Senior Research Scholar
At The Hastings Center, Erik Parens explores how sciences, such as genetics and neuroscience, shape our understanding of ourselves. He also explores the ethical questions that arise as we use technologies, such as gene editing, surgery, and psychopharmacology, to shape ourselves. Those two lines of inquiry begin to come together in his 2015 book Shaping Our Selves: On Technology, Flourishing, and a Habit of Thinking.
Currently Parens is the Principal Investigator on a project (funded by the Russell Sage Foundation and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation) that seeks to bring into productive dialogue researchers who use genomics to investigate social outcomes like educational attainment and critics who are deeply concerned about the ethical and social implications of such research. That project is a sequel to his earlier investigation into controversies surrounding research into behavioral genetics. Currently he also directs a project (funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities) to create a series of public events called “The Art of Flourishing: Conversations on Disability and Technology.” That project is a sequel to his earlier one on prenatal testing and disability rights. In the past he has directed projects exploring controversies concerning: what neuroimaging technologies can—and cannot—reveal about complex behavioral traits; how psychotropic medications should—and should not—be used in responding to psychosocial disturbances in childhood; and when surgery should—and should not—be used to “normalize” the appearance of children born with atypical physical features.
Parens is Director of The Hastings Center’s new NEH-funded Initiative on Bioethics and the Humanities and is a founding member of Columbia University’s NIH-funded Center for Excellence in Ethical, Legal, and Social Implications of the Human Genome Project. He is a Fellow of the Center for Neuroscience and Society at the University of Pennsylvania, and has served as a consultant to several government and nongovernmental bodies, including the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Institute of Medicine, of the National Academy of Sciences, and the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues.
He is the author or editor of several books published by academic presses, including Oxford, Johns Hopkins, and Georgetown, as well as numerous articles and commentaries for academic journals and general-interest publications, including the New York Times, Washington Post, and Aeon.
Parens received his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago’s Committee on Social Thought, and his B.A. from Chicago’s Committee on General Studies in the Humanities.
Recent Public Events
The Art of Flourishing: Conversations on Disability and Technology
Belonging: On Disability, Technology, and Community, December 3, 2019. Watch the video.
Erik Parens and Josephine Johnston (Eds.), Human Flourishing in an Age of Gene Editing (Oxford University Press, 2019).
Erik Parens, Shaping Our Selves: On Technology, Flourishing, and a Habit of Thinking, Oxford University Press, 2015.
Erik Parens, ed., Surgically Shaping Children: Technology, Ethics and the Pursuit of Normality, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006.
Erik Parens, Audrey Chapman, and Nancy Press, eds., Wrestling with Behavioral Genetics: Science, Ethics and Public Conversation, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005.
Erik Parens and Adrienne Asch, eds., Prenatal Testing and Disability Rights, Georgetown University Press, 2000.
Erik Parens, ed., Enhancing Human Traits: Ethical and Social Implications, Georgetown University Press, 1998.
Selected Recent Commentaries
Erik Parens and Paul Appelbaum, “Rebooting Views of the Psychosocial Risks of Genomic Information,” STAT July 30, 2019.
Erik Parens, “Utilitarianism’s Missing Dimensions,” Quillette, January 3, 2018.
Erik Parens, “Made to Order,” Aeon, November 11, 2015.
Erik Parens, “The Benefits of ‘Binocularity,’” New York Times, September 28, 2014.
Erik Parens and Paul Appelbaum, eds., Looking for the Psychosocial Implications of Genomic Information, special report Hastings Center Report 49, no. 3 (May-June 2019): S1-S96.
Josephine Johnston, Erik Parens, and Barbara Koenig, The Ethics of Screening Newborns: Recommendations and Reflections (Eds.), special report Hastings Center Report 48, no. 4 (2018) S2-S46.
Erik Parens and Paul Appelbaum, eds., The Genetics of Intelligence: Ethics and the Conduct of Trustworthy Research, Hastings Center Report 45, no. 5 (2015): S1-72.
Josephine Johnston and Erik Parens, eds., Interpreting Neuroimages: An Introduction to the Technology and It’s Limits” Hastings Center Report 45, no. 2 (2014): S1-S52.
Erik Parens and Josephine Johnston, eds., Troubled Children: Diagnosing, Treating, and Attending to Context, Hastings Center Report 41, no. 2 (2011); S1-S31.
Erik Parens, Genetic Differences and Human Identities: Why Talking about Behavioral Genetics Is Important and Difficult, Hastings Center Report 34, no. 1 (2004): S1-S36.
Erik Parens and Lori Knowles, Reprogenetics and Public Policy: Reflections and Recommendations, Hastings Center Report 33, no. 4 (2003): S1-24.
Erik Parens and Adrienne Asch. “The Disability Rights Critique of Prenatal Genetic Testing: Reflections and Recommendations,” Hastings Center Report 29, no. 4 (1999): S1-S21.
Erik Parens, Is Better Always Good? The Enhancement Project, Hastings Center Report 28, no. 1 (1998): S1-S20.
Selected Scholarly Articles
Erik Parens, “Choosing Flourishing: Toward a More ‘Binocular’ Way of Thinking about Disability,” Kennedy Institute of Ethics Journal 27, no. 2 (2017): 135-50.
Josephine Johnston, Ruth Farrell, and Erik Parens, “Supporting Women’s Autonomy in Next-Generation Prenatal Testing,” New England Journal of Medicine 377 (2017):505-507. August 10, 2017 DOI: 10.1056/NEJMp1703425.
Erik Parens, “Drifting Away from Informed Consent in the Era of Personalized Medicine,” Hastings Center Report 2015; 45 (4): 16-20.
Erik Parens, “On Good and Bad Forms of Medicalization,” Bioethics 2013; 27 (1): 28-35.
Seth J. Gillihan and Erik Parens, “Should We Expect ‘Neural Signatures’ for DSM Diagnoses?” Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, March 18, 2011.
Erik Parens, “The Ethics of Memory Blunting and the Narcissism of Small Differences,” Neuroethics 2010; 3 (2): 99-107.
Erik Parens, Josephine Johnston, and Gabrielle A. Carlson, “Pediatric Mental Health Care Dysfunction Disorder?” New England Journal of Medicine 2010; 363 (20): 1187-1189.
Erik Parens, Josephine Johnston, and Jacob Moses, “Do We Need ‘Synthetic Bioethics’?” Science 2008; 321 (5895): 1449.
Erik Parens, “Do Think Twice: Kramer and Shenk on Depression,” Perspectives in Biology and Medicine 2007; 50 (2): 295-307.
Posts by Erik Parens
- Bioethics Forum Essay
Gene Editing, “Cultural Harms,” and Oversight MechanismsRead the PostBioethics Forum EssayIs it reasonable to hope that concerns about “cultural harms” can be integrated into oversight mechanisms for technologies like gene editing? That question was raised anew for me by the recent National Academy of Sciences report on human genome editing and at a recent conference at Harvard on the...Read the Post
- From Bioethics Briefings
Mental Health in Children and AdolescentsRead the PostFrom Bioethics BriefingsFraming the Issue In 2000, the U.S. Surgeon General reported that approximately 1 in 5 children and adolescents experiences the signs and symptoms of a mental health disorder during the course of a year, and that about 1 in 10 children experiences “significant functional impairment” as a result. ...Read the Post
- Bioethics Forum Essay
A Decade’s Worth of Gene-Environment Interaction Studies, in HindsightRead the PostBioethics Forum EssayIn the early 2000s, Avshalom Caspi, Terrie Moffitt, and their colleagues published two papers (here and here), which suggested that we could finally begin to tell rather simple but evidence-based stories about how genetic and environmental variables interact to influence the emergence of complex ph...Read the Post
- Bioethics Forum Essay
Taking People at Their WordRead the PostBioethics Forum EssayWhen I was a student, I loved to read Freud and Nietzsche and Marx. I was into what the great French philosopher Paul Ricoeur called “the hermeneutics of suspicion.” Sex, power, and money were at work everywhere. So were the psychological and social mechanisms that kept everybody else fro...Read the Post