Genetics and Evolution

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Engineering the Human GermlineReview - Engineering the Human Germline
An Exploration of the Science and Ethics of Altering the Genes We Pass to Our Children
by Gregory Stock and John Campbell (Editors)
Oxford University Press, 2000
Review by William Harper, Ph.D.
Dec 14th 2000 (Volume 4, Issue 50)

This is a bizarre book. One reason is that the technological possibilities of germline engineering it presents go far beyond the usual hints one receives in the general media. The term 'germline engineering' itself needs updating. Until recently it referred to heritable alterations to a person, changes that would affect the genetic information in the individual's gametes. The first essay in Engineering the Human Germline explains how we will likely, within the next twenty years, have the ability to engineer artificial human chromosomes carrying "cassettes" of engineered genes into a zygote, leaving the original genome untouched, and leaving the engineered genes dormant in the person until a technician activates the engineered genes. While the engineered genes will reside in every cell of the body, they can have been designed so that activation will have effect only in particular organs of the body; and the chromosome can be designed to be nonheritable. Other essays follow suit with an array of breathtaking (or is it horrifying?) possibilities for the custom engineering of human beings.

After the roller-coaster of possible lines of future research, Stock and Campbell treat us to a transcript of a roundtable discussion about whether such technologies should be used. Participants range from the ground-breaking researcher W. French Anderson to ethicist John Fletcher. The participants in that discussion, especially Nobel laureate James D. Watson, are refreshingly unguarded in their comments, and reveal some of their deeper motivations and attitudes toward germline engineering.

Engineering the Germline also includes a substantial section, titled "Other Voices," which is devoted to short essays representing a wide array of viewpoints on the germline question: Marxist, libertarian, Judaic, liberal, and many not easily classified.

A second reason for the book's bizarreness is the apparent lack of communication among the authors included in the text, especially the gap between the natural science researchers and the ethicist/philosopher crowd. While the papers by the renowned technical researchers invariably call on the world to consider carefully the ethical and social ramifications of their research, these readings unintentionally make clear how easy it is for technical-minded folk to miss completely the ethical difficulties they supposedly are urging society to think about. In one such paper, the author thinks the answer to our ethical problems lies in training more citizens in the art of inquiry-based analysis and general biology, as though Deweyan pedagogy could actually succeed in leading people to common ethical conclusions. In another paper, a renowned researcher claims that ethics is either self-constructed or socially constructed because a "Webster's" dictionary tells him so. He then advances a eugenics argument to the tune that modern medicine and sympathy (instead of the old eugenicists' attack on specifically Christian sympathy) is slowly undermining "the germline" by making reproducers out of folks who, in a natural environment, would have been eaten while still young by tigers. "Our science and our compassion prevents us from using survival of the fittest as a process of selection . . . . Should we turn our back on new methodologies that might bring us smarter people and better leaders who are more responsible in their lives?" (29). Neither author considers the possibility that valuational terms, such as "better," lack the clarity of matters that can be measured in microns and generalized in mathematical equations. To put it blandly, they seem to assume that there is an unambiguous answer to the question of whether it was Albert Einstein or Mother Theresa who made the "better" contribution to mankind. Fortunately, there are authors in the "Other Voices" section who point out the problematic nature of such valuational concepts. I just hope the natural science researchers get around to reading that section.

This book is exciting to read, and not all comforting. It provides a valuable, wide-angle snapshot of research on germline engineering and of the debate concerning the ethics of that research. The babble of voices assures us only that no one yet knows what they are doing in this matter, and that some, scarily, think that they do.

William Harper, Ph.D., University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa


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