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Book Review - Genes
by Gordon Graham
Routledge, 2002
Review by Rob Loftis
Jun 23rd 2003

Gordon Graham is a philosopher at the University of Aberdeen with a wide range of interests, including aesthetics, Christian ethics, and the philosophy of history. This cogent little book exemplifies his wide-ranging intellect by looking at current controversies over genetic technologies in the broader context of genetic and evolutionary science and the role of technology in post-Enlightenment society. The book is targeted to a broad audience, who I think will find it appealing. Furthermore, it presents a couple of arguments that deserve wider appreciation in the general public. Like many books interested in the big picture, however, its presentation of the details is often inaccurate, misleading, or oversimplified.

The public has been presented recently with a barrage of new medical technologies, all involving genetics or reproduction in some vaguely troubling way. The headlines are full of talk of stem cell research, cloning, gene therapy, and genetic engineering. Often these technologies blur into each other into a vision of a coming brave, but somewhat vague, new world. Graham does not attempt to survey this confluence of technologies. Instead he focuses on one central concept in this confluence, the gene, and attempts to put it in its proper historical and social context. To some extent, his target is simply genetic reductionism, the false belief that genes completely determine a person's fate. This is an important target, but one that has already been thoroughly discussed by biologists and philosophers like Richard Lewinton, Ruth Hubbard, and Evelyn Fox Keller. Graham's work is broader than any of these thinkers. He begins by discussing the role of science in modern society, contemplating the images of Einstein and Frankenstein, and reminding us that technology cannot simply be viewed as applied modern science. His second chapter discusses genetic explanation and attempts to refute the reductionist ideas he sees in Richard Dawkins and his allies. Dawkins's program, as Graham sees it, is a totalizing Darwinism, which assumes that all traits, including human mental traits, admit of evolutionary explanation and hence are under genetic control. (This is a huge oversimplification of Dawkins, but not perhaps of some of his followers.) Graham's goal in challenging Dawkins is not just to deflate some of the hype around genes and genetic technology. He wants to restrict the authority of science to provide some rhetorical space for his ethical ideas.

Once Graham has done this, he outlines his stance on particular genetic technologies. He turns out to be surprisingly tolerant, if somewhat vague. He sees no threat in giving insurance companies access to genetic information, for instance. This will not create an under class of the genetically uninsurable in part because "if there is no risk to the insured, there in no motivation to take out insurance policies, with the result that there is no profit in selling insurance of this sort" (107). When it comes to widespread genetic screening, he writes "the real issues lie with concrete proposals in concrete circumstances and the proper examination of these issues will have to deal with matters of fact and probability that cannot be ascertained in the abstract" (102-103).

The major test for any work of popular philosophy is not how reviewers with Ph.D.s receive it, but whether a lay audience finds it accessible and informative. While I have not conducted any kind of broad marketing survey, I can report the reactions of a few lay people. Last semester I assigned this book to my 1000 (introductory) level medical ethics class at a large state university in the southern U.S. After we had finished reading the book, I asked my students to write short reviews of it. I told them that I would use their reviews as material in my own review, and suggested a few questions they should address. Although the results of this assignment can hardly be considered a formal survey, they do indicate that students were satisfied with the book. Of the 47 students responding, 81% said they learned from the book. (They said things like, "I find that I did leave with more knowledge than I came in with.") Fifty-nine percent said the book presented the background for genetic technologies clearly. ("This is a very easy reading book.") Interestingly, though, the students who specifically mentioned the writing, as opposed to the general presentation of the facts, have a different view. The majority of them (52%) found the book unclear. ("Graham writes in a manner that becomes somewhat boring and hard to follow after a little while.") On the whole, however, I think the book can reach a popular audience.

I'm glad a popular audience can appreciate this book, because it presents at least two ideas that should be heard by a popular audience. The first is Graham's account of what it means to "play God." Nearly any new technology, especially medical technologies, can be challenged by saying it amounts to "playing God." This charge is even leveled by people who aren't otherwise particularly religious. The problem is that no one can figure out what this accusation really means, unless it is simply a general admonition against hubris. Graham examines several possible interpretations, both religious and secular, and then offers his own reading. "Playing God," according to Graham, happens when one judges from an outside perspective that someone's life is not worth living. For instance, many fertility clinics engage in a practice called preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD), in which a large number of embryos are fertilized in vitro, and only those with desirable genetic characteristics are implanted. This could be viewed as playing God by Graham's definition: if one discards embryos that carry the genes for Huntington's, for instance, one is saying from an outside perspective that the life of someone with Huntington's would not be worth living. This is a useful understanding of playing God, because it captures a lot of the intuitions surrounding playing God, leads to clear judgments in particular circumstances, and can be used in a secular context. My students certainly found it appealing: without prompting, 40% of them mentioned Graham's definition of playing God as a highlight of the book. Only one student disliked the definition.

The other idea that I think deserves a broader hearing is an argument against granting an unimplanted human embryo sitting in a Petrie dish significant moral status. The argument is not original to Graham, but he does give it more of the publicity it deserves. Essentially what the argument says is that one of the most popular reasons for granting moral status to unborn fetuses doesn't protect unimplanted embryos. By this argument, the magic line in the development of a human between creatures with moral status and creatures without is not conception, but implantation. There are two major reasons for granting a fetus the same moral status we grant persons like your or me. The first, embraced by the Catholic Church in the papal encyclical Evangelium Vitae, is based on what the fetus actually is right now: a living member of the human species. The second argument, which is more often heard from Protestants, is based not on what the fetus is, but what it could be: an adult with all the properties of adults we find morally significant. For the second argument, what matters about the fetus is not its current state, but its potential. The potentiality account has its appeal--the contrasting argument based on species membership looks a lot like granting moral status on the basis of race or nationality--but it quickly leads to some tricky metaphysics. The problem is that the fetus not only needs to have the potential to become an adult, it must have the potential to become an adult who is the same person as the fetus. The fetus must possess what Jim Stone, a supporter of the potentiality account of moral status, calls "strong potentiality," the potential to change without loosing fundamental identity.

Now it is possible to develop a consistent account of personal identity that grants moral status to the fetus, but it breaks down when it comes to embryos that have not implanted in the side of a woman's uterus, an event that takes place 5 to 14 days after conception. Prior to implantation, the embryo is not fully individuated: it can split into twins, and twins can merge into a single individual. In fact, every cell of the very early embryo is totipotent: each can on its own become an adult human being. This means that an eight cell embryo is not a potential adult--it is eight potential adults. This alone makes the moral status issue difficult. How can we grant moral status to all eight of these potential adults? Are we obligated to split them all off to give each adult a chance to come into being? What happens when the cells we split off divide? The issue becomes worse when we think about personal identity. If an early embryo splits into two embryos, and twins are born, are either of these twin babies organisms that once were the embryo? If one of the twins is the same individual as the embryo, then the other must be as well. But that means that the twins are the same individual, and that makes no sense. The only alternative is to say that strong potentiality, the kind of potentiality that might bring moral status, begins at implantation, not conception.

I don't think this argument about strong potentiality will ever catch on. Pro-life groups have so much political and emotional capital invested in the conception line that moving it forward even a few days is unthinkable. Pro-choice groups, on the other hand, have no desire to acknowledge any moral status in the embryo prior to viability, if not birth itself, so they have little desire to press the argument on the pro-life camp. It is nearly inconceivable that a piece of tricky metaphysics could ever sway public opinion on an issue so bound up in religion, the place of women in society, and sex. Nevertheless, Graham spends time pushing this argument, and kudos to him for trying.

Graham's stance on unimplanted embryos matches law in the UK, which allows experimentation with human embryos prior to the fourteenth day of development. In this, and many other ways, Graham's perspective is distinctly European. One of the things that seemed to perplex my students was the fact that Graham even bothered to talk about the genetic engineering of food. Having not experienced firsthand the effects of bovine spongiform encephalopathy and Foot and Mouth disease, few are sensitized to dangers to the food supply. In fact, they don't seem to think that the genetic engineering of nonhumans belongs to the same category as the genetic engineering of humans. The difference in attitude between Graham and my students is broader than that, though. Graham assumes that the zeitgeist is built around ever increasing mechanization and dominance of a reductionist scientific worldview. His chief goal is to provide some sort of bulwark against this encroaching scientism--if not a religious bulwark, at least a humanist one. But the zeitgeist here in America is hardly one of reductionist scientism. According to the Gallup organization 41% of Americans describe themselves as "born again" Christians. Sixty-eight percent of Americans believe in the devil. (Here in the South that number goes up to 79%). According to a Newsweek poll, 40% believe that the world will end in a battle between Jesus and the Antichrist at a place called Armageddon. By contrast, according to Gallup, only about half of Americans believe in evolution. In a world focused on sin and salvation, there is little room for the idea that humans are survival machines for genes to get a foothold. Graham was simply talking right past a number of my students.

The major problem with Graham's book, and the thing that keeps me from recommending it wholeheartedly, is his poor grasp of the details of genetic and evolutionary science. The book contains one major gaffe. One page 126 he refers to the contrast between "germ line" and "stem cell" modifications, and claims that while the former can be passed on to future generations, the latter cannot. The distinction he is thinking of is not between germ cells and stem cells, but germ cells and somatic cells. A germs cell is a sperm or egg or any tissue that will create a sperm or egg. These cells form the continuity between generations. A somatic cell is any non-germ cell. A somatic cell is different than a stem cell. A stem cell is a cell that is endlessly self-renewing and capable of giving rise to many other kinds of cells. Some stem cells, including embryonic stem cells, are actually germ cells, because they can differentiate into sperm or eggs. It may have been an editing error that replaced "somatic cell" with "stem cell," but still, someone should have caught this.

There are other, more significant problems, however. His account of genetic screening does not clearly distinguish between genetic screening and genetic alternation. He begins his section on genetic screening by describing an example of genetic alteration. He then defines genetic screening as the testing of an individual's genes, and returns to talking about genetic alteration, as if the only purpose for testing an individual's genes is to alter them. There are also problems with his use of nonscientific and nonmedical language. He identifies creationism with a particular subset of creationist beliefs, the so-called "young Earth" creationists who believe that the Earth is only around 10,000 years old. This is misleading, at least from a historical perspective. According to historian Ron Numbers, until the early 1960s, the only creationists who denied the true age of the Earth were confined to the Seventh day Adventist movement. Furthermore, the current leaders of the creationist movement--Philip Johnson, Bill Dembski, Michael Behe, etc.--all accept the age of the Earth. Now going by the label "intelligent design," their program only asserts that some supernatural force must have had a hand in shaping the human species. This belief is still unscientific and unfounded, but one should know the content of beliefs one is denying.

Graham's odd treatment of creationism parallels an odd treatment of Darwinism. Although he criticizes the totalizing Darwinism associated with Richard Dawkins, he seems unaware of the alternative visions of Darwinism associated with Stephen J. Gould, Niles Eldridge, and others. Instead, his example of an alternative to Dawkins is the creationist Michael Behe. Behe is not presented as a creationist, on the grounds that he is not a young Earth creationist. Instead Graham portrays Behe as the main alternative to Dawkins' vision of Darwinism, although Graham does admit that Behe "overstates his case" (65). In general, there is something odd about spending a chapter criticizing one of our era's most eminent Darwinians (Dawkins), while barely mentioning his equally eminent rival (Gould).

I will probably assign portions of this book again, specifically the chapter on playing God. I won't assign the whole thing, however, largely because of the lack of clear and accurate detail. Similarly, I cautiously recommend this book to lay readers, largely on the strength of the chapter on playing God. On the whole, Genes: A Philosophical Inquiry is a useful addition to the ever-growing debate over the meaning of the human genome.


2003 Rob Loftis

Rob Loftis, Ph.D., Department of Philosophy, Auburn University