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Journal of Long-Term Effects of Medical Implants

ISSN Print: 1050-6934
ISSN Online: 1940-4379

Journal of Long-Term Effects of Medical Implants

DOI: 10.1615/JLongTermEffMedImplants.v18.i1.400
42 pages

Abstract of "Using Evolution to Prime Debates in Bioengineering Ethics Courses

Howard Winet
Departments of Bioengineering and Orthopaedic Surgery, UCLA; 420 Westwood Plaza Los Angeles CA


No course in the bioengineering curriculum extends beyond science as much as ethics. While acknowledging that values and morals are supernatural subjects, it is nevertheless the professional responsibility of a bioengineering instructor to explore potential natural world foundations with which to connect science-thinking students and ethics. Evolution provides such a connection via the relatively new field of evolutionary psychology. This presentation suggests an approach to applying this connection in an ethics course. A traditional introduction of evolution into an ethics course poses the following debate topic. Resolved: since homo sapiens is descended from the common primate ancestor Pan, our species must behave like other primates and display no natural moral tendencies. Careful guidance by the instructor will help students see the operational dead end of subjective relativism and be prepared to explore the social benefits of moral codes. Evolutionary psychologists have provided a new dimension to the tradition that expands the role of science in moral analysis. Behavior has been observed in other primates that strongly suggests innate moral behavior. Competent primatologists take great care to avoid anthropomorphizing “motives” of their subjects. With appropriate caveats in mind, conclusions that moral behavior is taking place result only after exhausting other explanations. When studies in primate colonies where animals are observed throughout life are included, the conclusion that this moral behavior has a genetic basis follows. Assuming that some behavioral genes are conserved and were present in Pan, we are led to the prediction that ethical genes will be found in humans. This prediction changes the traditional debate significantly. The debate now focuses on a conflict between two innate and conflicting behaviors—the selfish drive to survive at any cost and ethical gene—based tendencies.