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Robert Zwijnenberg: ‘Don’t just talk but dare to get your hands dirty’

Rob Zwijnenberg, Professor of Art and Science Interactions, uses daring experiments to get his students to think about social issues. "People who I interact with within the natural sciences tell me: Rob, we come up with solutions, you come up with problems. They’ve got that right."

Zwijnenberg deals with "the urgency and relevance of art within both public and academic discussions about science". He mainly focuses on biotechnology and ethical questions raised by changing life on a molecular level. For example, genetic manipulation, such as cloning, handling embryos or growing artificial organs. But also, abortion or euthanasia.

You maybe wouldn't expect his research to be conducted within the field of humanities, but according to Zwijnenberg this is the right place to discuss the social, ethical and political issues associated with these kinds of subjects. An example: "Do we want a society free of Down syndrome, like they have in Denmark? Over there, the NIP test, which can be performed during pregnancy, is compulsory. Well, I think that’s a typical humanities’ topic." Because, according to him, it results in a society in which everyone who has a child with Down syndrome might be condemned for that choice.

Getting your hands dirty

Zwijnenberg tries to explore all sides of these kinds of discussion. "Eventually, you have to get your hands dirty, too." He does this by working in the laboratory with students - "the policymakers of the future" - and artists. "I once taught a course on 'Who does life belong to?' Together with a bio-artist, we injected pheasant eggs with poison. That's allowed, there are no legal or ethical rules. The goal was trying to mutate them, so they would develop three wings or legs. To my surprise, all students put their syringes in the eggs, in part because they knew that they were allowed to."

But the eggs weren't allowed to hatch. "Because then life exists within the rules of the lab and you have to have a permit for that." So, the embryos had to ‘die’. There were several ways to take care of that. The next week some of them received a tube containing the burnt ashes of their embryo. " We sat in a regular classroom and asked them, what is it that you did exactly? And what are your own boundaries? That's when the emotions came out; crying!" The result is a discussion about exactly what he thinks it should be about. "You can endlessly talk about this topic, while drinking a beer in a cafe, this is hands on ethics that really makes the students face the facts so that they are physically and materially involved. In the end you have to make a choice that is always a combination of your own feelings and rational considerations."

Where are the benches?

We’ve talked about Zwijnenberg's reach within the academic world. Beyond that, he believes that the humanities still have a lot of work to do. This is one of the reasons why, on behalf of the Faculty of Humanities, he leads project 'De stad in', which is part of City of Science, Europe's annual science capital. In 2022, this capital will be Leiden. "The aim is to show why the humanities are relevant to a city. The theme is public space, what it is exactly and how it is represented in literature and art. We see commercialisation, juridification, much has been written about this by humanities scholars. Think, for example, of the public debate: I read in the newspaper that there are fewer and fewer benches. This is important for democracy, inclusiveness, etcetera. Sitting next to each other and having the possibility to start a debate."

Initiatives such as City of Science can show the relevance of the humanities, he believes. "That you matter as humanities and that in this world it’s not only about solutions but also about how we move in this world and how we experience it. And that is exactly the domain of humanities."

Rob Zwijnenberg on ethics and biotechnology | Humans of Humanities

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