University of Alberta - BioBytes

University of Alberta Debate


This House Supports the Development of Artificially Engineered Life.

Meet the Debaters

The debaters featured are members of the University of Alberta Debate Society. Several of these debaters will be competing at the World Debate Championships in Turkey this winter, and all have competed at a national level. The debaters we feature are from a variety of backgrounds, to represent many different perceptions of synthetic biology. Debaters were supplied with only the resolution and no other background information.

First Propostion - graduate student in Computer Science

First Opposition - in the military reserve

Second Proposition - undergraduate student, double major in Mathematics and Linguistics

Second Opposition - undergraduate student in Political Science

Third Proposition - undergraduate student in Microbiology

Third Opposition - student in English, BA in Classics

Fourth Proposition - undergraduate student in Philosophy

Fourth Opposition - undergraduate student in Philosophy and Political Science

Style of Debate

This debate is in British Parliamentary style, the style used at the Debate World Championships. This style of debate is set in parliament, and debaters take the role of government parties discussing policies. There are four teams of two people: two proposition teams argue for the motion, and two opposition teams argue against it. The first and second speaker on a side are on the same team, and the third and fourth speaker on a side are on the same team. Only the two debaters within a team plan their arguments together, and the two teams arguing on the same side compete with each other to argue better. The second team is expected to present an 'extension' consisting of new constructive arguments. The debaters address the Speaker of the House and entertain questions, called Points of Information, from debaters arguing the opposite side of the issue. Debaters can stand up to ask a question at any time except the first and last minute of a speech. The speaker may either wave them down or take their question. All speeches are seven minutes. The last speaker on each side summarizes the debate.

First Proposition Speaker:

Competitor at the Debate World Championships 2009

Model: This house proposes that genetic modifcation of all organisms except people be permitted. We would remove all restrictions on what genetic engineering techniques can be used on, but still hold people responsible for the negative consequences of their creations - an 'innocent until proven guilty' plan.


1. Advantages of new strains of organism: for instance, biofuel, nanotechnology components, and golden rice. The more we can control life, the more useful we can make it.

2. Genetic engineering is better than alternative ways of getting new strains: for instance, seeds used to be irradiated to produce new mutations, which is much less controlled than current genetic engineering.

3. The benefits of knowledge

a) pragmatic: to produce tools for the future, and apply that knowledge to learning about other things, such as fighting disease and living longer. We don't need to experiment on people if we can engineer animal models.

b) philosophical: humans are knowledge seeking, that is what separates us from other forms of life. We should take advantage of our unique abilities to pursue knowledge.

First Opposition Speaker

Veteran debater from the Unversity of British Columbia

Second Proposition Speech


Re: irraditation to produce new strains: just because previous techniques were bad doesn't mean current techniques are any better

Re: trying to acquire knowledge is important because we don't know the answer - and that's why it's dangerous too. Proposition has agreed experimentation is dangerous.


1. Locking stuff up doesn't work: for instance, computer viruses, outbreaks of diseases, illegal transport of weapons. If the floodgates are open, people will experiment with everything. Scientists like to experiment and they won't be careful. Harms of this include ecosystem damage. For instance, CFC's, X-rays, and DDT are substances we should have examined more before using. We are going to make mistakes, so let's not make big ones by doing too much too soon.

2. Ecosystems: The example of the lawsuit that the agricultural biotechnology company Monsanto filed against farmers on the grounds of patent infringement when their genetically modified wheat over-ran neighboring fields (2004 and 2005) illustrates genetically modified crops are designed to dominate in natural environments, making containment difficult.

Second Proposition Speaker

Competitor at the Debate World Championships 2008 and 2009


Re: dangers of transgenic organisms: you would still be criminally liable for not controlling your creations; proposition proposes to still control what it does, just not how it’s made.

Re: domination by transgenic crops: genetic engineering can’t compete against 4 billion years of evolution; there is a reason why crops didn’t evolve to be the way we may engineer them – transgenic crops have significant weaknesses as well as strengths.

Re: importance of the environment: we wouldn’t argue we should live in caves so that dolphins can be happy – there are some sacrifices we are not willing to make, and sacrificing the potential good of genetic engineering is one we shouldn’t make.

Re: Monsanto law suit: Monsanto actually distributed the transgenic seeds they claimed spread naturally.

Re: using what we understand: if opposition is in favor of using what we understand, use genetic engineering as opposed to crop breeding, as genetic engineering is more targeted and gives greater control.


1. Role of the State: the role of the state is to regulate the release and not the existence of these organisms – regulate what actually does harm, not just what one is afraid of.

2. Improving the Research Environment: Research freedom attracts people willing to innovate, expanding useful areas of research, supporting economic growth and helping keep our nation globally competitive.

Second Opposition Speaker

Competitor at the National Debate Championships 2009


Re: prevention: regulation to prevent harm is better - for example, there are preventative regulations for safe business practices.

Re: humans don’t respect the natural order: we do value respecting the natural order, and genetic engineering takes us too far from the natural order.

Re: genetic engineering gives us more control: we’ve bred animals for a long time and understand that technique much better. We are far from having a good understanding of organism engineering – even Dolly the Sheep died early.

Re: improving the research environment – safety takes priority over getting cool scientists.


1.Social Consequences:

a) Respecting Societal Values: Lots of people think that life is God given. There are three criteria for when we allow human intervention in life: i) necessary, ii) safe, iii) understood consequences.

b) Animal Rights: people feel empathy for animals and kinship with them – we are not just out to be the best species. Experiments on animals must be necessary and reduce harms to humans. Unfettered experimentation does not fit this criteria.

c) What is human? Experiments like growing human organs in pigs make us question what it means to be human. This is a question society may not be ready to address.

Third Proposition Speaker

Competitor at the World Debate Championships 2009

Top Novice Speaker and Top Novice Team at the National Championships 2009


Re: what is human: humans are genetic code and that’s it.

Re: criteria for when meddling with life is acceptable:

i) necessary: see argument 1

ii) safe: this was addressed by the first two speakers – there would still be consequences to deter harmful creations, ex: the FDA looks for toxic side effects.

iii) understandable – science never is, and that hasn’t stopped us, because science is necessary.

Re: respecting the natural order: why should we?

Re: cross breeding organisms is more reliable: genetics is just moving a gene from one organism to another, there are only a few possible effects. Often, genetic engineering isn’t actually introducing genes, but knocking them out to study their relationships.


1)What is science? There are two kinds of science – methodical science and leaps-and-bounds science, and the latter has lead to many great discoveries (ex: PCR). We need faster scientific progress now, as through leaps-and-bounds. The need for faster science is due in part to population growth – we expanded our food supply once through developing fertilizers and pesticides, but we need to expand its gain by developing better plants. As genetic technologies are becoming increasingly accessible, we also need research to progress quickly to stay a step ahead of people using science for malicious purposes. Moreover, we need science to stay ahead of pest and bacterial evolution, to speed up seasonal flu vaccine production, etc.

Third Opposition Speaker

Adjudicator at the World Debate Championships


Re: leaps-and-bounds science: it has unpredictable outcomes (ex: modified crops wiping out other crops and causing famine), and the government must ensure that case by case we understand it and the risks are worth it.

Re: knowledge for the sake of knowledge: knowledge is not enough – we need application, and we have to understand it well before it can be applied. We don’t allow all knowledge to be applied – for instance, knowledge about how to make biological weapons is kept secret because we fear what we could create and value pre-emptive measures.


1) Role of the state: the role of the scientist doesn’t trump the role of the state. The state is necessary to make sure science doesn’t go too far and ensure the population is included in its decisions. The best decision for society can be made by the state, not by scientists.

2) Genetic arms race: others will push boundaries to compete with you. We don’t want these limits pushed in countries whose governments don’t have the ability to react, contain it or understand it like other nations do. Knowledge is so mobile that this is a serious risk.

Fourth Proposition Speaker

Competitor at the World Debate Championships 2009

Two major questions arose in the round:

1)Are genetically modified things good or bad?

Genetic engineering is merely speeding up natural processes used for thousands of years. The negative consequences could happen anyways, but the benefits can only occur if we take advantage of genetic modification. For instance, out of control crops can occur with traditional breeding, but continuing to feed the masses will be difficult without genetically improved strains.

2)What is the state’s role in limiting science?

Science is not out of control – the problems actually occur when the state takes control and doesn’t allow science to take its own course. There are cases of unintended consequences, but genetics also tries to fix them. If we only engaged in science that was necessary, safe and understood, we wouldn’t even have developed fire. We wouldn’t have any science by these criteria. Regarding the argument that the state is needed to ensure societal input in science, scientists are representative of society – the scientific method can be done by anyone, science is open to anyone and is fundamentally democratic. We need to allow science to be science.

Fourth Opposition Speaker

Competitor at the World Debate Championships 2008 and 2009

A summary of the round team by team:

In response to 1st and 2nd proposition: genetic engineering can do good things, but the government need be a check on them – we can’t just sue people after; we must prevent the damage

In response to 3rd and 4th proposition: They pointed out genetic engineering is just a different in the degree of breeding we’ve been doing for thousands of years. However, there is a point at which a difference in degree constitutes a difference in type, and genetic engineering crosses this line. We also already have lots of scientific progress at the status quo, and don’t need to cross this boundary.

In support of 1st and 2nd opposition: Things do get out, so treat them carefully.

In support of 3rd opposition: There is potential for a dangerous arms race, and government must check corporate science, ensuring a sufficient knowledge base is built prior to its application. Government is more representative of the people, particularly of their moral interests.