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EMBL/EMBO Joint Conference 2006

Erik Parens, The Hastings Centre, New York, USA


Erik Parens


Erik Parens is a Senior Research Scholar at The Hastings Center, a bioethics research institute in Garrison, New York. He received his BA, MA, and PHD degrees from interdisciplinary programs in the humanities at The University of Chicago.

Since arriving at The Hastings Center in 1992, he has led research projects that have resulted in many publications, including 4 edited volumes: Surgically Shaping Children: Technology, Ethics, and the Pursuit of Normality (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006); Wrestling with Behavioral Genetics: Science, Ethics, and Public Conversation (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005); Prenatal Testing and Disability Rights (Georgetown University Press, 2000); and Enhancing Human Traits: Ethical and Social Implications (Georgetown University Press, 1998).

He has served as a consultant to governmental and non-governmental bodies, including the American Association for the Advancement and the National Bioethics Advisory Commission (under the Clinton administration). He has published widely on a variety of topics, from pluralism and the delivery of health care services to embryonic stem cell research and the prospect of creating inheritable genetic modifications. He currently is developing two new projects, one on "The Uses and Limits of Neuroimaging Technologies" and the other on "The Pharmacological Treatment of Behavioral Disturbances in Children."


Three Concerns about the Balkanization of Bioethics

I will discuss the trend toward carving bioethics into putatively discrete areas like "gen-ethics," "neuro-ethics," and "nano-ethics."

First, such Balkanization risks incoherence. It is increasingly inaccurate to speak as if genetic technologies or neurotechnologies or cybernetic technologies are distinct. As, for example, Mihail Roco et al. show, once-distinct technologies are converging to increase our capacity to enhance human traits. It is enhancement – not the particulars of the technology – that is ethically significant. Moreover, the lines of scientific research undergirding those technologies are themselves less and less distinct. In imaging genomics, for example, "neuroscientists" and "geneticists" use neuroimaging technologies to understand how genotype affects neuronal activity.

Second, such Balkanization risks wasting time reinventing the ethical wheel. Some ethical, legal, or social concerns may become especially vivid in one putatively distinct arena (e.g. Ron Green observes that neuroscience seems to promise something closer to "mind reading" than does genetics). But it is exceedingly difficult to identify an ethical, legal, or social issue that can't be glimpsed in, for example, the litany of concerns already articulated in the literature on the Ethical, Legal, and Social Implications (ELSI) of the Human Genome Project . If we considered where past ELSI research has-and has not-made progress, our future research might be more efficient and useful.

Finally, Balkanization increases the risk of bioethicists becoming caught up in the irrationally exuberant modes of reductionism that can infect hot new areas of science. For example, proximity to geneticists may have made us "gen-ethicists" too quick to accept claims about "genes for" complex human traits or about the imminence of engineering them. Neuroscience today may be in an equally exuberant mode. Insufficient attention to the complexity of the biological and social networks out of which human traits emerge is a problem that cuts across scientific accounts, whether the unit of analysis is the gene, the neuron, or the hormone. Attending to such complexity may be easier if we are less tied to single lines of scientific investigation than is encouraged by the Balkanization of bioethics.