event was both entertaining and insightful. In the future we would look to change the following aspects. Source speakers from a wider range of fields including social science, philosophy and law. Record or live stream the debate to facilitate a wider audience.

The Negative team in full flight!

Find out more at http://2015.igem.org/Team:BABS_UNSW_Australia/Practices

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