10 March 2014

Lots of science in Ethics Bowl 2014

Ethics Bowl is a university competition at regional an national levels intended to get undergraduate students (mainly philosophy majors) to discuss ethical issues. I’ve helped with the preparation of teams from my university in the past.

One of my colleagues, Cynthia Jones, helped draft cases this year (available online here). One case involved a topic I suggested to her: “de-extinction,” which I’d seen via a TEDx symposium devoted to the topic, of which Carl Zimmer was one of the speakers.  And it was used as one of the cases in the finals of the competition. The case read thus:

Gone today, here tomorrow

In Jurassic Park-like fashion, scientists have been attempting to bring recently-extincted species back from the dead, so to speak. The 5 April 2013 journal Science reported that the first live product of de-extinction, a Pyrenean ibex, lasted only a few minutes before extincting again. The ibex, which was produced by a process similar to that used for Dolly, the infamous cloned sheep, was driven to extinction in the first place with the help of humans. Some scientists think it only fitting that humans play a part in the de-extinction of those species that we helped to extinct in the first place.

An environmental argument for de-extinction arises from the case of the wooly mammoth, a species whose de-extinction would likely have beneficial consequences, such as the restoration of a more diverse ecology in the Arctic. Unfortunately for dinosaur enthusiasts, species of dinosaurs are not contenders for de-extinction at the moment, as the processes for de-extinction that are currently available require “fresher” DNA. And some notable environmental scientists are concerned about the unforeseen effects of reintroducing a de-extincted species into an environment, much like the unforeseen effects of introducing non-native species of plants or animals into novel environments. One might also wonder whether de-extincted creatures fall under endangered species laws and whether it is appropriate to use the term ‘extinct’ for species from this time forward, given that de-extinction is an imminent possibility.

Speaking of de-extinction, The Current radio show recently had a very good look at the passenger pigeon, which went extinct one hundred years ago this year. It is probably one of the better candidates for trying the technique.

Browsing the fifteen cases used at the national Ethics Bowl competition is interesting because of how many revolve around scientific and technologial issues.

  • Case #1 is called “Open Exce$$ Publishing,” and involves open access scientific publishing.
  • Case #3 is about Google Glass.
  • Case #4 is about drones.
  • Case #14 is about honeybee colony collapse and pesticides.

University of Montana won the national Ethics Bowl championship this year, beating the University of Oklahoma in the final round.

External links

in National Geographic

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