Patents on human genes, along with other novel biotechnology practices, introduce profound questions about our relationships to each other and the natural world. These matters overflow the boundaries of evaluative criteria based on legal precedents and economic expediency. They go to the very core of who we think we are and how we view each other. Too often, discussions of biotech practices and products gloss over these deeper concerns. The tendency is to narrow the conversation to technical issues (for example, the legal status of patents on life, the environmental impacts of synthetic biology experiments, the health risks of efforts to clone human beings) and to procedural considerations (for example, informed consent, disclosing conflicts of interest, bio-containment precautions). All of these are important. But in grappling with emerging biotechnological innovations, public discussion must also tackle the goals and purposes of our techno-scientific enterprises; their consequences for social justice, human rights and democracy; and the ways they shape us as individuals, as members of communities, and as upholders of a shared humanity. Today’s debate over patents on human genes has the potential to set social, cultural and political precedents, as well as legal ones, for addressing some of the most profound questions we currently confront.