Summer 2006 - Volume 9 Number 3
|Reviews||Liberation Biology: The Scientific and Moral Case for the Biological Revolution
Amherst NY: Prometheus Books, 2005
The 2006 Nobel Prize in medicine was awarded to American geneticists Craig Mello and Andrew Fine for their discovery of a method for silencing genes. Put simply, the two scientists figured out a way to destroy messenger RNA (ribonucleic acid), thereby “turning off” genes that might contribute to all sorts of ailments from diabetes and heart disease to hepatitis and HIV/AIDS. According to Peter Lewis, vice-dean of research at the University of Toronto’s medical school, “the jury is still out” on the practical effects of Mello’s and Fine’s findings in terms of innovative remedies, but the prospects for successful gene therapy are promising.
Mello and Fine published their ground-breaking work in 1998. The chronology is important. Nobel prizes in the sciences are not given merely to reward the solution of an interesting intellectual puzzle; the awards also take into account the importance of the research for human health and wellness. Determining the long-term significance of new knowledge normally takes time. For a prize to be given only eight years after the initial publication of experimental results is remarkable, and betokens the seriousness with which genetics is taken as a key to unlocking the mysteries of biological pathologies and learning of ways to treat them.
At the same time, skeptics and outright critics of genetic manipulation abound and can be found at many points on the political scale. Right-wing opponents of, for example, stem cell research, also point to the moral problem of “playing god,” when addressing such potential issues as “designer babies.” Leftists worry about the effects of “scientism” and the spectre of Monsanto and other corporate conglomerates controlling our food supply and putting profits ahead of public safety. As well, within the scientific community, there are plenty of esteemed geneticists and others who are less worried about a return to the euphoria of the eugenics movement than they are about their contention that biotechnology is just not up to the job.
No one can doubt that the Human Genome Project, for instance, has done significant work in terms of “mapping” our genetic “blueprint,” but much of the hyperenthusiasm for creative human control of our biological future may be premature. We may better understand the mechanics of our genes, but we do not fully comprehend the dynamics of genetic-environmental dialectics. We are, however, becoming more aware that the old questions about nature and nurture do not boil down to arithmetic arrangements between biology and culture (intelligence, aggressiveness, entrepreneurship and good parenting practices) cannot be reduced to some ratio be it 90:10 one way or the other, or just 50:50).
Faced with both normative and empirical disputes which tend to polarize scientists and non-scientists alike, any thoughtful yet accessible contribution to the debate is to be welcomed. If it bolsters our convictions, so be it. If it challenges our beliefs, so much the better.
Ronald Bailey’s Liberation Biology is such a book. Mr. Bailey is a journalist and no one should expect to find deep, much less original, scientific insight in this volume. He is a popularlizer or, better, a cheerleader for an optimistic and enthusiastic embrace of biology and biotechnology. That said, he presents his arguments in favour the “biotech revolution” in clear, comprehensible and occasionally persuasive terms. Some of his cheerful confidence is expressed in language that is a trifle annoying. Chapter titles such as “Forever Young: The Biology and Politics of Immortality” and “Biotech Cornucopia: Improving Nature for Humanity’s Benefit” are examples of an almost adolescent hyperbole. Nonetheless, short of forays into dense, technological journals at one extreme and Archer, Daniels Midland sales brochures at the other, Bailey’s narrative puts the case for positive futurism well enough for use in college classrooms.
There are inevitable problems. Advocates are well advised to “pick their fights” and, if possible, to select their opponents carefully. So, parts of the book seem more like personal attacks on particular people on the other side. As well, certain issues are simply ignored, especially if they might undermine the case for caution.
It is one thing to pick away at the exaggerations of dystopian novelists such as Huxley and Orwell, or to focus on conservative ethics philosopher Leon Kass or neoconservative apostate Francis Fukuyama; it is quite another to pay no heed to political economists who properly link biotechnology to the corporate agenda and who point to severe environmental and health problems associated with, for example, the false promises of genetically modified agriculture, to say nothing of the empirically suspect, economically exploitative and politically authoritarian implications of human genome manipulation and the rush to copyright DNA.
Kass, Fukuyama and others are fair game, but they are also sitting ducks. The argument about bioethics and biopromises on this level does not contribute much of value. Bailey’s book, however is relatively free of actual error, and its apparent naivety ought not to be confused with the conscious dissemination of falsehoods in support of an egregious corporate agenda. It does not descend to the level of propaganda. In fact, it makes for a credible, albeit one-sided, introduction to the discussion of topics that are plainly important.
Teachers who deal with matters of ethics, biology and public policy may well find this an engaging entry point into more serious treatments of the controversy about biotechnology. The book is therefore recommended, on condition that it is not the last one to be read on the subject.
Howard A. Doughty teaches in the Faculty of Applied Arts and Health Sciences at
The views expressed by the authors are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of The College Quarterly or of Seneca College.
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