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This is a very informative and interesting book on a very topical set of issues. Irina Pollard does an excellent job at introducing the "facts" that should be known by all people interested in bioethical and ethical questions.
Bioscience ethics is a discipline that aims at integrating ethics within the life sciences. In particular, bioscience ethics aims at increasing understanding of biological systems, promoting responsible use of biomedical technologies, and reassessing the ethnocentric debate in light of new ecological insights.
Pollard aptly directs the ethical discussion in a sometimes seemingly patronizing fashion that will not please every reader. I personally enjoyed her engaging style and her militant stance, as I believe they are instrumental in providing the basis for ethical discussion, for the derivation and extrapolations of ethical principles, and, ultimately -- this is the real aim of the book - for improving the ethical status quo. The book is in fact replete with informative discussion, arguments and suggestions about how sound biological knowledge is necessary to improve quality of life.
Pollard clearly knows her subject very well as she mingles in a coherent framework a variety of issues that will prove to be fundamental to shape and reframe ethical debate for the years to come. The book is divided into chapters treating many interesting sets of themes: from issues concerning reproduction to parental behavior and responsibility, from the ecological model of care to euthanasia, from natural family planning to novel reproductive technologies, from the biology of well being to population growth, etc. Pollard endorses an innovative biological stance that is open to new insights and ideas from new branches of biology and that aims to convey the genuine meaning of the biomedical revolution we are experiencing. She seasons her treatment with evidence coming from different sources, including epigenetics, neurology and epidemiology. I found the methodology of the book particularly congenial, as it helped me in understanding the context in which the ethical debate unfolds.
The book is aimed at all those people who think that nowadays science is, as Pollard argues, the major factor shaping social change. I also believe that this book should be read by all those people who happen to think that science cannot provide any guidance to the study of philosophy. The book should make the minds of the open-minded person up on this issue. In fact, it provides a strong argument in favor of the thesis that facts must be taken extremely seriously into account when debating ethical issues, notwithstanding the fears and worries of supporters of the naturalistic fallacy. Traditionalists will possibly remain unperturbed and rebut that an implicit defense of naturalism is not to be taken seriously when it comes from a scientist, as it is only natural for a scientist to be naturalized and naturalistic, and not to bother about the legitimacy of the unnatural naturalistic fallacy. I find the attitude of the traditionalist as verging on the surreal. If two incommensurable positions in philosophy were to be found these days, I would choose the contraposition between naturalism and its enemies.
I will just give an example of an instance where knowing the biological facts will deeply inform, direct and shape ethical debate and policy action.
Humans are biologically peculiar in many ways. One peculiarity concerns the high level of chromosomal abnormalities compared to other primate species. In some cases the source of these abnormalities is known, but in most cases we still are in a state of ignorance. The reasons for such ignorance are due to the fact that developmental processes are extremely complicated: a wide range of genetic, epigenetic and environmental factors affect the various phases of human development from before conception to maturation in utero to post-uterine growth. Now, consider that it is a cultural universal to consider women as almost solely responsible for the well being of the future generations. This also implies that women are also considered mainly responsible in cases in which the child shows some developmental "abnormalities". But, as Pollard argues, this view should be totally changed as it is based on profound biological ignorance. In fact, most developmental defects due to chromosomal abnormalities are paternal in origin. This is for reasons that are quite easy to grasp: the generation of sperm, being continuous, is more prone to accumulating genomic abnormalities with increasing age. Furthermore, emphasis on the role of epigenetic factors affecting the developmental cycle in all its phases is increasingly showing that both parents should be reproductively responsible, especially considering that it is becoming clear that certain kinds of negligent behavior can have trans-generational effects and affect the well being of many generations to come. As a consequence of all these facts, it is unsustainable to predominantly apportion reproductive responsibility onto women. In an ideal world, parental scientific education should be provided for both sexes. However, the sad truth is that, even in the "civilized" West, there are very few male responsibility reproductive courses for fathers to be, and this means that potential fathers are as a matter of fact excluded from reproductive health care. As Pollard argues, the view that women are mostly reproductively responsible (e.g. that in reproduction only the woman's age counts) is anachronistic and biologically impertinent. Anachronistic because it is being highlighted that parental responsibility and good parenting are a key social factor if we want to have a dynamic economy. But more importantly it is criminal because such ignorance is often exploited by influential people who proclaim on a range of reproductive issues, for instance about which methods of contraception are "natural" and which are not.
The basic message of the book is that knowledge is power. Pollard's book can be interpreted as an attempt to empower the reader with knowledge of the biological facts, and to emancipate her from the influence of ethical stances that are based on ignorance. Facts inform ethical attitudes, even though biological facts are not sufficient in order to derive, shape and revise our moral standards. Nonetheless, bioethicists should know all the relevant biological information in order to support their arguments, and in order to help dismantle the rag of ignorance sadly and subtly affecting our sometimes discriminatory and dogmatic ethical attitudes.
© 2010 Davide Vecchi
Davide Vecchi did his Ph.D. in philosophy of science at the London School of Economics. He has been Research Fellow at the KLI for Evolution and Cognition Research. His main research interests lie at the interface between biology and philosophy.
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