Seminar: Dr Russell Powell, "A Future Without Genetic Engineering: Medicine, Evolution and the Preservation of Human Good"

Past Event

17 November 2010, 4:00pm - 5:30pm

Lecture Theatre, Oxford Martin School
34 Broad Street (corner of Holywell and Catte Streets), Oxford, OX1 3BD

Abstract: Prominent proponents of genetic enhancement argue that human germ-line modification is morally desirable or obligatory because it will result in a net improvement in human wellbeing. I argue here in favor of a more fundamental point, namely that genetic engineering will be necessary merely to sustain the levels of health and wellbeing that humans currently enjoy. I show that a large-scale program of genetic intervention (1) may be necessary to preserve existing levels of human wellbeing given the dynamic nature of the evolutionary environment, and (2) will be necessary to preserve existing levels of human wellbeing due to the population-genetic consequences of relaxed selection response in human populations caused by the increasing efficacy and availability of conventional medicine and other health-related institutional resources. I defend the counterintuitive claim that the greater the effectiveness of conventional medicine, the greater the need for germ-line modification, since the former in the absence of the latter will lead to an increasing reliance on medical technology for the development of normal human capacities. Although this conclusion follows from the structure of evolutionary theory, it has been overlooked in bioethics due to various misconceptions about human evolution, which I attempt to rectify, as well as the sordid history of Darwinian approaches to ethics and social policy, which I distinguish from the present argument. I conclude that human genetic engineering is a prima facie moral imperative grounded in principles relating to the fair and efficient allocation of limited health care resources across generations.

Bio: Russell Powell is the Arts and Humanities Research Council Fellow on the Science and Religious Conflict Project at the Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics, a James Martin Research Fellow for the Program on Ethics and the New Biosciences, and a member of the Oxford Centre for Neuroethics at the Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics. Prior to his appointment at Oxford, Russell was a Greenwall Postdoctoral Fellow at Johns Hopkins University and (simultaneously) a Visiting Assistant Professor of Philosophy and a Senior Research Scholar in the Kennedy Institute of Ethics at Georgetown University. He received his Ph.D. in Philosophy and M.S. in Evolutionary Biology from Duke University (2009), his Juris Doctor (with honors) from NYU Law School (2002), and his B.A. in philosophy (summa cum laude) from Binghamton University (1999). Russell specializes in the philosophy of biological and biomedical science, with a particular interest in the evolutionary dimensions of bioethics broadly construed. However, his academic interests are wide-ranging and highly interdisciplinary. He has published in areas ranging from the philosophy of science to political and legal philosophy, in journals such as the British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, Journal of Philosophy, Journal of Political Philosophy, Journal of Medicine and Philosophy, Biology and Philosophy, European Journal for the Philosophy of Science, American Journal of Bioethics, Kennedy Institute of Ethics Journal, and the Australian Journal of Legal Philosophy. Prior to commencing his graduate work in philosophy, Russell worked as an attorney in the New York
office of the law firm Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher and Flom LLP, where he practiced complex product liability litigation.