Friday, November 10, 2006

Somewhere Between Einstein or Frankenstein: Where Shall Biotech Lead Us?

Review of: Genes: A Philosophical Inquiry (New York: Routledge, 2002) by Gordon Graham

[ Audio .mp3 5.3MB @ 5min ] These are heady days in biology. New developments over the past three or four years have been both exhilarating and stupefying. The Bible speaks of naming the animals, but it turns out there is more to naming than just assigning linguistic tags to the items found in God's creation. It is only recently that the full impact of “naming,” of determining the very essence of something, has come home in all of its power. To an increasing degree, Human beings can manipulate the very genome of living things. Perhaps this is fine news, for such new-found power might be used to conquer ever pressing diseases. Yet this power might also be the ultimate threat to human choice, quality of life, and even human existence, if we take “human” as a natural kind of thing that might be changed into something else.

Sometimes character flaws and the actions that follow from them are blamed on heritable traits. “My ol' man was that way, and so am I!,” is hardly a new retort in a counseling session. And a more general version of this is often advanced in the media - “It's all in the genes." Graham asks whether this is true, and if so, just what is all in the genes?

Beginning with an overview of the relationship between science and technology, Graham strives to explain and assesses the most important and controversial aspects of the genes debate: Darwinian theory and its critics; the idea of the "selfish" gene; evolutionary psychology; memes; genetic screening and modification, including the risks of cloning and "designer" babies. However, the results of his explanation and assessment are uneven.

Some people are interesting because of their flaws (e.g that misshapen, gentle-souled bellman named Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dam) and authors are no exception. Graham is a moral philosopher, but he has also published widely in aesthetics and social philosophy. Not himself a scientist, much less a geneticist, he wades into this new area portending the dangers at hand: “there is the constant risk of misrepresenting and misjudging the present state and future significance of scientific inquiry. In my view this is a risk we simply have to run.” He admits being in the same place as any other otherwise intelligent laymen, yet if we are silenced by our position, “we could say and think nothing about some of the most important topics of our time” (Preface). This is a laudable attitude, and clergy men and women, for example, well know the difficulty of being neither a theologian, a bible scholar, nor an anthropologist; yet being accountable to preach sound doctrine, rightly divide scriptures, and meet people where they are at. Contrary to St. Paul's wishful thinking, no one can be all things to all people.

Still, good intentions not withstanding, the book has its share of erroneous scientific misinformation earlier on, and this somewhat compromises the ethical discussion Graham advances later. A few flawed examples are instructive. In one place he writes that “a long series of volcanic explosions” (48) were responsible for extinction of dinosaurs, but this theory was nullified year ago. (It was an asteroid or comet that did them in.) In another place, he seems ignorant about how biochips have automated genetic testing, and that multi-disease detection is hardly, as he phrases it, a task “nothing short of Herculean” (99); in fact, I've been showing classes a picture put out by Motorola Semiconductor of such biochips for the last three years. Other issues, such as when microbial life on Earth was first present (3.5 billion years ago, not 2.4), and whether the genetics of human eye color rely on a single gene (it doesn't) are also flubbed. These are small instances of a mistake which he makes in a much broader manner when dealing with evolutionary biology: He relies on sources which popularize certain positions as facts, but which are either outright wrong or one-sided in their presentation. For instance, he has six works by Dawkins in his bibliography, but none to Stephen Gould, who argued against many of the positions that Dawkins advocates. (Both men have been respected popularizers of evolutionary theory.) That Graham is so naively one-sided in his sources is important, because the ethical discussion depends on just what the science offers for thought. If one does not have a well-balanced view of the science involved, any moral advice which affirms or denies a course of action is thereby suspect. It would be analogous to clergy preaching on Jesus by only citing the dialogue from movies -- hardly a well-balanced source for what were the views of Jesus.

Graham does have areas where he shines, and this is why I think the book is still to be recommended despite slogging along with a bit of scientific misinformation here and there. He considers areas often left out of the genes debate, such as the environmental risks of genetic engineering and how we should think about genes in the wider context of debates on science, knowledge and religion. His discussions of genetic screening and genetic information as relevant to the insurance industry were particularly hard hitting, and serves as grist for discussion for anyone concerned with social justice and compassion for the poor.

At the end of the book, Graham asks whether genetic engineering might be introducing God back into the debate and whether the risks of a brave new genetic world outweigh the potential benefits. And to this end, his final closing remark can be taken as a compliment, even confession, about a life of faith: “In the end, it seems, and in so far as the fear of Frankenstein will not go away, the secular mind that utterly rejects religion must rest content with a fractured image of science.” Though cryptic, I find this remark maximally fit for the current bioethical environment.


Brint Montgomery, PhD, is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Southern Nazarene University. He has interests in Cognitive Science and Philosophy of Mind.


At 9:02 PM, Blogger SpockTheSecond said...

Your mention that Graham's "discussions of genetic screening and genetic information as relevant to the insurance industry were particularly hard hitting", This kind of reminds me of the movie
. If you haven't seen it, its a movie based in the "not-too-distant" future where people are discriminated against because of their genes. Those who are less likely to get sick, have more "natural" talent and so forth have more opportunities than those with "bad" genes. In this world, genetic screening is extended to any area where human potential (as both a benefit or a liability) is weighed, and often acts as the final determinant of an individual's placement or ranking in that specific area. Having something similar beginning to be a concern in reality makes me wonder of the potential of this "geneist"(?) attitude increasing to a level similar to that depicted in the movie.

Anyway, the story is basically one man's fight against the system, and the tagline for the movie, which I found particularly intriguing, is "there is no gene for the human spirit." It is a good movie, one that I would recommend for cinematic qualities as well as the social implications described above.

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