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Ethics, Culture and Biotechnology


Admission requirements



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

  • 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 skills.


The timetable can be found in the right menu, under files ENG/ bestanden DUTCH.

Thursdays 09:30-12:30 or 13:30-16:30 in second half November, December.

This course has 6 in-class meetings and has the following structure:*

L1: Introduction & Why Art?
L2: DIY Biology
L3: Debate 1: Patents
L4: Debate 2: Human Enhancement
L5: Human Genome & Microbiome
L6: Art and Responsible Biotech Innovation

*) The final structure may somewhat differ

Mode of instruction

  • Lecture

  • Seminar

  • Research

Course Load

Total course load 3 EC x 28 hours = 84 hours

  • Lectures: 18 hours

  • Study of compulsory literature: 22 hours

  • Assignment(s): 44 hours (=18 hours (presentations) + 26 hours (paper)

Assessment method


During our course, we will be contacting 2 debate sessions on contemporary bioethical issues. All students will be assigned in groups, you will stay in the same group throughout the course. However, we will be rotating debate panels and jury panels across sessions.
In the final session of the course, you will give in groups presentations about one (bio)artwork that relates to a biotechnological issue.

At the end of the course you also will need to hand in an individual written paper (2000 words).


  • 40% Group presentations (1/3 grade debate1 + 1/3 grade debate2 + 1/3 grade art presentation)

  • 10% Participation in class

  • 50% Final paper


The students are allowed one re-sit per examination. It is not allowed to re-sit an examination or assignment for which they have received a pass (6,0 or higher). It is allowed to re-sit an examination or assignment which they haven't done during the first occasion. The re-sit format needs to be discussed with the teacher of the course in line with examination regulations.

In case the student is granted an extra re-sit by the Board of Examiners, this re-sit has to take place within study year 2018-2019. This means the students have to complete the minor within one study year.

Exam Review

How and when an exam review will take place will be disclosed together with the publication of the exam results at the latest. If a student requests a review within 30 days after publication of the exam results, an exam review will have to be organized.


In this course, Blackboard is used to present course information, notify of changes to the course and to make course materials available. Students can access Blackboard with their Leiden University (guest) accounts.

Reading list

Scientific and professional papers and teaching cases, to be provided or indicated via Blackboard.


Students need to register for the minor at their home university and in uSis Leiden, and for each individual course in uSis Leiden.

Enrolment through uSis is mandatory.
General information about uSis is available on the website

Registration Studeren à la carte and Contractonderwijs

Not applicable


Prof. dr. ir. R. (Robert) Zwijnenberg


Not applicable