A review of Genetic Turning Points. By James Peterson.

Eerdmans, 2001.

In the past few decades the advances in bio-technology and genetics have been astounding. The scientific and technical breakthroughs have far out-stripped our ability to consider their ethical ramifications. The developments in the Human Genome project alone are raising many legal, ethical and social issues that need to be carefully thought through.

A number of books have appeared recently which examine these new developments, and their impact of society. One of the newest and most helpful discussions to date is this volume. Peterson has the advantage of not only having a PhD in ethics, but of having worked as a researcher in molecular and clinical genetics. So he knows about both worlds, and is able to deftly bring the two together in this incisive and comprehensive volume.

Writing from a Christian perspective, Peterson is able to discuss in detail the intricacies of genetic engineering without bogging the reader down in an overly technical fashion. He examines a number of the controversial issues: genetic testing, genetic screening, genetic surgery, genetic patents, genetic drugs, and genetic manipulation. While acknowledging the tremendous potential for good that the new genetic frontiers can offer, he is also keenly aware of the potential dangers and pitfalls.

Any one of these issues could warrant a whole book. Take the issue of genetic surgery. Many ethical questions are raised here. What exactly is a person? When we alter the physical attributes of a person, do we alter the person? Are we in fact creating people when we use genetic surgery? Could genetic surgery extend to behavioural issues as well? Peterson does a more than adequate job of laying out the issues and options, keeping the reader informed of the latest in scientific and ethical thinking on the debate.

Indeed, all the latest topics for debate are carefully examined: the Human Genome Project, the possibility of human cloning, and debates about human germline intervention versus somatic cell intervention. And all of this discussion avoids any kind of reductionism, whereby humans are reduced to their genetic make-up. The more we learn about genetics, the more we see their importance. But in spite of their importance, we also know that we are more than our genes. That is where philosophy and theology come in. Science by itself can only give us part of the picture. We need the bigger picture provided by religion and ethics.

Thus the value of this book.  Conversant with the latest medical and bio-medical trends and practices, he is also well-versed in the Christian literature – both Catholic and Protestant. He does an admirable job of bringing these two streams together. This is a real advantage in an age where we tend to have either technical experts with no or little moral understanding, or ethical experts with no or little scientific and biological understanding. Such important issues are ill-served when either component is neglected or omitted.

While both components are nicely wedded in this volume, his conclusions on some matters – such as aspects of IVF – may not necessarily please everyone. And on some issues – for example, when does human life begin? – he carefully lays out the options without fully committing himself (although his sympathies do seem to lie with respect for life from conception). But readers can learn much both of the world of genetics and the realm of religion and ethics in this lively and informed book.

The genetic revolution will not go away. It is important that we all become as informed as possible on the issues involved. The way ahead is uncertain. As Peterson makes clear, the new revolution in genetics can be helpful if we are very careful. But there is a dark side to this development which must be eyed carefully. His final admonitions are worth mentioning: “Genetics does not so much make us automatically better as it can make us more capable. Genetic intervention, like many technologies, frees us from some constraints and increases our abilities and choices. Pursued as an end in itself it is at best a distraction, and when all-consuming, idolatry. If all we manage to do is relieve physical suffering and to control our physical world in the finest degree, our potential will be wasted.”

In the end, the way the genetic revolution transforms life will in large measure be determined by how we, as informed citizens, keep the whole process in check. Run-away technology is always a danger. But new developments in bio-technology can be a blessing as well. Thus it is imperative that we all become as conversant with the issues as possible. Reading this book is a good place to begin.

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