A review of The Future is Now: America Confronts the New Genetics, edited by William Kristol and Eric Cohen
Kristol and Cohen have collected 60 speeches, essays, op-eds, and other writings that engage the most pressing questions concerning the moral and political implications of modern biotechnology. The opening excerpt from Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, along with a handful of older essays from the 1930s through the 1970s, give the subject historical perspective. Most of the selections are in response to recent scientific breakthroughs, such as the cloning in 1997 of Dolly the sheep, which sparked intense public debate.
Cloning, eugenics, gene therapy, stem cell research, and related subjects are all examined, with a nice range of moral, political, theological, and philosophical perspectives. The general reader gets an adequate understanding of the technological developments without being overwhelmed by jargon.
A heavy dose of congressional testimony looks off-putting in the table of contents, but the editors have excised mere chest-thumping so that these excerpts usually run no more than a few pages. Greater space is given to serious magazine and journal essays—the most thoughtful by Leon Kass, Adam Wolfson, and Gilbert Meilaender. The substantive entries lean toward those advising a moratorium, or at least a prudent pause, in further research and experiments, which is neither surprising nor unfair. Caution always has more to say than heedless "progress."
The book has the virtue of comprehensiveness, with the corresponding vice of some repetitiveness; there is likely too much here for the general reader to plow through cover to cover. But it is the kind of book one peruses and consults with profit. Morally serious people will be grateful to have this collection on hand as America faces the challenge nicely stated in the editors' closing reflections:
"Every people and every generation should have the freedom to govern itself by reflection and choice—but to do so without the hubristic belief that self-government means perfect government, or that a nation of self-made men means creating a post-human civilization of man-made selves."