A review of Bioevolution: How Biotechnology is Changing the World. By Michael Fumento.

Encounter Books, 2003.

Rapid developments in technology, especially in medicine, genetics and biochemistry, are easily outstripping careful analysis and social and moral reflection on these issues. While new books on the biotech revolution are poring from the presses, the developments themselves seem to be arriving at an even faster rate.

Thus is it difficult to get comprehensive, reliable and up-to-date discussions of the new advances in biotechnology. But this book comes pretty close to doing just that. Written by a journalist and researcher who has been following the issue for over a decade now, Bioevolution is a very readable and helpful look at a whole range of new developments in the world of biotechnology.

Pretty much all the hot topics are covered here, including gene therapy, stem cell research, genetically modified foods, the Human Genome Project, xenotransplantation, cloning, biopesticides and designer babies.

Given the nature of such topics, it is helpful to discover where an author stands on several fronts. Concerning the debate over whether the new technologies are good or bad, Fumento would side with the optimists, arguing that while the new biotech industry is not without its perils and downside, the advantages nonetheless outweigh the disadvantages. Thus he is no Luddite, but neither is he a techno-utopian. He simply believes much of the developments are good, and good for us.

This reviewer would argue that he perhaps errs too much on the side of optimism and confidence in where this revolution is taking us.  It seems that there are always a number of lurking dangers, including the risk that vested interests may call the shots.  Whether in the form of Big Biotech putting profit ahead of principle, or simply in placing too much faith in science and technology, one can easily get carried away with the adrenalin rush of discovery and progress, while failing to see the ethical and social implications.

A second way of sizing up this book and the author’s perspective is also quite important. Many of the new technologies directly impinge upon questions of life, death and personhood. In the issue of embryonic stem cell research, for example, stem cells can only be extracted from a week old embryo, something many, including this reviewer, consider to be the very early stages of human life, and therefore should not be sacrificed for the possible good of others.

In this debate Fumento is not necessarily in the pro-life camp, but neither is he unaware of the concerns. Indeed, he regards abortion as a “moral  dilemma that swamps any ethical problem I can even conceive of regarding biotech”. This, his only direct mention of abortion, is in fact one of the few times in the book that he does wade into ethical considerations.

Having said that, perhaps one of the strongest chapters in the book, at least from a pro-life point of view, is his chapter on stem cells. Here his investigative journalism skills and his unwillingness to be bluffed by a biased media shine through. He rightly points out that the general public is often unaware that there are in fact two sources of stem cells: one’s own body, and new embryos. He illustrates how some in the biotech world, along with a sympathetic media, are largely responsible for this public confusion.

The truth is we have no success with embryonic stem cells to date, while many hundreds of human cures have been obtained from adult stem cells. And the latter do not involve any ethical dilemmas, as the former do. Fumento does a good job of looking at the politics behind this debate, and how the issue is so easily distorted and misreported.

Fumento ends his book by declaring that the future of biotechnology is “bright indeed”. It may be. But it is also possible that the warnings of Brave New World or 1984 may still be the more accurate way in which history plays itself out in the years ahead. If even half of the somewhat rosy scenarios painted in this volume do eventuate, then there may be some real hope indeed. But if Fumento has erred on the side of being overly optimistic, then troubled days may lie ahead. But wherever the new biotechnologies lead us, this volume does a very good job of unpacking the science, the promise, and the possibilities of the way ahead.

[719 words]

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