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DifferenceRe-creating MedicineRedesigning HumansResearch Advances in Genetics and GenomicsResponsible GeneticsResponsible GeneticsScience, Seeds and CyborgsSex and WarSociological Perspectives on the New GeneticsStrange BedfellowsStrange BehaviorSubjects of the WorldSubordination and DefeatThe Age of EmpathyThe Agile GeneThe Ape and the Sushi MasterThe Biotech CenturyThe Blank SlateThe Book of LifeThe Boy Who Loved Too MuchThe Bridge to HumanityThe Case Against PerfectionThe Case for PerfectionThe Case of the Female OrgasmThe Century of the GeneThe Common ThreadThe Concept of the Gene in Development and EvolutionThe Debated MindThe Double-Edged HelixThe Epidemiology of SchizophreniaThe Ethics of Choosing ChildrenThe Ethics of Human CloningThe Evolution of CooperationThe Evolution of MindThe Evolution of MindThe Evolved ApprenticeThe Evolving WorldThe Extended Selfish GeneThe Fact of EvolutionThe Folly of FoolsThe Future of Human NatureThe God GeneThe Immortal Life of Henrietta LacksThe Impact of the GeneThe Innate MindThe Innate MindThe Innate Mind: Volume 3The Limits and Lies of Human Genetic ResearchThe Lives of the BrainThe Maladapted MindThe Meme MachineThe Misunderstood GeneThe Moral, Social, and Commercial Imperatives of Genetic Testing and ScreeningThe Most Dangerous AnimalThe New Genetic MedicineThe Nurture AssumptionThe Origin and Evolution of CulturesThe Origins of FairnessThe Paradoxical PrimateThe Perfect BabyThe Robot's RebellionThe Selfish GeneThe Shape of ThoughtThe Shattered SelfThe Stem Cell ControversyThe Story WithinThe Stuff of LifeThe Talking ApeThe Temperamental ThreadThe Terrible GiftThe Theory of OptionsThe Top 10 Myths About EvolutionThe Triple HelixThe Triumph of SociobiologyThe Woman Who Walked into the SeaTwinsUnderstanding CloningUnderstanding the GenomeUnnatural SelectionUnto OthersUp From DragonsVoracious Science and Vulnerable AnimalsWar Against the WeakWhat Genes Can't DoWhat It Means to Be 98 Percent ChimpanzeeWho Owns YouWhose View of Life?Why Evolution Is TrueWhy Think? WondergenesWrestling with Behavioral GeneticsYour Genetic Destiny
Karl Marx wrote, "As
individuals express their life, so they are." Finn Bowring's text, Science,
Seeds, and Cyborgs: Biotechnology and the Appropriation of Life, argues
that society's focus on the genomic paradigm is making us believe that as genes
(and society's interpretation of them) express the lives of individuals, so
they are. Bowring's text is an important critique of modern biotechnology.
Its value is in its ability to challenge people to view genetic engineering in
new ways. It kicks us off our comfy existential couches to reconsider what is
directing biotechnology and humanity's future.
Unlike the typical antitechnology paean, this text
demonstrates a strong and up-to-date grasp of the relevant science. Bowring
provides a wealth of information about genetics and the application of
biotechnology to plants, animals and humans. This is presented with great
clarity. With his pen, the complex is made both simple and interesting.
Bowring uses this knowledge to craft a fairly airtight scientific argument
against genetic reductionism. This well laid foundation convinces the reader
that this text has more substance than the typical anti-technology treatise.
Bowring then argues that powerful
forces are promoting genetic essentialism for their own interests. He argues
that rejection of the benefits of genetic biotechnology is necessary to prevent
significant harm to all life. Some of these arguments are more successful than
others. For example, his arguments about how companies are using genetic
engineering to boost profits, to the detriment of poor farmers and ecological
diversity are not new. But they are backed up with an impressive discussion of
specific examples. However, his arguments against pharmacogenetics and gene
therapy ultimately rest on the unsupported claim that if society addresses
genetic factors of illness, the socio-economic and environmental factors in
illness will necessarily be ignored.
At times, Bowring seems to be at
odds with his own arguments. For example, on pages 185-6, he makes the dubious
claim that infertility is not a disease because the cause is often multifactorial
or unexplained. While in chapter six, he refers to the multiple and
unexplained factors in the cause of such diseases as breast cancer, cystic
fibrosis, and Parkinson's (to name just a few). It is inconsistent to use a
reductionist view of disease to exclude infertility while arguing against
reductionism in the interpretation of other diseases. Such instances hint at
the author's own ambivalence about the naturalism at the heart of his thesis.
This culminates in his last chapter.
In the final chapter, he presents
phenomenological psychologist Erwin Straus' essay on the physical state of
uprightness as a metaphor for humanity. Bowring describes Straus as saying, as
the human body is designed to stand, but must constantly fight gravity to do
so, the human spirit constantly strives to rise above nature, but ultimately
cannot break free from it. Bowring uses this essay to argue that attempts to
attain perfection through genetic engineering are doomed to failure, since
perfection is beyond the grasp of imperfect beings. However, this argument
ultimately fails because gravity does not make standing up a fruitless or
irresponsibly reckless endeavor.
Bowring clearly makes the argument
that genes are not definitive of the human subject. However, his arguments
that genetic biotechnology is ultimately reductionistic are insufficient to
prove that it must be so. Genetic technology entails risks. But so does
standing. Genetic technology produces changes beyond the mere body, as did the
transition to upright posture.
Ultimately, Bowring's arguments are
left referring to a sacredness of the natural. Bowring states, "To
reconcile the human being with the imperatives of an inhuman environment is to
make that being a functionary of its environment, and of our refusal to change
that environment or resist its allure in favour of a familiar, more human
world." (p. 276.) If this were true, then one could not both treat and
prevent cancer. Bowring's use of "reconcile" begs the question of
whether reconciliation between the two is necessary.
The cyborg is strange and appears
unnatural. As humans expand their ability to use themselves as tools for
expression, we must consider the impact on individuals and society. Following
Straus' metaphor, the desire to improve is like the infant's drive to stand.
As the infant becomes upright, his/her world is reinterpreted. Old assumptions
are reassessed and new goals are set. Yes gravity remains to keep us grounded,
sometimes to our regret. But that does not mean that the desire to fly is
Bowring's text does a great job of
pointing out many of the potential and actual risks of biotechnology. But his
arguments do not prove that these risks are sufficient to justify limiting
humanity's drive to include genes as another tool in creating the future. The
value of this book is not in the ultimate soundness of the arguments, but in
its ability to cause the reader to see the common anew. He interweaves
science, culture, and economics into a complex antitechnological treatise that
serves as a spark for further discussion. Despite its weaknesses, Bowring's
book raises possibilities that should not be ignored.
Karl Marx, The German Ideology, Pt. I, Tucker, R.C.
Ed. in The Marx-Engel Reader, 2nd Ed., WW Norton &
Company (NY & London: 1978), p. 150.
Constance Perry, Ph.D., Associate
Professor, Programs in Humanities and Sciences, College of Nursing and Health
Professions, Drexel University