The Future of Human Nature

by Rachael Warecki '08

2008 Humanities Fellows

“I truly believe that this semester’s topic will have an everlasting impact on both my thoughts and my actions throughout the rest of my life,” Courtney Funk ’10 wrote in her application to the spring 2008 Humanities Institute.

What is this issue causing such inspiration in Scripps students? The answer is as complex as the varied responses of the 19 Institute fellows who have chosen to study it. This semester, the Humanities Institute, under the directorship of Professor Nathalie Rachlin, is focusing on biotechnology and its implications for the future of humanity. With the potential development of “designer babies,” synthetic genes, genetic interventions, augmented cognitive powers, cyborgs, and other human enhancement technologies, humans will have not only greater control over our biological limitations but also the ability to determine the future of our species. The series addresses the moral, social, legal, economic, and political implications of the new biosciences: will these developments make us better humans? Will they inalterably change what it means to be human? Or will they make the very notion of human nature obsolete?

Whatever the answers may be, Scripps students are eager to discuss biotechnological potential. For some fellows, like Funk, the reasons for debating the issue are academic. Clio Korn ’10 says that, before the Institute, she only thought of biotechnology from a scientific perspective, yet she realized the importance of understanding the topic from nonscientific worldviews. Laura Loesch ’09 believes her semester as a fellow will make her senior thesis in neuroscience more current and relevant than she had originally intended. Eva Pearlstone ’11 and Nina Timberlake ’09 have both encountered issues of bioethics in their biomedical lab classes.

“I realize that saving the life of every patient that walks into the office is neither possible nor practical,” said Funk. “But it is important to understand how major technological advances will affect society and the world as we know it.”

For other fellows, this semester’s topic is more personal. Sara McKinney ’10 was interested in studying the advancement of biotechnology because of its direct controversy with her devout Catholic morals. She said that at times she has been unsure whether to side with the improvement of human nature or the nonnegotiable principles of the Catholic Church. “It is my hope that by better familiarizing myself with the goals of biotechnology, I may be better able to find a stance that allows me to participate in the development of biotechnology, but at the same time stay loyal to my faith,” she said.

Nicole Latham’s ’09 relationship with the topic of biotechnology became quite personal seven years ago, when her father was diagnosed with leukemia. She admitted that the topic is not at all related to her academic interests—history and Latin American studies—but said that she believes it is time for her to pull her family out of the equation and look at the issue from an unbiased perspective. “With the rollercoaster of emotions I have experienced over the last seven years, there is nothing I want more than to engage in intelligent conversation with my peers and listen to numerous expert opinions about the pressing topic of biotechnology,” Latham said.

Humanities Institute guest lecturers are examining the rapidly evolving biotechnologies of genomics, genetic engineering, cloning, stem cell research, artificial reproduction, neurotechnologies, artificial intelligence, robotics, information technology, and nanotechnology. They also are discussing what is at stake in these attempts to better understand human life and transform human nature.

A lecture and film series began February 7 and will continue through April 29. Speakers include Laurie Zoloth, the director of the Center for Genetic Medicine at Northwestern University; William Hurlbut, MD, member of the Neuroscience Institute at Stanford University Medical Center and the President’s Council on Bioethics; Edward McCabe, co-director of the UCLA Center for Society and Genetics and professor of genetics at the David Geffen School of Medicine; Scripps Associate Professor of Media Studies T. Kim Trang-Tran, and Harvey Mudd professor Rachel Mayeri. All events are free and open to the public.

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Above: Humanities Institute fellows are a select group of students chosen each semester to study a particular topic in depth, based on their academic record, faculty recommendation, and a personal essay. Top row, from left, are Eva Pearlstone ’11, Keri Zug ’09, Linda Wang ’10, Sara McKinney ’10, and Claire Richmond ’10. Middle row, from left, Sarah Derry ’10, Laura Loesch ’09, Clio Korn ’10, and Suzie Caughlin ’10. Bottom row, from left, Julia Kendall ’10, Sandra Tseng ’10, Alysha Chan ’09, and Nicole Latham ’09. Not pictured: Halley Everall ’10, Courtney Funk ’10, Kelsey MacDonald ’10, Kelsey McDonald ’09, Nina Timberlake ’09, and Laura Williams ’10.