Book review: Peter R. Wheale & Ruth M. McNally Genetic Engineering: Catastrophe or Utopia? Harvester (U.K.)/ St. Martin's Press (U.S.A.) 1988.

Journal: Science & Christian Belief 3, 66-67.
Author: Darryl R. J. Macer
The authors of this book are both at Oxford Polytechnic, and are directors of a group called BioInformation (International) Limited. The book is written at a level appropriate for undergraduate students or anyone interested in the regulation of genetic engineering. The first impression is that the ethical issues are not deeply addressed, the emphasis is more on the history of recent techniques in genetics, and on regulation of genetic manipulation.

The first third of the book is titled the Revolution in Genetics and the four chapters cover the discovery of DNA, and the technologies of hybridomas, as well as the genetic engineering industry. The emphasis is on the history of developments up to 1987. There is also a detailed history of the regulation of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in the USA and the UK, with many committees being mentioned. The relaxing of regulations covering recombinant DNA after 1980 is argued to be wrong, as recent genetics has shown how easily DNA can be interchanged between species.

The second third is entitled the Bio-industrial Complex and includes the next four chapters. They discuss the commercialisation of science, and claim that the consequence is that scientists are not neutral but are often found to have commercial interests. Since they wrote this book there has been much publicity over the accusations in Washington of the commercial interests of advisory panels. It does mean that science is wound up with commercial interests and scientists must be careful to remain neutral. They also consider the misuse of the techniques in warfare, an important area to raise public attention.

After setting the theme, don't trust everything scientists say, they then go on to the two central chapters of the book, discussing the regulations controlling microbiology production systems and the question of free release of GMOs. The examples are generally presented accurately and fairly, but stressing the dangers and proposing a 5 year moratorium on release. They disagree with free release of GMOs into the environment until we can be sure that they are safe. There are two ways to interpret the idea that DNA can easily move between species; either the new gene combinations that we introduce would have already been tried in the past, so we have nothing to fear; or that we can not prevent movement of new genes out of our GMOs so we should not introduce them. However, the only way to know is to continue with the trials underway, gradually expanding them until we are sure that they are safe. Since the book was written, there have been two years of experience gathered from free release, and as the number of trials exponentially increase we will still wait for signs of the proposed catastrophe. There has also been changes in the opposition to release, with Denmark allowing a trial, and even West Germany is loosening its opposition. However, the book does contribute to general knowledge of the techniques, in a more neutral way then some writings. Since the time of writing there have been changes in regulation, and reports by a Royal Commission in the UK, and proposals in the European Parliament, and the process continues. This book adds to the debate.

The final two chapters consider briefly human gene therapy and genetic screening. The treatment of them is introductory. These two chapters show less knowledge of current science, and unfortunately were written before the discovery of the technique to analyse DNA from a single cell, which has a major implication in the screening question. Although the section is titled Perfectability versus Responsibility, only a brief mention of ethical issues is given. They do mention the question of genetic determinism, and problems of wide scale genetic screening, and that the authors are working on the implications of genetic screening in the future, for which we will need to wait till the next book.

The final section is a guide to educational resources in the field and is useful as a brief introduction for students to start to think about the consequences of work in genetics. The bibliography is good for introductory sources, and is fairly extensive. There is also a glossary which is necessary for public readers trying to understand the field. The book is good for a general introduction to the science which should help people in forming their opinions, and for the history of regulation. It does not offer much for those seeking any ethical discussion, and the subtitle "Catastrophe or Utopia" is one which only time will answer this. It is necessary to have a cautious and gradual introduction of GMOs in agriculture and industry, and this book makes the point better than the emotional and political outbursts of the antiscience lobby.

To Papers list
To Eubios Ethics Institute book list
To Eubios Ethics Institute home page

Please send comments to Email < >.