In this class, we will discuss man’s vision and endeavor to control and engineer life. This ambition goes as far back as 3500 BC, when the biological process of fermentation was first harnessed to produce beer. However, it was not until 1954 that the term bioengineering was coined to describe the practical application of biological knowledge to construct novel technologies by mimicking or controlling biological systems. Recent advances related to stem cells, cloning, and genetic engineering have brought the field into the arena of public discourse and politics. There are some who believe that applying engineering methods to biological systems leads to progress and the betterment of mankind, a sentiment epitomized by Francis Bacon’s statement: “Conquer nature, relieve man’s estate.” On the other hand, bioengineering also conjures up images of eugenics, organ harvesting, and overmedication. And as the bioethicist Leon Kass warns, our ability to engineer life means that the very question of what it means to be human “lies on the operating table, ready…for wholesale redesign.” We will explore the positive and negative perceptions of the goals and achievements of bioengineering through various forms of media, which will include readings such as Yevgeny Zamyatin's We, Jane S. Smith's The Garden of Invention, as well articles from journals and newspapers related to bioengineering and bioethics, and films such as Vincenzo Natali's Splice (2009) and Ridley Scott's Blade Runner (1982).
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