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The Impact of the Gene
From Mendel's Peas to Designer Babies
By Colin Tudge
Hill and Wang
375 pgs. $US27, C$43

The growth of science

By Steven Martinovich
web posted September 10, 2001

The Impact of the GenePerhaps illustrating the quickening pace of science, it was only in February 1997 that researchers at the Roslin Institute in Scotland announced the birth of Dolly, a sheep that was the first mammal cloned from an adult. Only five years later in August 2001, Italian professor Severino Antinori and U.S. researcher Panos Zavos announced they would clone a human being by transferring DNA from the nuclei of living cells into human eggs in November to create a human embryo, which would be implanted into a woman's uterus.

If opponents of human cloning can blame anyone for these developments, it may be ninetieth century monk Gregor Mendel, the world's first geneticist. With an elegant experiment involving peas, Mendel was the first person to establish the basic laws of heredity, laws which Colin Tudge, author of The Impact of the Gene: From Mendel's Peas to Designer Babies, states are the basic principles from which modern genetics is drawn from.

As Tudge writes the story, Mendel's experiments were breathtaking in their simplicity but were ignored by contemporaries like Charles Darwin, only to be rediscovered decades after his death. By combining the work of the two men, it was learned that evolution works at the level of the gene and not the individual, as many lay people still believe, and allowed scientists in the early Twentieth Century to create the science and language of modern biology. From there, Tudge embarks on a lively journey to illustrate that, as he states, all genetics are footnotes to Mendel.

Along the way he defends evolutionary psychology and explains the difficulty in making a "better" human being (wheat breeders go through millions of offspring to come up with good combinations). While it is technically possible to create a designer baby, nothing is impossible after all, it won't likely be very feasible considering the monumental challenge of understanding the millions, perhaps even billions, of genetic factors that influence something like intelligence. Ultimately, says Tudge, it is "foolish" for us to tinker with ourselves given it took five million years for the modern human being to evolve. If our knowledge isn't absolute, and we can never be sure it is, interfering with processes we may not understand can bring repercussions we may rue.

That will probably be good news for those opposed to genetically engineering human beings. Cloning a human being is a relatively simple procedure. Simply put, it is merely the copy of genetic material, something that happens automatically in nature. Despite recent reports that cloning human beings may be easier - relatively speaking - then cloning sheep, creating, or at least modifying, at the genetic level is a remarkably complex task that may not be possible until the advent of quantum computing.

For such a enjoyable effort, his epilogue is a severe and completely unexpected disappointment. Focusing on the ethical challenges that biotechnology raises, Tudge argues quite correctly that as our power grows, so does our responsibility, and that our understanding of what we can do and what can be done will never be complete. From there, however, Tudge veers off into odd territory, arguing that we should determine moral absolutes with the help of "prophets" who would frame the moral premises we will debate. These prophets, who may or may not be people of religion, would essentially use a religious framework because of its emotional appeal, something Tudge seems to argue is more powerful to the average person then rational argument.

Moreover, Tudge argues that our misgivings about biotechnology are valuable because they are intuitive: a fear that going too far will provoke the penalties of hubris. Mere human happiness, says Tudge, is not the primary criterion to be used in decision-making. Tudge uses those arguments to press for controls of the free market (a "limited and blunt" instrument) to make sure that the benefits, if any, go to more than those who can pay.

Of course, if human happiness isn't the primary criterion - presumably things like ridding the world of genetic disorders and allowing the childless to extend their lineages are moral actions - and the free market is not the most efficient way to provide that benefit (much more valuable commodities - such as food - seem to be spread around quite well), then pursuing genetic technology is at best a mixed blessing. For most of Impact of the Gene, Tudge seems to argue that it will bless us, only at the end to seemingly step back. It diminishes an otherwise fine effort. ESR

Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario.

Buy Impact of the Gene: From Mendel's Peas to Designer Babies at Amazon.com for only $18.90 (30% off)

Other related articles: (open in a new window)

  • Much ado about human cloning by Jackson Murphy (July 2, 2001)
    Jackson Murphy reports on the debate over human cloning in the United States. The debate is raising some big questions
  • Darwin at his very best by Steven Martinovich (November 1, 1999)
    Steve Martinovich takes on the task of defending the rather controversial idea of women selling their eggs
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