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Genes and Morality: New Essays
  1. Mary Seller
  1. Professor of Developmenal Genetics, Division of Medical and Molecular Genetics GKT, Guy's Hospital, London SE1 9RT

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    Edited by Veikko Launis, Juhani Pietarinen and Juha Raikka, Amsterdam, Atlanta, Rodopi, 1999, 199 pages, US$36.

    As developments in contemporary genetics continue, so books on the ethics of genetic research and its applications appear with increasing frequency. The problem is that while genetic research itself daily produces the most interesting new developments, once the ethics of genetics has been reasonably delineated, as it has by now, there is increasingly little new to say. This means that many “new” books on the subject are in fact really only re-statements of what has already been said. This is precisely where Genes and Morality stands. That is not to say that it is not a good book. It is authoritative, easy to read, and pleasantly jargon-free, but it covers the familiar ground of genetic screening, privacy of genetic information, genetic health and disease, patenting, the human genome project, and so on. This is a disparate collection of essays, and the fact that it is a compilation of papers presented at a meeting means that it suffers from a lack of coherence. One always wishes one had had the opportunity to hear the discussion that took place after presentation of the papers.

    The book is also rather odd in that the first part, some 50 pages, is devoted to four authors criticising the arguments and ideas put forward by John Harris in his book, Wonderwoman and Superman. John Harris has been a pioneer in the field of the theoretical aspects of genetic bioethics. His liberal conclusions are not accepted by all, but he is so well regarded that this critique is judged to be justified. Nevertheless, these fifty pages do assume prior knowledge of Harris's books in order to make sense of what is being argued. On the other hand, these chapters do introduce the methodological concepts and theoretical issues central to genethics. Once again, however, the themes are familiar: when does a human become a human being, abortion, and consequentialist and utilitarian principles. Towards the end of the book there is a unique contribution by Christoph Rehmann-Sutter: an intriguing exploration of Mary Shelley's story of Dr Frankenstein, and what various film and stage producers have subsequently made of it, and an analysis of its relevance to modern biotechnology. The book is worth getting just for this.

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