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Controlling Our DestiniesReview - Controlling Our Destinies
Historical, Philosophical, Ethical, and Theological Perspectives on the Human Genome Project
by Phillip R. Sloan (editor)
Univ of Notre Dame Press, 2000
Review by Howard B. Radest
May 6th 2000 (Volume 4, Issue 18)

Building on a conference at Notre Dame in 1995, this anthology explores some of the philosophic and theological questions stirred by The Human Genome Project (HGP). So, while there is mention of issues like confidentiality, screening and the like, the book is addressed to more basic themes: reductionism, materialism, determinism, causality, eugenics, the import of molecular biology for ideas about human nature. A fruitful text, the reader is bound to find several essays that meet his or her needs and interests and, as will be obvious, I surely did. While unfortunately not true of every essay, brief commentaries typically help the reader focus the issues and questions. Generally, no advanced disciplinary study is necessary although a familiarity with the terms used in genetics and modern biology would facilitate the reading. Finally, given the sponsorship of the conference and the volume, the reader will not find non-Western, non-Christian or secular contributions, a particularly relevant limitation in trying to sort out the moral and religious questions raised by HGP.

Organized into four sections, the text is introduced by the Editor with an essay on Descartes which sets up the book's problematic: mind-body dualism, mechanism, and the relationship of analysis and synthesis (Sloan, 1-26). Most of the pieces that follow address one or more of these matters. The first section offers a fascinating review of the history of HGP and of its relationship to that prior adventure in "big science," the Manhattan Project. Hence, the influence of the Atomic Energy Commission, the Department of Energy and only latterly the National Institutes of Health. Indeed, the opening essay in Part I (Lenoir and Hayes, 29-62) traces the source of HGP via the concern with the affects of radiation on military personnel, on civilian casualties, and later on workers in what was to become nuclear industry. Along the way, nuclear medicine was born and radiation procedures became standard therapies. Indeed, the term, "project," itself reflects this line of development as well as an interest in gaining public and legislative support by appealing to the successes of the WWII effort. Not a little manipulation and American nationalism enters the picture.

Descriptions of Japanese and French research (Beatty, 131-153; Gaudilliere, 63-93) exhibit the tension between nation and science as well as shifting interests as Cold War yields to free market commercialism. "Metaphors of Morality" (Dreger, 155-184) calls attention to the social, political and anthropological features of HGP. For example, we use a frontier imagery of exploration and now of private property (ownership and patents) that seem calculated to attract the support of the public and so, inevitably, tax dollars. Most interesting was "The Book of Life" (Kay, 99-124) which describes the language of genetics as an exercise in the post-modern metaphor of the "text." Thus, the almost commonsensical references by now to "reading the code" and to treating gene and chromosome as information transmitters. Along the way, changing visions of nature emerge, i.e. nature as object, as oracle ("speak to the earth and it will answer you) and now as text. The epistemological and methodological import should not be understated: the move from detailed observation, description, and classification to the mathematicized concepts and methods of information science, for example, with consequent ontological and clinical shifts as well. Thus, we begin to doubt whether the move toward a bio-chemical-physics is an accommodation to the evidence or, as it were, generates the kind of evidence we are taught to see.

In any consideration of the HGP, eugenics must be addressed. The ghost that shadows us is the Holocaust abroad and racism at home (Caplan, 209-222). A review of the history of America's romance with eugenics in the early 20th century reminds us that Nazism was not the only or even the first offender. Thus, the discussion of US propaganda in the media and elsewhere about "good genes" and "good parents," the scientifically false but politically useful attribution of "bad genes" to Blacks and immigrants, and the legal and social practices of criminalization and sterilization of the "unfit." (Pernick, 187-208). Of particular interest, not least of all because of its rarity, is a discussion of "utopian genetics." (Kitcher, 229-262). After reviewing the problems of any eugenic program, Kitcher proposes a "benign" eugenics, i.e. where quality of life, available resources, and individual choice are highlighted. Sensitive to the probability that practice is likely to benefit the privileged while being denied to the poor and disenfranchised, he describes an ideal (i.e. utopian) eugenics. This becomes for him a template in assessing the justice of emerging genetic practices.

The third section is directed at philosophical issues within molecular biology. While technical, it is, with a little work, accessible to the lay person. Evelyn Fox Keller argues (Keller, 273-289) that reductionism is scientifically untenable, i.e. that single gene causation is rare, that genetic materials work together to produce or fail to produce phenotypic and behavioral probabilities. It is the organism in an environment that initiates genetic action (turns genes on or off). This, of course, reverses classical genetics, i.e. the gene as causal agent. In fact, Keller advises doing away with the notion of the gene and replacing it with reference to complex genetic/organic/environmental processes. While the evidence tends in that direction, this view does not or does not yet represent a scientific consensus. Here, the book fails to offer countering views which the brief commentary (Gayon, 291-299) does not adequately provide. In other words, we lack a genuine argument where we need it most.

It is this latter failure that shows up in a different part of the forest, Part Four on theological humanism (341-427). The essays are interesting and incisive. Unfortunately, they seem more like apologia than exploration. In each the orientation is Christian, and with the exception of an Anglican Priest, Roman Catholic and Papal. Modern biology is then, as it were, fitted into a prior intellectual apparatus. Where effort is made (Peacocke, 343-365) to explore new ground -- the notion of evolution as a series of emergent ontological levels that are discrete and non-reducible--the unsurprising outcome is still anthropocentric. We get a contemporary reading of Scripture, of natural hierarchies of being with human being at the top of the natural order. Absent, however, is any effort to rescue a matter-spirit dualism (Fitzgerald, 395-410). But, the status of the soul under a molecular biological dispensation, while referred to, is not really discussed. The late Richard McCormick does make the effort to meet the moral problems of the HGP (McCormick, 417-427). For him, Catholic theology functions axiomatically and genetic issues are taken as problems of application.

To be sure, given the sponsorship of the volume, an exposition of Roman Catholic views is certainly appropriate although it would have been helpful to alert the reader in advance. More problematically, the theologians write as if they are not advocates. They presume that their views are the views! That limits their ability to explore new territory -- even new theological and moral territory. Since there are theological inquiries that would have enriched the discourse -- e.g. process theologies inspired by Alfred North Whitehead, evolutionary theologies following the line begun by Teilhard de Chardin -- this inadequacy is particularly regrettable. A sad consequence of looking back over the book after reading the final section is that I cannot help but suspect the unconfessed commitments of the other contributors.

The final essay by John Opitz is a gem (Opitz, 429-462). Quite modestly, he offers a number of issues for consideration and reflection. He points out the utility (even necessity) of methodological reductionism which, he notes, is quite different from philosophic and metaphysical reductionism. The former allows disciplines to benefit from each other's inquiries; the latter is a form of intellectual blindness aptly called "nothing but-ism..." He returns the conversation to unmentioned issues. Thus, Opitz complains that we are biologically illiterate and that this illiteracy is not reserved to the general public. Physicians, for example, learn a utilitarian biology but are ill prepared for the complexities of the molecular medicine that is already upon us. He describes what he calls "genomania." An extension of our romance with technology, we attribute all kinds of miraculous things to an inevitable genetic future. We'll live forever without disability or disease and we'll all be beautiful, brilliant, and athletic. And finally, he points out that the drive toward a molecular biology has turned us away from clinical research. So we are distanced from inquiry that is informed by the actual human being in trouble or in need. In other words, Opitz returns us to experience which, given the complexities and claims of molecular biology is essential.


HOWARD B. RADEST, PHD, is Adjunct Professor of Philosophy at The University of South Carolina-Beaufort. He is Ethics Consultant to Hilton Head Hospital and Chair of its Biomedical Ethics Committee. He is the Dean Emeritus of The Humanist Institute, a member of the Council of Ethical Culture Leaders and of the Highlands Institute for American Religious and Philosophic Thought. Dr. Radest was the founder and chairman (1983-1991) of the University Seminar On Moral Education, Columbia University. He is a member of the Board of the North American Committee for Humanism. From 1978-88 he was Co-Chair of The International Humanist and Ethical Union. He is on the editorial boards of The Humanist, Religious Humanism, and Free Inquiry. His books include Toward Common Ground (Ungar, 1968), Can We Teach Ethics? (Praeger. 1989), The Devil and Secular Humanism (Praeger, 1990), Community Service: Encounter With Strangers (Praeger, 1993), Humanism With A Human Face (Praeger, 1996), Felix Adler: An Ethical Culture, (Peter Lang, Publishers, 1998) and From Clinic to Classroom (Praeger, 2000}.

Dr. Radest received his B.A. at Columbia College, his M.A. in Philosophy and Psychology at The New School For Social Research and his Ph.D. in Philosophy at Columbia University. He is listed in Who's Who.


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