Myles Jackson: Understanding Biology in the Age of Big Corporations

Historian of science Myles W. Jackson addressed the Lawrenceville community on the background and effects of gene patenting at 7:00 PM in the Heely Lecture Hall this past Monday.

Historian of science Myles W. Jackson addressed the Lawrenceville community on the background and effects of gene patenting at 7:00 PM in the Heely Lecture Hall this past Monday. Professor of the History of Science at The Institute of Advanced Study, Jackson was educated at Cambridge University and has written numerous books and articles on the intersections between history, sociology, philosophy, and science.

Jackson opened the lecture by stating that science has recently become an interdisciplinary and ethical field. This transition has influenced his job as a professor of history and science with regards to aiding graduate students applying for grants, who now “cannot specialize in one field” and “have to be cognisant [… of] the effects of the private sector on molecular biology.”

Afterwards, Jackson addressed “the influence of private funding on important issues [in science] such as ownership and privacy” which led him to lay out his lecture points, namely the history of gene patenting and the legal and ethical effects of the biological developments on race.

According to Jackson, gene patenting began in 1982 with the patenting of insulin. Jackson continued the discussion by explaining the historical legality of owning DNA.

“The initial [argument] people say is that you cannot patent products of nature. Actually, you can […]. It’s not true that natural products aren’t patentable, as they can be manipulated to become a product of human hands. It’s a question about what someone can do in order to make something natural artificial,” he said.

Since then, a number of laws have been enacted regarding companies’ abilities to own personal genes; for instance, a company cannot own a full genome because it violates the Thirteenth Amendment, which states that no one can own another person.

The second half of Jackson’s discussion focused on the intersection of ethics with genetics, race, and ethnicity, during which Jackson cited examples of what scientists called “black diseases,” or diseases present mostly in African-Americans. Jackson pointed out that other races have been diagnosed with these “black diseases” as well, highlighting that it is not a racial allele that causes the disease but rather there remains a geographic correlation.

To close, Jackson raised the general moral implications of recent genetic discoveries, saying, “Is the difference in our DNA the same as race? Do we understand human difference in terms of race only?”

Of the lecture, Lily Vore ’19 said that it was enjoyable and it “positively exposed students to applications of the biology field […] to real life dilemmas and solutions.”

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