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A Companion to GenethicsReview - A Companion to Genethics
by Justine Burley and John Harris (Editors)
Blackwell, 2002
Review by KevinT. Keith
Oct 17th 2005 (Volume 9, Issue 42)

A Companion to Genethics, a recent volume in the "Blackwell Companions to Philosophy" series, offers a lengthy survey of problems characteristic of genetic research and therapy. The volume is comprised of 34 articles, mostly 10-15 pages in length, most by well-known figures in the field; the entries are organized thematically into 5 sections ("I: Genetics: Setting the Scene"; "II: Genetic Research"; "III: Gene Manipulation and Gene Selection"; "IV: Genotype, Phenotype, and Justice"; "V: Ethics, Law, and Policy"). The articles are generally well-written; each surveys relevant considerations or possible conflicts in its subject matter, with footnotes and suggested readings, and collectively they cover a breadth of issues. The volume as a whole is an in-depth resource on particular ethical issues related to genetics, and a useful sampling of the field generally. It does have limitations, however.

The editors' Introduction declares the book will "provide wide-ranging, scholarly analysis of, and sometimes provocative insights into, all the major issues of moral, political, and social significance which arise from . . . 'the genetic revolution'." In fact, the individual articles are each so narrowly drawn that, while usually covering their own bases effectively and knowledgeably, they do not provide comprehensive coverage of the field in its entirety. For this reason, the volume does not work as an introductory text, or as a comprehensive review, although it succeeds well enough in what it does do.

In Section I, ostensibly, "the scientific stage for the rest of the sections is set." But it contains only four articles, on current "hot-button" ethical issues, none offering a general overview of genetics for the novice or even a survey of the current state of genetic research. Thus we have the inevitable article on stem cells, another on genetic therapy, another (by "Dolly" pioneer Ian Wilmut) on cloning, and one on the genetics of aging. Although there are many later articles on genetic testing, pre-natal and post-natal genetic screening, "DNA banking", and other technical issues, the underlying technologies are not addressed in this "stage-setting" section, and technologies that are addressed are not explained in detail. In short, the volume assumes considerable technical sophistication on the part of the reader, which it does little to bolster in this technical-introductory Section.

The substantive articles are better, though again selective in focus. Section II, on genetic research, emphasizes vulnerable populations. It includes the only article not on human subjects -- a piece by Bernard Rollin on the ethics of genetic engineering and cloning in animals. There is also an article on Nazi abuses and the Nuremburg Code, several on informed consent, attitudes toward and the ethics of genetic testing on children and consent for same, and a fascinating literary-ethical discursion by George Annas on genetic engineering and "monster mythology" that considers researchers' duties to society at large. This Section covers many genetics applications but approaches them from the perspectives of informed consent or decision-making authority. It thereby extrapolates familiar research-ethics questions into the genetic realm, but focuses on only a few of the many such ethical topics.

Section III includes papers on pre-natal genetic selection and positive eugenics, as well as others that may fit better elsewhere in the volume. John Harris writes a general overview of stem cell research, covering most of the bases of this now-familiar topic but with a glancing treatment and a decidedly partisan approach. Mary Anne Warren's piece on the moral status of the gene is a fascinating treatment of a provocative proposition - that the individual gene has independent moral status – offering her characteristic clarifying insight. Ruth Macklin provides a short but effective overview of the general debate over human cloning. The remaining papers address pre-implantation genetic diagnosis, positive eugenics from a general perspective and in a liberal-autonomy-theory framework, and sex selection from a feminist point of view. As before, these articles together are not exhaustive of their theme, and, in this Section particularly, many of them take an argumentative-advocacy stance that deprives the reader of a more encyclopedic overview. However, there is some excellent material here.

Section IV is perhaps the most "philosophical" in the volume, with speculative articles tying genetics to traditional questions about human nature and biological determinism, and others centering on problems of justice as influenced by genetics. Carol Rovane offers an even-handed discussion of the degree to which genes may constitute our identities as persons; Richard Dawkins continues his ongoing fight for sociobiology, arguing for genetic explanations for complex behaviors; and there are articles on the implications of evolutionary theory (with emphasis on genetic concepts) for religion and human nature, the inherent conflict (or lack thereof) between Western religion and genetic therapy, and the genetic basis of "race". Questions of justice addressed include the chance element of inheritance in the context of our treatment of people with various medical/genetic conditions; the Nozickian concept of self-ownership as applied to the creation of offspring from one's own genes, and commercial exploitation of the product of the Human Genome Project. Some of these topics have become familiar in recent years, but other articles use advances in genetics to provocatively illuminate traditional philosophical issues.

Finally, Section V introduces a variety of public-policy issues related to genetic technology, including DNA "fingerprinting", privacy of genetic information, genetic screening and genetic discrimination, and several articles on patenting genes and genomes. The issues are timely and the authors are often prominent experts on their topics.

All in all, A Companion to Genethics is a useful and stimulating volume. Many of its articles will be valuable for readers with some expertise in the field; the volume does not work well for those uninitiated to either the science or the philosophy it draws on, nor does it serve as a comprehensive survey of the field. But it touches on many important topics, which are treated sometimes with expert comprehensiveness and sometimes with an advocate's passion -- both of which will well repay the interested reader.

 

2005 Kevin T. Keith

 

Kevin T. Keith, M.A., City College, CUNY


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