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January 17: Inevitable Progress: Genome Editing, Sovereign Science & the Politics of Human Future

Inevitable Progress: Genome Editing, Sovereign Science & the Politics of the Human Future / J. Benjamin Hurlbut (School of Life Sciences, Arizona State University)

Following the advent of CRISPR/Cas9, leading scientists expressed worries that this powerful and accessible genome editing tool might be applied to human embryos, creating heritable genetic changes in the human germline.  Even as they called for strict limits, many also asserted that heritable human genome editing was inevitable.  Several years later this prophesy was fulfilled when the world learned that a young Chinese scientist, He Jiankui, had produced babies whose genomes had been edited.  This talk will explore how an imaginary of inevitability shapes approaches to ethical deliberation and governance of emerging biotechnology, focusing on the case of human genome editing. Drawing on interviews with He Jiankui and his colleagues, this talk will examine his motivations, the advice and support he received from senior figures in the sciences and government, and the reactions from the international scientific community that followed. I show how He’s project was situated within, rather than an aberration from, an approach to ethics and governance that is regulated by the presumption of technological inevitability.  I argue that the imaginary of inevitability is an imaginary of right governance: it asserts relations between science, technology and society that construct ethical deliberation as necessarily reactive, science as at once intrinsically progressive and sovereign, and governance as driven by and subsidiary to technological innovation.  Predicting the inevitable illicitly authorizes science to define the parameters of deliberation even as it empowers scientists to declare what the future shall be.

Sunday, January 17th, 2020, 18:00.

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