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Edited by T Murray, M Mehlman. John Wiley and Sons, 2000, £370, pp 1132. ISBN 0–471–17612–5
This encyclopaedia is an important and comprehensive resource that is likely to be of value to a wide range of academic users for many years to come. It is particularly useful as a starting point for background research by bioethicists writing about topics in genetics and biotechnology. The collection takes a broad view of biotechnology, ranging from core topics such as genetic enhancement and the ethics of genetics research, to a series of sections that take the form of national reports on the political, ethical, and regulatory contexts covering genetically modified organisms. One potential problem for any reference work of this kind is getting out of date, given the changing nature of biotechnological research. The articles in the encyclopaedia that we read were well written and informed, and in the main looked likely to be relevant for a while to come.
The first thing that strikes you about the two volumes of this encyclopaedia is that they are very well made, attractive, solidly bound books. This impression is reinforced by first use of the encyclopaedia. A great deal of care has gone into making this reference work accessible and a pleasure to use. Two very minor additions that would have increased this ease of use would have been to add page numbers to the list of headings and a contents page to the second volume. Nevertheless as a whole the collection was extremely easy to navigate.
The sections that we reviewed all start with a summary of the points to be discussed and then proceed to a general overview of the technology or history of the topic. For those topics on very contentious issue there is a discussion of the major arguments for and against. The headings generally have good references to other sources that will be useful for those wanting to know more.
These are very large volumes so we have based this review on a selection of its headings. Some of them are very good indeed. Dan Brock’s heading, “Cloning, ethics” is the ideal introduction to the topic and one that would be useful as a required reading. Similarly positive things can be said about Robert Nelson’s heading “Gene therapy, ethics, germ cell gene transfer”. The section by Georgia Wiesner, Susan Lewis, and Jennifer Scott on “Human subjects research, ethics and pedigree studies” was also excellent and well informed—both from a clinical point of view and also from a bioethics perspective. David Wasserman’s heading on “Behavioural genetics” is also a fascinating essay. The discussion of research into the XYY karyotype and the MAO mutation provide an excellent background to the section. Again, this section would be the ideal introduction for people wanting to do further work on his topic.
Overall, the editors have assembled an impressive cast, with many of the American names that you would expect to be involved in such a project. This does bring us to our first minor grumble: there are about a hundred contributors to this volume but only three are from the United Kingdom. This absence cannot be due to a lack of UK expertise and it is slightly disappointing that there is no contribution from writers based in the UK such as Ruth Chadwick, John Harris, or Søren Holm. This does raise the question of how attractive this volume is likely to be to the readers who are not in North America. In addition to the majority of authors, being from the USA much of the public policy and legal discussion in the volumes is US centred. It is hard to see how this could have been avoided, given the authors, however, it does mean that the researcher using this text will need to be careful to ensure that they have also used supplementary texts covering the rest of the world.
Given that these two volumes cost £370 it’s unlikely that any but the most enthusiastic and wealthy individual will be able to buy the encyclopaedia. This is primarily a collection for libraries.