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Genetics, Ethics, and Society

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Course Abstract

Spring 2013
Schedule: Mon, Wed 12:50-2:05
Professor: Duana Fullwiley
TA: Brian Johnsrud

This course explores they ways that innovative elements of genetic science have the potential to transform our lives and world. We will examine the different contexts in which technologies rooted in the generative capacities of genes hold both liberating possibilities and potential constraints for populations and publics. We will study these issues locally, and across the globe.

Topically the course will be divided into three sections. First, we will examine past and present issues dealing with genetics, human health, and medicine. To situate and historicize this material, we will begin by looking at early 20th century health care, public health movements of social hygiene, “better breeding,” and eugenics in the United States. Going beyond a simple review of the ethical issues regarding research participants in the past, we will also explore the ways that science on human difference has reiterated and continues to fortify social notions of race. We will continue to think about these dynamics in the present by examining new trends in the creation of niche markets for pharmaceuticals, new forms of genetic ancestry testing, and current medical aspirations to eventually bring full genome scans to every individual (personal genomics). We will pay special attention to how efforts to improve upon human populations have been linked to progressive ideals, but have also proved harmful to vulnerable populations, minorities, and women in the past.

Next we will learn of large-scale projects that aim to map the presence of environmental pathogens by their genetic signatures on a planetary scale and how different global populations may be affected. We will assess the ethical issues involved in research that creates hybrid life forms, which range from beneficial maternal milk enzymes to the creation of insect drones, that are seen as advantageous for human, environmental, market, and military purposes.
The last section of the course will focus on still other projects and policies that aim to expand the scope and capacity of state and international law enforcement through DNA-based forensics (the FBI CODIS database and the UK’s Human Provenance Pilot Project). Projects like the latter also overlap with theories about community, families, and citizens who may or may not be linked through DNA. New concepts, such as the forensic “genetic informant” within a family unit, human DNA and isotope “country matches” in cases of state asylum, and DNA-based kinship rules for family reunification in many Western countries, will be explored.

In all three sections we will also examine scientific ethics when subject populations are structurally disadvantaged. Throughout the course, we will discuss how genetic technological advances prod cultural movements, scientific change, and political engagements beyond “the laboratory.”

This course will provide students with the tools to explore and critically assess the various technical, social, and ethical positions of researchers, as well as the role of states and certain publics in shaping scientific research agendas that promise to reorganize critical aspects of human life. Students will be encouraged to explore these dynamics within such important societal domains as health, law, the family, and the market. We will read works from social scientists of science practice, ethicists, medical humanists, lawyers, and scientists. This course will equip students with tools to write about the intersection of science and society and to engage a final research paper, or proposal for a future project, that relates to the topical foci of the course broadly conceived.

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