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Ethics, culture and biotechnology


Admission requirements

Propodeuse obtained


Contemporary biotechnological practices (such as genetic modification) that involve manipulation of living beings present a challenge to traditional notions of nature and the human body. This is particularly true of synthetic biology, a form of bioengineering which includes both the design and construction of new biological parts, devices, and systems and the re-designing of existing natural biological systems. These developments pose pressing and urgent questions. Firstly, who has the right to re-design life? This is ultimately a question of legal and moral ownership and of the commodification of life and nature. Secondly, do we, as a society, think it is necessary to re-design life, and if so, how do we want to re-design nature and the human body? What limits do we wish to impose on biotechnological innovation involving nature and the human body? And what notion of ‘being human’ or human dignity and of nature are these limits based on?

The opportunities and possibilities of biotechnology challenge us to seek new approaches to the ethical, cultural, juridical and economic issues relating to biotechnological practices. The starting point of this course is that biotechnology is testing accepted ethical and aesthetic values concerning the human body and nature to such an extent that we need multiple perspectives in our search for a theoretical and practical position on new biotechnological challenges and developments. In particular, we will consider the contribution of art in this debate. We will discuss how artworks that engage with biotechnological practices enable the artist and the beholder to actively experiment with new ways of being, behaving and constituting subjectivities in relation to biotechnological developments.

Course objectives

At the end of this course students should be able to – Describe key ethical issues in biotechnology and its products – Describe key historical and cultural issues in biotechnology and its products – Identify individual and social barriers that play a role in the application of biotechnological innovations – Identify various perspectives and values in the public debate surrounding biotechnology – Reflect upon the role of the industry and the entrepreneur in addressing ethical issues regarding a biotechnological product – demonstrate debating skills and critical reading skills

Mode of instruction

Hands-on workshops, expert lectures, group presentations

Assessment method

For all classes two panels of students will prepare a defense of a point of view that is given in a assigned text from the course literature: one panel deals with text 1, the other panel deals with text 2. In their defense they need to refer to artworks. The evening before class they are kindly asked to mail their plea to us. During class the student panels need to convince us and the jury of the righteousness of the point of view that is given in their text. You may use PowerPoint and various other instructive supports for the defense of your text.

In class a review panel of another group of students will evaluate the defense of both panels. The jury is asked to produce a first opinion or ‘verdict’ during class and to present their written evaluation to me as part of their assignment after class.

For the next class roles will be changed and another panel will be the jury; et cetera.

Reading list

  1. Chapters from: – Fukuyama, F. (2002). Our posthuman future: Consequences of the biotechnology revolution. Macmillan. – Koepsell, D. (2009). Who Owns You: The Corporate Gold Rush to Patent Your Genes. John Wiley & Sons. – Agar, N. (2008). Liberal eugenics: In defence of human enhancement. John Wiley & Sons. – Agar, N. (2010). Humanity’s end: why we should reject radical enhancement. MIT Press. – Frank, L. (2012). My Beautiful Genome: Discovering Our Genetic Future, One Quirk at a Time. Oneworld Publications.

  2. Compendium of articles (to be expanded): – Bostrom, N. (2005). In defense of posthuman dignity. Bioethics, 19(3), 202-214. – Zwijnenberg, Robert (2012). “A Two-headed Zebrafish.” Moebius Journal 1:1. Accessed Apr 22, 2014. – Zylinska, J. (2010). Playing god, playing Adam: The politics and ethics of enhancement. Journal of Bioethical Inquiry, 7(2), 149-161.


You register for the whole minor and for each individual course in Usis.


  • LDE coordinator Campus Den Haag, Sjoerd Louwaars,


This is a new, optional bachelor course that is part of the LDE minor Responsible innovation (Leiden-Delft-Erasmus). A maximum of 90 students (30 from each university) can participate. The course can only be taken as part of the minor.