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In Context #20 (Fall 2008, p. 10); copyright 2008 by The Nature Institute

Our Book Reviewed

As we noted in our last issue, Craig and Steve's new book, Beyond Biotechnology: The Barren Promise of Genetic Engineering, was published in the spring by the University Press of Kentucky. If the authors had been asked then, "What journal would you most hope to be reviewed in?" the answer might well have been Nature Biotechnology. And now, to their admitted surprise, exactly such a review has appeared. Of course, the next thing the authors might have hoped for was a tolerably good review. As it turns out, the review surpassed all hopes.

The reviewer was Lenny Moss, a biologist-turned-philosopher at the UK's University of Exeter. Noting that "the moral of Holdrege and Talbott's story is that biological context is important," he goes on to observe that "too much of the public debate about biotech has been merely a shallow volley between those working two sides of what amounts to essentially the same street - the gene-tech boosters and/or self-styled 'transhumanists' on the one side and the pious bioconservatives on the other. To the extent to which both sides share the same, largely tacit, reductionist vision of the organism, Holdrege and Talbott proffer a plague upon both their houses."

After briefly limning various topics and contentions presented in the book, Moss asks why a book published in 2008 should ignore such hot topics as embryonic stem cells. Answering his own question, he writes:

Holdrege and Talbott never meant to provide a detailed examination of the state of the art(s). It is the tacit, yet efficacious, vision associated with the assumptions of a reductionist genetics that they are interested in leading us beyond. Living organisms are irreducibly normative systems - susceptible of doing better or worse, of flourishing or not. Understanding how material entities can be normatively (that is, adaptively) self-organizing, in the absence of comfort-food concepts such as that of the "genetic program," is a challenge that even few contemporary philosophers have found the intestinal fortitude to face. While we in the age of "systems biology" may well all agree in principle that we need to capture the full complexity of the organism in order to understand the contingent and changeable role of its parts, these are hollow words in the absence of an ability to perceive the distinctive full-bodied presence, or as Holdrege and Talbott would prefer - meaning - of a particular kind of living being.

And then his conclusion:

Once upon a time there was a German Romantic poet and an accomplished scientist named Goethe who believed that our aesthetic intuitions of nature, coming from the nature of the natural beings that we are, could provide our sciences with cognitive resources and guidance. Under the heading of a "delicate empiricism" the authors ultimately offer a well- written and engaging attempt at reconstructing just such a context- sensitive approach to biology that can be relevant to our contemporary needs. I would strongly encourage the adoption of this book as core reading for all incoming biotechnology, bioethics and philosophy of biology students alike, albeit with a minor twiddling of the title to that of Before Biotechnology.

You'll find the complete review in the September 2008 issue of Nature Biotechnology. To order the book, go to The Nature Institute bookstore.

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