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Genetic ProspectsReview - Genetic Prospects
Essays on Biotechnology, Ethics, and Public Policy
by Verna V. Gehring (Editor)
Rowman & Littlefield, 2004
Review by Mianna Lotz, Ph.D.
Dec 16th 2004 (Volume 8, Issue 51)

This collection of nine essays, several of which have appeared previously in the journal Philosophy and Public Policy Quarterly, makes a useful and distinct contribution to what is now a large industry in books dealing with the ethical issues posed by biotechnological advances in the field of genetic intervention.

While not dealing exclusively with uncharted terrain, nevertheless many of the ethical and philosophical discussions presented in Genetic Prospects extend beyond the standard, run-of-the-mill fare. For that reason the reprinting of the articles in book form is justified, and the book would be a useful addition to the libraries of those interested in this field lay persons, students, science educators and practitioners, and academic researchers alike.

The collection is organized into three sections The Concept of the Natural, Our (Modified?) Human Nature, and the Ethics (and Politics) of Genetic Technologies. The first (shortest) section contains essays by Mark Sagoff and Paul B. Thompson analyzing use of the concept of 'the natural' in arguments concerning genetically engineered food and agricultural biotechnology. The strongest essay of the two (Sagoff's) offers a useful outline of John Stuart Mill's four senses of the "natural" as "supernatural", "sacred", "pristine", and "authentic", and draws attention to the ultimately counterproductive efforts of the biotechnology food industry to appeal to consumers' preferences in the terms of the last three senses, while aspiring to be regulated in accordance with the first (all-inclusive) sense of "natural". Sagoff's initially surprising use of Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale to illustrate contradictory attitudes towards the "naturalness" of consumable products, is insightful and successful in helping to clarify his overall point: that there is no scientific basis for a distinction between GE foods and non-GE foods along the popular lines of what is natural/non-natural. Thompson's essay builds upon Sagoff's with the addition of a fifth sense of "natural" as "artisinal", understood in relation to farming practice as "working with" (as opposed to against) nature. The essay lacks some clarity in its execution and overall purpose, but is nevertheless of value as an initial attempt to consider the biomedical implications of viewing agricultural biotechnology to be 'unnatural'.

Section II, containing essays by Harold Baillie and Robert Wachbroit, focuses on issues concerning human nature that are important and central. Baillie draws attention to the significance of posing the question of what it is to be human in our thinking about the forms of genetic intervention that ought to be permitted. The need to use technology to further human concerns while preserving human nature is seen as vital, with the notion of the 'sacredness' of human nature regarded as central to such considerations. Baillie correctly points to some of the limitations that beset appeals to the sacred, while ultimately, I think, failing to provide a very compelling case for the centrality of a 'contemporary' notion of the sacred to arguments over biotechnological intervention. I was also not entirely persuaded by Baillie's high regard for the value of Plato's notion of 'eros' as 'a deep psychological force propelling us to go beyond ordinary human needs and capabilities to seek out truth, beauty and goodness' to our ethical deliberation over genetic engineering. Nevertheless some strong critical points are made in his critique of Mary Midgley's view of the role of emotion in moral reflection, in response to which is offered a compelling defense of the role of emotion as being to occasion rather than ground or inform reflection. The best of the three essays, that by Robert Wachbroit, offers a useful analysis of the different notions of 'normality' and of the way in which conceptions of human normality, and human self-conception itself, are affected by genetic discoveries and interventions. His critical treatment of the tendency, evident in the work of Francis Fukuyama amongst others, to overstate the role of genetics in human nature, and to ignore the causal interaction between an organism's genes and its environment, is particularly effective and worthwhile.

Section III contains five essays, and while the substantive connection between them is fairly minimal, some of the most engaging discussions of the book are to be found here. Richard M. Zaner's "Finessing Nature" is the weakest of the five. The essay lacks an overarching clarity and focus, and is over-ambitious in it's selection of four fairly substantial objectives spanning the work of at least nine researchers and scientists including Leon Kass, Stephen Jay Gould, and Richard Dawkins, as well as of views of bodies such as the American Bioethics Advisory Commission. The result is a treatment of the views in question that is overly cursory and a little lacking in depth, leaving the reader slightly unsatisfied. This is particularly true of the treatment of the main objections to cloning and the responses to those objections, both of which are underdeveloped and overly survey-like, though the replies are given fuller treatment than the objections themselves. The same cannot be said of the remaining four papers (by Robert Wachbroit, Deborah Hellman, David T. Wasserman and Sara Goering), which deal with interesting questions such as (respectively) the implications and parallels (and lack thereof) of abortion debates for the ethics of stem cell research; the legal and philosophical grounds for concerns (and for laws) that treat genetic discrimination as distinct from health status discrimination; genetic enhancement of children; and the prospect of cosmetic genetics.

These essays contain the most novel ideas in the collection. All are well written, thoughtful, stimulating and contribute new ideas to the field. Wachbroit's discussion of the comparative ethical significance of the governing intentions involved in the creation of embryos in IVF on the one hand, and in stem cell research on the other, is persuasive in its (albeit tentative) argument that there exist no grounds for a firm moral contrast between the intentions and hopes involved in each case, which could mark the moral boundary between the permissible and the impermissible. His analysis of three distinct levels of complicity is also helpful, though not given extended treatment.

Hellman's argument is that genetic discrimination warrants special legislative protection (as opposed to falling under legislation pertaining to health status discrimination) only on the grounds of the distinct historically-informed social meaning of differential treatment on the basis of genetic makeup. She rejects several of the more popular arguments for what she terms 'genetic exceptionalism', arguments that claim that special legislation to protect against genetic discrimination is warranted on the grounds that genetic discrimination is irrational, that genes are beyond individual control, that there is an unequal distribution of genetic predisposition to disease, and that identifying genetic predispositions to disease would lead to further stigmatization of racial and ethnic groups. Her rejection of these arguments is challenging but nevertheless plausible, as is the expressivist argument which she does accept as warranting special legislative protection.

Wasserman's essay takes us beyond the standard survey of arguments for and against the genetic enhancement of children to a consideration of the implications of enhancement for the special kind of relationship that exists between parents and children. Although it ends with the rather unremarkable point that more work needs to be done on secular objections to, and moral constraints on, parental genetic enhancement, the essay nevertheless deals interestingly with issues to do with the nature, extent and scope of parental control in shaping another human being. His critical discussion of the limits of Jurgen Habermas' objections to genetic interventions hit the mark very well indeed. He reveals Habermas' flawed emphasis on the alleged indelibility of genetic interventions, his mistaken view of the allegedly reduced capacity of genetically enhanced children to reflect upon and reappraise the values, habits or skills that have been genetically engineered rather than socially inculcated in early child-rearing, and as a result his uncritical acceptance of assumptions that are essentially genetically determinist.

Finally, Goering's discussion of the ethical challenges that are likely to arise alongside new techniques for cosmetic genetic therapy, successfully illuminate what are likely to be the more vexing of challenges to the availability of such 'therapies', many of which have been posed (though not necessarily resolved) in relation to conventional cosmetic surgery. Thus for example she conducts an insightful discussion of the problem of whether the desire for cosmetic genetics (like for cosmetic surgery) should be understood to express "empowered agency" or something more like its opposite: a surrender to, and possible reinforcement of, oppressive social norms of beauty. While aiming only to identify future ethical challenges rather than fully deal with and resolve them, the essay is nevertheless not unsatisfying in the way that some similarly 'indicative' or gestural discussions can be.

As a volume that brings together some of the deeper philosophical complexities and challenges posed by genetic technologies, in the hands of some fine scholars, this collection can be recommended as a useful resource both for those seeking an introduction to the key debates, as well as for those seeking stimulation for further research in the field. The only general criticism I would note concerns the rather informal referencing system used throughout the book: an eschewing of numerical footnote referencing and endnotes in favour of a summary paragraph outlining sources at the end of each essay. Those wanting to locate sources may find the absence of page references frustrating, and it is difficult to imagine that the addition of such citation would add unmanageable length to what is after all a fairly short volume.

2004 Mianna Lotz


Dr Mianna Lotz is a Research Fellow with the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics, University of Melbourne, and an Associate Fellow of the Department of Philosophy, La Trobe University. She has taught in normative and meta-ethics, applied and professional ethics, and social philosophy at a number of universities in Australia and New Zealand. Her primary research interests are in the ethical and social issues raised by recent biotechnological developments, with a particular focus on reproductive biotechnologies and questions pertaining to parental obligations/liberties and children's rights. She is a current Executive Committee member of the Australian Association for Professional and Applied Ethics (AAPAE). In January 2005 Mianna will take up a teaching position in ethics/applied ethics in the Department of Philosophy at Macquarie University, New South Wales.


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