Fall 2008

Engineering Life: Genetics, Eugenics, and the Law

Listed in: Special Seminar, as COLQ-29


Gregory M. Dorr (Section 01)


This class will examine the social and legal history of genetic technologies, their socio-political contexts, and the laws enacted in response to changing biological understanding and biotechnological advance. The course will survey the history of hereditary thought, genetics, eugenics, population genetics, recombinant DNA, genetic engineering, the advent of genetic sequencing, and the promises and perils of genomics, proteomics, and cloning. The class will also consider how the science of genetics interacts directly with the legal system through "genetic fingerprinting" and the criminology of forensic DNA testing. Lectures and readings will situate genetics innovators, ideas, and technologies within the larger American social and legal context to reveal how the prospect of engineering life has led to concrete legal changes resulting in, among other things, the passage of marriage and immigration restriction laws; laws defining race; patent law revolving around recombinant and genomic biotechnology; and the ever-changing regulatory regime governing biotechnological research. Readings will consist of laws, court cases, scientific papers, and the writings of cultural commentators who have forecast and evaluated the evolution of "genetic jurisprudence" and the implications of using genetic technologies to support America's legal structures. The class will also screen portions of important films bearing on these questions, e.g., The Black Stork (1917), Tomorrow's Children (1934), College Holiday (1936), and Gattaca (1997). Class discussions and writing assignments will address the dialectic between technological advance and socio-legal change--how technology shapes culture and the law, which in turn shape subsequent technology in an endless feedback loop. Fall semester. Professor Dorr.