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News: October/November 2017

Philosophic Park: Beware of Intellectual Dinosaurs! • Robot Council jerks into motion • Scientists tamper with the stuff of life (again) — News reports by Anja Steinbauer

Philosophic Park

How pleasant it is to take the occasional intellectual stroll through the history of philosophy. Now you can do the same physically: at Sophi-Park in the German town of Bad Liebenzell in the Black Forest. Ten artists and a team of gardeners have created a wonder world of sculptures and horticultural art that invite you to think, marvel and disagree, stimulating its visitors to talk and debate. EU, local political and private sponsorship made the three year construction project possible, with the park opening in June, and a charity will pay the running costs of two permanent gardeners. The park is structured into ten areas, each representing a different philosophical era or approach and each with its own distinct works of art, quotations, planting and seating. In one of them you can see Diogenes’ barrel, with an explanation of the old Cynic’s ideas. In another a carving of Hannah Arendt peers out from a tree trunk. Sophi-Park is the brainchild of artist Clavigo Lampart, who comments: “Philosophy itself doesn’t cost anything but provides a sea of possibilities – and this is what we want to open up to all with this park.”

The Ethics of Xenotransplantation

In his famous essay ‘The Survival Lottery’, the bioethicist John Harris discusses in a thought experiment the ethics of killing a random person to save the lives of two or more people who would be given that person’s organs. While we are a far cry from having to consider this scenario as a real possibility, we now have to face questions about the moral permissibility of sacrificing animal lives for the sake of transplanting their organs into human bodies. Heart valves from pigs have been transplanted into humans for years, but other types of procedure are now emerging from clinical trials. The ethics of this is currently fiercely contested in Germany, where xenotransplantation has been legal in cases where human lives could be saved. The German Animal Welfare Association (Deutscher Tierschutzbund, or TiBu) has argued that this practice degrades animals by denying their capacity for suffering and treating them as a mere ‘spare part supply’ for humans.

Robot Council

Austria has instituted a “robot council” – no, not a council of robots (which would really be front page news) but a traditional human council under the leadership of Prof. Sabine Köszegi of Vienna Technical University working on questions and worries of both authorities and citizens concerning the growing digitalisation of life. The initiative comes from transport, innovation and technology minister Jörg Leichtfried to reflect on the changes that the rapid developments in AI and robotics will cause in people’s lives. At the same time a country-wide survey about the acceptability of robots in people’s everyday lives was conducted. Leichtfried comments: “Robots take over more and more tasks in our everyday lives. Austrians develop both expectations and anxieties about this… Robotic technology is neither good nor bad. Only it’s application involves concrete potentials and risks for humans and society. Therefore it is important to carefully work out a strategy of how to handle this technology.”

Genome Editing Human Embryos

A few years ago, Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier revolutionised biology when they deciphered the molecular mechanism of the bacterial CRISPR/Cas9 immune system and turned it into a tool for editing genomes. They showed that it could be used to make precise cuts in any DNA sequence. Their method has been used successfully worldwide to edit the DNA sequences of plants, animals, and laboratory cell lines. You can, for example, modify the genetic make up of a mushroom in such a way that it can stay on supermarket shelves for longer without turning brown. Researchers have also pioneered applications that might potentially be used on humans: HIV infected mice have already been cured by removing almost all of the viral genes from the infected cells. In 2015 a Chinese research team led by Junjiu Huang reported using CRISPR/Cas9 on discarded human embryos in an unsuccessful attempt to repair a genetic defect. Then, in August, an article in Nature caused a major stir, as a team of scientists headed by Hong Ma and Nuria Marti-Gutierrez of Oregon Health and Science University in Portland described how they injected the gene-snipping enzyme directly with the sperm into the only just emerging egg cell. In this way genetic repair was applied even before the first cell division. This startling development may indicate that the mixed reaction of the scientific community to the Chinese experiments of 2015, due to worries about the perils of human germline modification, has now given way to a can-do excitement that leaves little time for moral thinking to catch up.

From The Philosophy Now Team

We have two pieces of Philosophy Now news. Firstly, the redesign of our website has just gone live at philosophynow.org! We hope you like the new design. Now it is even easier for subscribers to navigate our massive archive of 2,500 articles from past issues. Secondly, in November we will be launching The Ultimate Guide to Ethics, an ambitiously-named, magazine-shaped selection of scintillating articles from our archives, 116 pages long and divided into chapters covering the main areas of moral philosophy. This Guide will be followed later by others, on other areas of philosophy such as metaphysics. We hope they will be useful to students and experienced philosophers alike – and enjoyable to read as well! The Guide will be sold from our website shop, and will also be available on some of the best newsstands around the world (where ‘best newsstands’ is defined circularly as meaning ‘ones that stock Philosophy Now’).

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