Honors 181-39: Ethics of Human Biological Enhancement (2007)

Spring 2007
TR 2:35-3:50

Prof. Michael Bess
208 Benson
michael.d.bess@vanderbilt.edu
322-3340

Office Hours:
TR 4-5; F 2-4

Course Description

Human beings are rapidly acquiring an unprecedented capacity to manipulate their own biology, through advanced medical interventions and genetic alterations. At the same time, they are also developing machines so sophisticated that they may soon begin replicating some behaviors previously considered unique to the human species. As these two processes unfold over time, the net result is a blurring of the boundaries between humans and machines – a “convergence of opposites” that entails the progression of man-made entities toward the functional level of humans, and the simultaneous movement of human beings toward the qualitative status of partial artifacts, shaped by conscious will and design.

In this seminar we examine the challenges posed to human identity by these accelerating developments in genetics, robotics, and computer science, focusing in particular on the following questions: What are the defining features of human personhood? To what extent can those features be modified or extended, before human personhood begins to break down? Can some (or all) of those features find embodiment in an entity other than a human being? And finally, the most practical question of all: How much control do we have over the direction in which science and technology are taking our civilization?

Our approach will be interdisciplinary, encompassing developments in the natural sciences, technology, socioeconomic change, politics, popular culture, and philosophy.

The course will be divided into four thematic parts:

I. What’s at stake?

II. Redesigning humans

III. Maybe this isn’t such a good idea?

IV. Peer review of each other’s research papers

Readings

– Ramez Naam, More Than Human: Embracing the Promise of Biological Enhancement (Broadway Books, 2005)

– Bill McKibben, Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age (Holt, 2003)

– Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go (Knopf, 2005)

Assignments, Grading

You should ALWAYS finish each day’s assigned reading before class meets on Tuesday or Thursday. In order to carry out a satisfying discussion, it is essential that all students come to class well-prepared to contribute their thoughts and observations on the readings. I encourage you to take notes on the readings as you go along; this will also help you considerably when you are writing your research paper.

Each student will be asked to choose one class session during the semester in which he or she will start off the discussion with a 10-15 minute analytical report on that day’s reading.

There will be no examinations in this course. Written assignments will include a one-page topic proposal for your research paper, an 8-10 page research paper, fourteen one-page (single-spaced) peer reviews of the first drafts of the research papers written by your fellow students; a revised version (8-10 pages) of your research paper; and a final one-page reflective essay on what you have learned in this course. Late assignments will be penalized at the rate of 5% per day. Peer review essays will receive no credit if they are handed in late.

Semester grades will be determined according to the following percentages:

Discussion participation and oral presentations:                      15%

Topic proposal paper (1 page):                                                7%

Research paper, first polished (not rough!) draft:        25%

1-page peer reviews: 2% each x 14 =                          28%

Research paper, revised draft:                                     20%

1-page “What have I learned?” essay:                         5%

All assignments for this course will be governed by Vanderbilt’s honor code. Please read carefully the description of the honor code in the student handbook and the section on plagiarism in the writing guidelines for this course. If you have any questions about this very important matter, please come and discuss them with me.

Course Schedule

Part I. What’s at stake?

Week 1

Thursday, Jan. 11 — Intro and overview; discuss research paper topics; start film: The Measure                                                                   of a Man

Week 2

Tuesday, Jan. 16 — Film: Kenneth Branagh’s Frankenstein

Thursday, Jan. 18 — Finish Frankenstein film; start discussing it

Week 3

Tuesday, Jan. 23 — Discuss Commander Data, Frankenstein

Thursday, Jan. 25 — Discuss Joy

Read Bill Joy, “Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us,” at:

http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/8.04/joy.html

Part II. Redesigning Humans

Week 4

Tuesday, Jan. 30 — Discuss Naam, Introduction, ch. 1

Thursday, Feb. 1 — Discuss Naam, chs. 2, 3

First paper due: research topic proposal (1 page single-spaced): Thursday, Feb. 1 (copies to classmates)

Week 5

Tuesday, Feb. 6 No class: meet with me about research topic proposals

Thursday, Feb. 8 — No class: meet with me about research topic proposals

Week 6

Tuesday, Feb. 13 — Discuss Naam, chs. 4, 5

Thursday, Feb. 15 —  Discuss Naam, chs. 6, 7

Week 7

Tuesday, Feb. 20 — Discuss Naam, chs. 8, 9

Start reading Ishiguro novel

Thursday, Feb. 22 —  Discuss Naam, chs. 10, 11

Part III. Maybe this isn’t such a good idea?

Week 8

Tuesday, Feb. 27 — Discuss McKibben, Introduction, ch. 1

Continue Ishiguro novel

Thursday, March 1 — Discuss McKibben, chs. 2, 3

Week 9

Spring Break

Week 10

Tuesday, March 13 — Discuss McKibben, chs. 4, 5

Finish Ishiguro novel

Thursday, March 15 — Discuss Ishiguro novel

Part IV. Peer review of research papers

Week 11

Tuesday, March 20 —  No class: finish writing research papers

Thursday, March 22 — Paper swap. First polished draft of your research paper (8-10 pages) due. Please bring one double-spaced, one-sided copy for me and 14 single-spaced double-sided copies for your classmates

Week 12

Tuesday, March 27 — In-class peer review of two students’ research papers. (Each student hands in 1-page peer review of the two papers under discussion today. No late peer reviews accepted.)

Thursday, March 29 — In-class peer review of two students’ research papers. (Each student hands in 1-page peer review of the two papers under discussion today. No late peer reviews accepted.)

Week 13

Tuesday, April 3 — In-class peer review of two students’ research papers. (Each student hands in 1-page peer review of the two papers under discussion today. No late peer reviews accepted.)

Thursday, April 5 — In-class peer review of two students’ research papers. (Each student hands in 1-page peer review of the two papers under discussion today. No late peer reviews accepted.)

Week 14

Tuesday, April 10 — In-class peer review of two students’ research papers. (Each student hands in 1-page peer review of the two papers under discussion today. No late peer reviews accepted.)

Thursday, April 12 — In-class peer review of two students’ research papers. (Each student hands in 1-page peer review of the two papers under discussion today. No late peer reviews accepted.)

Week 15

Tuesday, April 17 — In-class peer review of two students’ research papers. (Each student hands in 1-page peer review of the two papers under discussion today. No late peer reviews accepted.)

Thursday, April 19 — In-class peer review of two students’ research papers. (Each student hands in 1-page peer review of the two papers under discussion today. No late peer reviews accepted.)

Week 16

Tuesday, April 24 — Closing discussion: What have I learned?

* One-page single-spaced reflection essay due: What have I learned? (Copies to classmates)

* Revised research paper due in Bess’s mailbox in History Dept., by 3 pm, Friday, April 27