Ethos Education

Avengers: Age of Ultron: What moral limits should be placed upon genetic engineering?

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Learning Objectives:

  • Understanding the concept of the sanctity of life.
  • Awareness of different forms of reproductive technology and genetic engineering.
  • Understanding of different arguments for and against reproductive technology and genetic engineering.
  • Consideration of future consequences of current advances in reproductive technology and genetic engineering.

Learning Outcomes:

  • Reflect on the way that actions can have both positive and negative consequences.
  • Evaluate the basis for determining whether particular scientific research is in the public interest.
  • Evaluate the moral acceptability of using embryonic stem cells for the purposes of providing donor organs for transplant.
  • Analyse the extent to which doctors may be guilty of ‘playing God’ with new medical technology.
  • Analyse Bible passages with relevance to humans ‘playing God’.
  • Write three letters about genetic engineering for a newspaper letters page, presenting a positive view, a negative view and the student’s own view.

Supporting Values Education:

The values of individual liberty and the rule of law are based on the belief that humans are responsible for their engagement with the society that they live in, including in areas of scientific research. This lesson encourages students to consider whether that responsibility is better served by pursuing certain research or by refraining from it.

STARTER:

Write up a scenario on the board (see below). Ask the students to think of all the good consequences of the scenario, and then to think of all the possible bad consequences of it. Finally, ask them whether the good outweighs the bad or vice versa. You could repeat this with more than one scenario if you wanted, but one is probably enough. Here are some suggested scenarios:

  • Everybody in the class (including the teacher) should walk out of this lesson and go and do something else instead.
  • Every day after school, each member of the class should indulge themselves by eating a whole multi-portion chocolate cake.
  • Nobody should have to pay for music. All music should be freely available for download online.
  • Property should be outlawed; nobody should be allowed to own anything.
  • [Your own name] should be made World Dictator, with absolute freedom to do whatever they want to.

Explain that in today’s lesson, you are going to be thinking about ethical objections to some scientific research (particularly those related to a biblical perspective). Point out that many scientific developments could be considered to have negative as well as positive consequences. This lesson will explore how scientists attempt to weigh those consequences against one another.

MAIN ACTIVITIES:

Introduce the following clip from the film Avengers: Age of Ultron (Marvel, 2015, certificate 12). Click here to buy the DVD online.

Explain to students that the Avengers are returning from a mission. Ask them to look out for any references to examples of genetic engineering in the clip.

  • Start time:       0.13.58 (in chapter 2 of the DVD)
  • End time:         0.19.37
  • Clip length:      5 minutes and 39 seconds

The clip starts with an external shot of the Avengers building. A flying vehicle arrives. The first line (other than a sentence in Chinese from Doctor Cho (Claudia Kim)) is Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders) saying, ‘Lab’s all set up, boss.’ The last line is Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) saying, ‘Peace in our time. Imagine that.’

Ask the students to identify the different examples of genetic engineering shown in the clip. Possible answers would include:

  • The twins that Maria Hill and Captain America discuss, opponents of the Avengers who they unexpectedly encountered on their most recent mission.
  • Captain America himself, the result of a World War 2 programme to create a ‘super-soldier’.
  • The medical treatment that Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) receives.

Ask the students to assess whether each of these is a good or bad use of technology. How easy is it to determine in advance whether scientific developments of this kind will be good or bad?

Now ask them about Tony Stark’s plan to develop an advance Artificial Intelligence to help protect the planet from alien attack. What are the potential risks and benefits of Stark’s plan? Remind them of his statement, ‘I don’t want to hear the “man wasn’t meant to meddle” medley. I want a suit of armour around the world.’ What are the dangers of Stark (or scientists like him) avoiding discussion of the possible consequences of this kind of research?

Tell the students that, although Tony Stark’s plan is an extreme example of humans pushing the boundaries of science, it still hangs on someone weighing the possible good against the potential harm of this application of science. That dilemma is one that real scientists face on a regular basis. One such area of scientific debate is the one surrounding stem cell research. Ask the students if any of them are aware of the issue, then give out the following summary from the BBC website:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-11518539

Ask the students to discuss the balance of potential good and possible harm of using stem cell therapy.

The following news story may also be of interest in discussing this issue:

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/health/7659120.stm

For Tony Stark, and other scientists who have featured in the extended Marvel Universe, the opportunity to ‘play God’ was very hard to resist. Point out to the students that in Genesis 3, when the serpent tempts Eve to eat the forbidden fruit, the last thing he is recorded as saying to her is that if she and Adam eat the fruit, they ‘will be like God’. Interestingly, ‘playing God’ is a term usually applied to scientists who are deemed to have overstepped the bounds of what science ought to attempt. In the film clip we can see two different approaches to playing God – the ambitious scientist who wants to achieve more, and the power-hungry soldier who wants to be more than he is.

You could reinforce this point by looking at the story of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11:1-9. Point out that God has nothing against the construction of tall buildings. When the Bible describes the builders attempting to build a tower that would reach the heavens, the implication is that they are attempting to trespass into God’s realm, asserting themselves as his equals. Christians have traditionally understood this story to be another example of humanity attempting to take God’s role and authority from him and claim it for themselves.

Ask the students if they agree that the people directing Marta’s work were wrong to use science in the way they did. Assuming that all or most hold this view, ask if that has any relevance for real life scientific research. What limits should restrict scientists? What basis should be applied for determining how far is too far for someone to go in the name of scientific discovery? Should there be any limits on what scientists can attempt?

SUMMARY AND ASSESSMENT OF LEARNING:

Ask each student to write a series of three letters to a newspaper discussing the issues raised in this lesson. The letters could be about stem cell research, or another contentious scientific subject, or even about scientific research in general. One letter should defend the chosen subject (stem cells, human cloning, etc.) and another should argue against it. The students can write these two letters in whichever order they choose, with one answering the points raised in the other. The third letter should respond to both of the previous letters and give the student the opportunity to express their own views on the subject. At least one of the three letters should demonstrate the student’s understanding of biblical teaching on the subject.

YOU WILL NEED:

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