In a recent Letter from
America, Alistair Cooke commented on the controversy surrounding President
Bushs decision to allow limited federal funding for research on stem cells.
The irony, Cooke remarked, was that despite all the fuss 99% of people dont
even know what a brain stem is. A brain stem is, of course, nothing to do with
a stem cell, even though some stem cells come from brains. Truly ignorance is
widespread, when even those who remark on it simultaneously exemplify it.
Ignorance of matters scientific
is widespread, but if the editors of this volume, and many people besides, are
correct, this ignorance is especially dangerous with regard to genetics.
Genethics is a contraction of genetic ethics; the ethics of genetic
research and its spin- offs. As we enter in what has been called the century
of the gene, when genetics will open possibilities never before imagined, and
carry risks of equally astounding proportions, such an ethics is of enormously
important. Our growing knowledge of genetics gives us the power to design
future generations. Every new advance in medicine has seen its advocates
accused of playing god, but with the genome mapped, we will no longer play
god, we will be as gods. We shall create life in whatever image we choose.
The range of essays, all
commissioned for this volume, collected here testifies to the significance of
the genetic revolution. At least, that is the impression created by so many
essays by so many distinguished contributors. Here philosophers, scientists
(including such important researchers as Ian Wilmut and Richard Dawkins),
bioethicists and lawyers consider the implications of genetic research for
medicine, for public policy, even for arcane philosophical problems. Any
scientific research program that raises so many ethical issues must be of the
first importance. Our growing knowledge of genetics, and ability to detect the
markers for disorders which are wholly or (more usually) partially genetic
means that around the genome cluster a number of ethical issues. Research in
genetics raises ethical issues to do with animal experimentation (addressed
here by Bernard Rollin), informed consent (Søren Holm), new privacy questions
(Madison Powers), and so on.
However, though there is no doubt
that these questions arise in distinctive ways when the focus is genes, these
are very much standard issues in bioethics; for the most part, it is a matter
of applying analyses already developed elsewhere to a new subject matter. In
contrast, there are the entirely new issues raised for the first time by our
knowledge of genetics. Genetics gives us the key to our uniqueness, our
personal identity. Or does it? Carol Rovane addresses the question of personal
identity, and asks whether genetics will contribute anything to its resolution.
Her answer is almost certainly not, not unless some extravagant speculations of
Colin McGinn turn out to be correct. Similarly deflationary is Mary Anne
Warrens contribution, in which she asks whether genes might be morally
considerable entities in their own right, and answers in the negative.
In many ways, then, this volume
serves, perhaps despite the intentions of most of the contributors, to demonstrate
that, far from requiring a revolution in philosophical thinking, the issues
raised by genetic require careful analysis using, for the most part, tools we
already have. This is not to deny that genetic research raises new problems.
Human societies have long practiced a crude form of eugenics, in which disabled
infants, or those of the wrong sex, are exposed at birth. Knowledge of the
genome allows us to intervene before
the creation even of the embryo. The question of the permissibility of such
selection is addressed by several contributors to this volume. Also new is the
question of whether genetic material ought to be patentable, which question is
also addressed by several contributors. Even these, however, are not radically
new questions, but variations on ethical issues that have been with us for
Though a careful reading of the
more thoughtful contributions might serve to dampen the enthusiasm for the
gene, the overall impression caused by the accumulation of so many essays, by
so many well-known thinkers, is surely that the genetic revolution is as
significant as its hype would have us believe.
Yet understanding the real significance of genetics, curing that
ignorance of which Alistair Cooke complained and which he inadvertently exemplified,
requires that its limits be clearly comprehended. Nowhere in this volume does
the phrase norm of reaction appear. The norm of reaction of a particular
genotype (the genetic constitution of an individual) is the range of phenotypes
(actual individuals with all their properties) it will give rise to across a
range of environments. A plant with a particular genotype might flourish in one
environment and wilt in another, while another of the same species might fare
well in the second but not the first. This demonstrates not only that the
environment and not just genes is important in defining the properties of all
organisms, but also that there is no such thing as the best genotype, only
better and worse genotypes for particular environments. Given that complex
characteristics are almost always the product of a combination of genes and the
environment, given also that there are very few single gene diseases, we can
intervene in the health of human beings, and in altering their phenotypical
properties, as effectively, and probably more easily, at the environmental
level as at the genetic.
Though this volume contains many
valuable contributions by distinguished authors, I fear that it will do little
to combat the real ignorance of genetics that is prevalent. Indeed, by
suggesting, albeit implicitly, that genetics has an importance beyond its true
significance, it may actually contribute to reinforcing that ignorance. But
genetic ignorance really matters; not only because it leaves us unable to make
informed decisions about research funding, health policies, and the other ways
in which genetics touches our lives, but, more importantly because it
discourages us from paying attention to our environments, to boosting
intelligence through education, to cutting crime by improving the life
prospects of the underclass, and so on. All this suggests that the editors of
this volume have paid too little attention to the one ethical question which is
indeed unique to genetics: the ethics of suggesting, even by omission, that
genes determine who we are and what we may become.
Link: Publishers web
page for book, with Table of Contents.
2002 Neil Levy
Dr Neil Levy is a fellow of the Centre for Applied Philosophy
and Public Ethics at Charles Sturt
University, Australia. He is the author of two mongraphs and over a dozen
articles and book chapters on Continental philosophy, ethics and political
philosophy. He is currently writing a book on moral relativism.