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by Glenn McGee
William Morrow, 2003
Review by Kevin Purday on Jul 12th 2004

Beyond Genetics

After an introduction in which the author explains how his fascination with genetics arose from his being an adopted child and thus not like his adoptive parents, there are eight chapters each dealing with an aspect of the genetics revolution. The first chapter is historical and is a potted summary of how people have regarded heredity, the rise of the science of genetics from Mendel onwards, the American, British and Nazi eugenic movements, the discovery of the double helix and the contemporary ability to cut, splice and transfer DNA. Chapter two is about the transformation of genetics into genomics – the technology of manipulating genetic material. This is an interesting section relating the computerisation of genetics and in particular the race between the public sector and Craig Venter's private Celera Genomics to map the human genome. The resultant map of the human genome was shocking when it became clear that humans have only twice as much genetic material as a worm and fewer genes than some other animals. It was also an unpleasant surprise for would-be eugenicists that there appears to be a huge genetic diversity within so-called 'races', as much if not more diversity in fact than seems to exist between said 'races'.  In fact the genome project supports the view that we are one species and not several races. The third chapter pricks several of the myths surrounding genetics. It covers the relationship between genotype and phenotype and explains that we are not genetically precisely as we were conceived – immune hijacking, amplification and hypermutability all play a role in altering our original genetic state. This section is also very good in explaining to the layman all about DNA, RNA and single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs).

Chapter four starts to get down to the ethical problems with a vengeance.  A federally funded researcher, Mark Skolnick, discovered a gene linked to a predisposition to develop breast cancer. He patented his discovery before publishing the data and set up a company, Myriad, to test for the presence of the breast cancer gene BRCA-1. However, the real ethical problems for McGee lies in the fact that women are tested for the presence of BRCA-1 (and subsequently BRCA-2), have little or no genetic counselling and then have to make a choice as to whether to undergo radical mastectomy, hysterectomy and oopherectomy.  Further ethical problems surface when it comes to the use insurance companies may make of genetic information. The whole area seems fraught with problems but the author maintains an air of jolly optimism about the possibility that we may all soon be able to test ourselves for predispositions towards, among other things, obesity and thus take preventive measures.

Chapter five is about the fact that gene-therapy and its likely successor, stem-cell research, are under-regulated and a nightmare of potential ethical problems.  The most likely way of acquiring stem-cells to avoid any chance of future rejection at the transplant stage is to clone the patient and then to destroy the embryo at five days of age so as to be able to 'harvest' the relevant cells.  For the good of the human race, we obviously need to be very careful not to let the fact that we have the means to do certain things lead us to the assumption that it is therefore good for us to do them.

Chapter six is about genetically modified food.  McGee points out that very little food these days is entirely as unaided nature produced it.  He points out the dangers of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) if the modified content may cause allergies. He also discusses the environmental problems associated with modifications crossing the species divide and ending up where they were never intended to be. He also has a very short section on the ethical issues raised by a small number of companies holding virtually all the patents in agricultural biotechnology.

Chapter seven is about the whole patenting problem – the fact that companies are gobbling up the patents to discoveries about my genes and yours. The disinterestedness, communalism, freedom and peer-review tradition of science is fast disappearing under the pressure of the bottom line, the financial bottom line. The author is concerned about this but, on the whole, he thinks that patenting genetic discoveries is acceptable, necessary and is a trend that is very unlikely to be reversed.

The last major chapter, chapter eight, is all about subfertility, infertility and the enormous range of solutions available to sort out these problems. The author raises very interesting questions and asks what sort of human discourse can take place between 'parents' and child that will enable her/him to emotionally grasp her/his relationship with them and thus carve out a place in the world.

The conclusion is a reversion to the dizzy optimism that we may soon be able to insert a tiny amount of our tissue into a testing kit which we then plug into our new generation laptop and, lo and behold, we have the information at our fingertips to enable us to plan and organise our lives, avoid potential pitfalls and make the most of our genetic make-up.

As was implied at the beginning of this review, the eight chapters appear as semi-independent units but all dealing with some aspect of genetics.  The author tries to be meticulously fair to both sides of the ethical arguments and is true to the rhetorical tradition of being able to argue for either of two opposing points.  His fascination for gimmicks and especially hugely powerful laptops, however, shines through and it is the individual's future ability to use genetic investigations for her/himself which the author sees as the holy grail of genomics.

The book will certainly become a required text on university bio-ethics courses and should be read as part of the ethics programme in philosophy courses.  However, for this reviewer there is one area which the book hardly addresses and that is the whole problem of trust. Surveys have shown that the public generally mistrusts politicians, journalists and numerous other groups. Doctors, especially General Practitioners, are still widely trusted and respected. Do you, kind reader, trust Celera Genomics, Myriad, Monsanto, DuPont, Syngenta and Dow Chemical to do what is best for you, me and the human race or do you think that they are governed solely by the profit motive? Until we can trust those bodies dealing with genetic engineering, my vote on ethical issues is not going to give them more power over the future of the human race or the world in which we live, from which we get our food and which we will bequeath to our children's children.



© 2004 Kevin Purday


Kevin Purday is Head of the Cambridge International High School  in Jordan and is currently a distance-learning student on the Philosophy & Ethics of Mental Health course in the Philosophy Dept. at the University of Warwick.