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WondergenesWrestling with Behavioral GeneticsYour Genetic Destiny
It?s amazing that practically every day there is some item in the news concerning the new genetic technology. I have just finished teaching a new course on ethical issues in genetics, and every morning I could come into class and say, for example, "There was a report yesterday that Dolly was born middle-aged and has a greater chance of developing cancer," "Did you hear the news story about the clinic that helps couples determine the sex of their baby?" or "Scientists have just found a genetic component of Tourette?s syndrome." My students also appreciated taking a class that provided them a way to better assess the news reports they saw on TV, and to see the concerns over the coming changes to our society that the new technology will bring us.
One of the main books I used for the class was Glenn McGee?s The Perfect Baby. McGee is a rising figure on the bioethical scene, a prolific writer with a knack for making complexity comprehensible to ordinary people, who is currently at the University of Pennsylvania Center for Bioethics. He probably won?t win himself many friends among his colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania Department of Philosophy (where they tend to hold their noses when "bioethics" is mentioned) for his condemnation of much current philosophy. I was pleased to learn that he thinks that, "American philosophers have developed ways to measure rigor and success, rankings and professional protocols that have little to do with the life of ideas in the community" (50). (One of my main motives in devoting time to being editor of Metapsychology is to bring the tools and insights of modern philosophy of psychology to a wider audience. I also like the free books!)
My students, most of whom had studied no previous philosophy, also found McGee?s book very readable. Slim at 166 pages, the book has seven chapters, and it covers a broad range of topics, so it never goes into any single topic in great depth. What it does do very well is provide an outline of ethical concerns about genetic technology, and it sketches a sensible approach to those concerns. McGee takes a middle road: he believes that there are important reasons to be cautious in our use of these new technological capabilities, but at the same time, he does not want to prevent the (apparently inevitable) social changes that this technology will bring. Rather, he suggests that we should take what steps we can to make sure that the new technology is used fairly rather than as a way to increase discrimination in our society.
McGee finds fault with many of the critics of the new genetics. Many of them argue that this technology is unnatural, and that we should not play God. However, McGee points out that it is part of human nature to develop technology, just as other animals use tools, so the whole distinction between natural and artificial is of little help in the moral debate. Furthermore, he finds that many of the worries about genetic technology presuppose that one?s DNA is a blueprint for one?s life, determining every twist and turn. He takes great care to explain why this is a mistake: not even identical twins growing up in the same family at the same time turn out to be identical in every respect, and often they differ in major ways. One can grow up straight while his twin is gay. One can grow up to develop schizophrenia while her twin does not. Critics are often alarmist in their suppositions about how much our genes control. One of McGee?s recurrent themes is his emphasis on the great extent to which genetic and environment are interdependent, and often cannot be separated even in principle.
While The Perfect Baby is probably one of the best introductions available to genetic ethics, it does have a couple of weaknesses. First, the works that McGee uses for the focus of his discussion are considerably out of date. There are four critics of genetics on whom McGee concentrates: Jeremy Rifkin, Robin Rowlands, Leon Kass, and Hans Jonas. This problem is especially glaring in the case of Rifkin, since McGee focuses on his book Algeny, which dates from 1983. It?s unfortunate that Rifkin?s most recent book, The Biotech Century, was published in 1998, just after McGee?s, since it presents a far more powerful case against the new technology, and it would be very interesting to read what McGee has to say about it.
A deeper weakness is McGee?s claim to be working in a distinctively Pragmatist tradition, giving particular emphasis to the ideas of the philosopher John Dewey. While McGee?s approach is not based in any grand moral theory such as John Stuart Mill?s Utilitarianism or Immanuel Kant?s universalizable laws, it would be dressing it up to call it "Pragmatic." Rather, he starts from a straightforwardly common sense view that scrutinizes the claims that people make and sees how they fit with our generally accepted moral practices. For example, he condemns the attempt by health insurance companies and HMOs to label genetic maladies such as Huntington?s Syndrome as pre-existing conditions and thus to get out of paying for the health care of people with those maladies. McGee explains how it is unfair to do this for any health problem, so the case of genetic disorders is just one example of a more general issue. Hitching his common sense approach to the controversial tradition of Pragmatism certainly doesn?t increase its plausibility, and neither does it clarify it. McGee spells out what he calls his "pragmatic method" in his chapter on "Biology, Culture, and Methodological Social Change," but there it seems to consist in a rejection of the flaws of genetic determinism and reductionism, (which involve just as much factual as philosophical errors). Paying more careful attention to the nexus of genetic and environmental factors in human development is certainly a good idea, but it hardly constitutes a distinctive philosophical thesis, let alone a whole method. When McGee makes pronouncements such as, In the final analysis, solutions to public problems are ethical when they work, by helping society to think about, and then accomplish, goals that make both biological and cultural sense. (67) it?s hard to think of anyone who could disagree with such bland common sense. Are there any philosophers who don?t care whether their theories make biological or cultural sense? Of course not: the real issue is what solutions do make sense, and when McGee assesses the different proposals, he uses broad and uncontroversial mid-level principles that virtually all ethicists can accept. The label of "Pragmatism" turns out to be just window dressing.
A third distinctive feature of The Perfect Baby is the small amount of space given to human cloning. But this is not a weakness; indeed, I think it is strength. For some reason cloning has captured the imagination of bioethicists and the public, and tends to get more attention than other issues such as genetic testing, genetic counseling, the ethics of research into genetic foundations of personality traits, and the implications of genetics for health insurance. McGee?s book helps to put cloning into perspective, as an interesting issue but far from being the most important feature of genetic technology facing our society today. His thoughtful discussion and clear recommendations make his book a great starting point for anyone interested in learning more about this far-reaching debate.