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Art, Ethics and Biotechnology


Admission requirements

You have received your propaedeutic diploma within one academic year and your academic results are good (indication: 7,3 average). Students who meet the criteria may apply for a place in the Humanities Lab.


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.

In this class we will discuss these issues with an emphasis on their cultural embedding. We will ask ourselves how the humanities can play a role in the search for new approaches and whether and how art is able to open a much-needed new perspective on the implications of biotechnology and become a valuable voice in the public and academic debate?

Course objectives

  • 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

  • Develop debating skills and critical reading skill


Courses of the Humanities Lab are scheduled on Friday afternoon from 13.00 to 17.00. For the exact timetable, please visit the following website.

Mode of instruction


Course Load

5 EC = 140 hours

Seminars: 4 hours per week x 6 weeks: 24 hours Studying compulsory readings for seminars: 30 hours Preparing group interviews with stakeholders: 16 hours Preparing final group presentation (art exhibition): 24 hours Writing of final course paper (reflection o interview stakeholder): 46 hours### 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.

Written or video report of discussion with stakeholders and an essay reflecting on this discussion.

If the final grade is insufficient (lower than a 6), there is the possibility of a resit. Contact the course lecturer for more information.



Reading list

To be assigned later.


Students of the Humanities Lab will be registered via uSis by the administration of the Humanities Lab


Instructor: Dhr. Prof. dr. R. Zwijnenberg

Humanities Lab:
Office: e-mail
Phone: 071-527 2228 or 071- 527 8039


If all participants of this course are Dutch native speakers, this course will be taught in Dutch.
More information: website.