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by Justine Burley and John Harris (editors)
Blackwell Publishers, 2002
Review by Neil Levy, Ph.D. on Apr 21st 2002

A Companion to Genethics

In a recent ‘Letter from America’, Alistair Cooke commented on the controversy surrounding President Bush’s decision to allow limited federal funding for research on stem cells. The irony, Cooke remarked, was that despite all the fuss 99% of people don’t 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 Warren’s 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 centuries.

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: Publisher’s 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.