Thursday, May 26, 2011

The science and ethics of X-Men

“What really interests me in watching comic book super heroes move to the movie screen, 30 and 40 years after their origins, is the change in the way we portray the technology involved,” says bioethicist Paul Root Wolpe. The director of Emory’s Center for Ethics, Wolpe was a big comic book fan growing up.

In the original Spider Man story, Peter Parker gained super powers after he was bitten by a spider that was exposed to radiation.

At that time, Wolpe notes, there was an enormous fear that we were going to be “nuked” by nuclear weapons. “Radiation was the scientific phenomenon around which people had fear and mystery. That isn’t how we think about radiation anymore. Now it’s how we think about genetics.”

So when the first Spider Man movie came out in 2002, the spider that bit Parker had been genetically manipulated instead of radiated.

The X-Men movie series, about a group of genetically mutated super heroes, is a great example of a storyline that is on target with a technology that holds a sense of potential, along with fear and mystery, Wolpe says.

The latest in the series, “X-Men: First Class,” opens June 3.

“The story of the X-Men is really a dramatic representation about what happens when there is a minority group that’s feared by the majority,” Wolpe says. “They created that minority through genetics.”

The mutations portrayed in the series, such as the ability to shoot laser beams from your eyeballs, are implausible as sudden genetic mutations. But many enhanced powers are perfectly plausible as biotechnological developments, Wolpe says.

Bio-engineers are working on ways to improve things such as memory and strength that would mimic the best achievements of humans, and we might one day even be able to borrow traits from animals, Wolpe says.

“One of the great challenges for us is how do we resist the temptation to use genetic technology in humans beings for reasons that are less than life saving,” he says.

Blurring the lines between life forms

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