Letters


More Reads on the Future

Gregory Benford and I are both physicists who write science fiction, the literary genre that focuses on change as it affects the human condition and on the human response to change. In his book symposium contribution ("Future Shocks," December), Professor Benford refers to the bioengineering of Huxley's Brave New World. However, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, written decades earlier, sets the stage for much of what has followed in the bicmanipulation of life. Frankenstein epitomizes the twin problems of science-driven change: the dangers of loss of control and of public overreaction. Which should we fear more, the shambling monster or the angry villagers, waving their torches as they converge on the castle?

In the light of recent history, from Dolly the sheep to gene-engineered soybeans and human stem cells, it is clear that out-of-control science is not the central problem. There are many open questions in bioethics and human genetics, but these are in the spotlight, the focus of ongoing debates, and the target of labyrinthine laws and regulations. The more serious problem is the inability of much of the population to understand and accommodate science-driven change and to devise rational strategies to deal with it.

I live in Seattle, which hosted a meeting of the World Trade Organization in December where the angry villagers gathered. European Greens traveled a third of the planet's circumference to protest this country's agricultural use of genetically modified soybeans and corn. I don't challenge their right to protest, but I wish they would find a better cause. Selective breeding using random (and often chemically induced) mutations has been an important part of agriculture for centuries.

It is not Frankenstein and "frankenfood" we should fear but the mob of angry villagers now converging on the castle of scientific progress.

John G. Cramer

Professor of Physics

University of Washington

Seattle, WA

Each year when I read REASON's special December book issue, I like to play a little game and guess how I would answer the question before reading everyone else's. This year, I was somewhat disappointed that no one mentioned Nanomedicine, Volume I. by Robert Freitas (Landes Bioscience, 1999).

The book, which has been available since late October, is very technical and detailed, and it hits the reader over the head with voluminous citations. The book has an edge of hard engineering through direct physical manipulation rather than the softer feel of interventions based on guiding unfolding organic processes. It represents early groping in a new field, and years from now it may have a quaint feel.

Nonetheless, Nanomedicine is probably the most important work of the year on biotechnology. Its first two chapters are accessible to the interested non-technical reader, and it carefully walks through the foundations of appropriate medical ethics for technologies that can radically restore and alter human life. Its huge technical scope helps the reader glimpse a future where we can not only change a few genes but repair and redesign a physical body down to molecular detail.

Tom McKendree

Huntington Beach, CA

tmc@alum.mit.edu

Though I appreciated many of the book recommendations in the recent symposium, I was somewhat disappointed' by the emphasis on sociobiology and the implicit commitment to determinism in many of your writers' selections.

I was surprised by the partiality to E.O. Wilson's Sociobiology: The New Synthesis. For one thing, Wilson's synthesis is hardly new; it's decades old. More importantly, as applied to human action, its thesis has been subjected to ample and devastating criticism, one of the most effective by Philip Kitcher in Vaulting Ambition: Socicbiology and the Quest for Human Nature (MIT Press, 1985), which goes unmentioned in the symposium. …

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