Improving Nature: The Science and Ethics of Genetic Engineering

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Improving Nature: The Science and Ethics of Genetic Engineering Reiss, Michael J. & Roger Straughan New York: Cambridge University Press. 1996

Improving Nature? The Science and Ethics of Genetic Engineering, by Michael Reiss and Roger Straughan (R&S), has two main components, the science of genetic engineering with an excellent explanation of mutations, and the moral/ethical aspects of genetic engineering. They explain how human genes have already been put into pigs, and how we may be able to change the genetic make-up of humans. Further, they tell the genetic basis for making these species-- level changes in humans' genetic code.

R&S also give a great deal of time to explaining the different types of genetic mutations that occur. For example, a whole chromosome may be lost or gained, such as an extra copy of the small chromosome 21 that causes Down's Syndrome. Or part of a chromosome may be inverted, but be fully intact. And they explain how dominant and recessive genes affect us and how they are transmitted from generation to generation. This is probably the best book reviewed here that deals with genetic and chromosomal mutations and how they interact to make us what we are, including the dangers of genetic engineering on humans. First, genes often work best when they are situated next to each other, and mistakes in insertion locations may interfere with tumor-suppressor genes. But these are all technical problems and there is good reason to believe they will be overcome through the Human Genome Project.

Less time is given by R&S to the ethics of genetic engineering, but it is also the most controversial and interesting part of the book. They do point out that "Ethics is normally thought of as a narrower concept than morality, and it can be used in several different, though unrelated, senses. The most general of these suggests a set of standards by which a particular group or community decides to regulate its behavior - to distinguish what is legitimate or acceptable in pursuit of their aims from what is not, such as `business ethics' or `medical ethics'." What this means is that what is ethical and what is unethical is a matter of mutual agreement: ethics are not something that can be imposed on others. Those who oppose genetic research forget this when they try to impose secular or politically-motivated ethical standards on scientific procedures because they fear that the knowledge that may result will harm their egalitarian cause. (See Kevin Macdonald's Culture of Critique, Praeger, Westport.)

R&S then discuss the morality of genetic engineering, both intrinsic and extrinsic. Intrinsic are actions that are right and wrong on their own (based on religion, evolution, etc.), and extrinsic only considers the consequences, beneficial or not, of actions. The authors do a good job of explaining these two positions; and how, for example, in the debate on abortion the two sides are arguing from different perspectives with regard to what is moral (extrinsic versus intrinsic). What they do fail to discuss is that if humans share a moral history with other primates based on the reproductive success of the tribe, how can we apply morality to present-day actions of right and wrong? Neither the utilitarian, consequentialist, Kantiandeontological formulations, nor any other system, has any innate truth when morality is considered within an evolutionary perspective, the only perspective that is empirical.

I especially liked their discussion of 'holistic', 'ecological' or 'environmental' objections to genetic engineering. They point out, of course, that humans have been breeding crops and animals for over 10,000 years and that virtually everything humans do is in this sense unnatural; by which they mean incapable of being done by other animals. As they state, "the progress of civilization has been largely dependent upon our `interference with nature'." At one time, religion was used to try to stop scientific progress; but as faith in religion has declined, the anti-empiricists have had to turn to other forms of mystical arguments in order to block change. …