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Ethics in Biology, Engineering and Medicine: An International Journal
SJR: 0.123

ISSN Print: 2151-805X
ISSN Online: 2151-8068

Ethics in Biology, Engineering and Medicine: An International Journal

DOI: 10.1615/EthicsBiologyEngMed.2019030275
pages 59-76

Enter CRISPR: Jennifer Doudna's Autobiographical Assessment of the Science and Ethics of CRISPR/Cas9

Hub Zwart
Erasmus School of Philosophy, Erasmus University Rotterdam, P.O. Box 1738, Rotterdam, Zuid-Holland, Netherlands, 3000 DR

ABSTRACT

In 2012, Jennifer Doudna et al. published their landmark article on CRISPR/ Cas9. Five years later, Doudna published an autobiographical retrospective to come to terms with the "tsunami" of events that followed. The subtitle suggests that humans had acquired "unthinkable power" to refurbish life and deflect the course of evolution. Yet the subtitle of the prologue suggests a different view of human agency, seeing CRISPR as a technological pandemic, stressing our powerlessness to develop ethical and governance tools to contain the process. We seem overwhelmed by a surging biotechnological event. Science autobiographies constitute a fascinating genre, providing a window into the context of discovery, revealing what often remains unsaid in more formal academic publications. But they describe events from a decidedly personal and partisan perspective, wavering between self-analysis and self-justification, putting the individual frontstage, obfuscating how research is a collective endeavor. Doudna's memoir is analyzed from three perspectives: knowledge (CRISPR as a shift from reading to reediting genomes), power (memoirs as instruments in controversies over IPR), and ethics. Normative challenges allow researchers to constitute themselves as responsible subjects by developing new skills (bioethical deliberation) while calling forth new practices of the Self (writing science autobiographies). While traditional narrative suggests that, after an increase in dramatic tension, a period of equilibrium sets in, Doudna's retrospective voices the unsettling concern that we may lose control over the disruptive deflection we helped to bring about.

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