A path to the permissible

Clones, Genes and Immorality - Frankenstein's Footsteps - Genetic Engineering, Dream or Nightmare?

May 29, 1998

These three books, though all concerned with what has come to be called bioethics, represent three different approaches. Jon Turney writes as an historian of ideas, John Harris as a philosopher, and Mae-Wan Ho as a prophet of doom.

Turney lectures in science communication at University College London, and I would imagine that he is extremely good at the work. Frankenstein's Footsteps is a serious and fascinating contribution to cultural history, concerned not so much with the development of biological sciences since the early 19th century, as with how people outside the laboratory saw this development; but this story could not be told without a sound and authoritative grasp of what was actually going on, and Turney inspires confidence in this regard.

Anyone even remotely concerned with the new biotechnology must be struck by the constant references, by those who fear it, to Frankenstein's Monster, and to a brave new world. We are familiar, that is to say, with the power of these myths. Yet, especially for those who remember the end of the second world war, it is easy to assume that the fear inspired by biologists is of fairly recent origin. We may think it all started 20 years ago, with the birth of the first test-tube baby. But this name was coined much earlier; and fears have increased steadily during the century as genetic knowledge grew. The birth of Dolly the lamb has perhaps introduced a new phase in a drawn out cultural process. It is true that it was the physicist who was the bogey figure after the war; it was the bomb that we feared, and C. P. Snow's "Two Cultures" were the cultures of the humanities pitted against the physical sciences. But, like those who talk of the troubles in Ireland beginning in the 1970s, those who regard the fear of biologists as of recent origin are debarred from understanding the depth of the feelings involved. It is instructive, therefore, to be taken through the origins of Mary Shelley's story, and the variations on it that followed, and especially through Aldous Huxley's horrible vision of the future, published in 1932. It is especially useful to be reminded that in Brave New World one of the horrors was the production of embryos outside the uterus; and of course the true myth of Nazi genetic policies, and their use of humans for experimentation, have added to the demonology so that, for those against research in molecular biology, it is enough to mention these symbolic horrors to render argument unnecessary.

It is impossible wholly to destroy these potent myths and symbols. Yet Turney is surely right to suggest that we must try to escape from their influence, and begin to distinguish fact from fiction, so that we may think more dispassionately about new discoveries and new applications of them. The blurring of the distinction between fact and fiction has the curious effect that, though everyone is prepared to be horrified by new research, in general terms, much of it having been symbolically presented already as horrendous by science fiction, yet when research has an outcome in the real world, (such as the cloning of Dolly the lamb in 1997), there is widespread amazement. As one journalist put it: "Now the cloning of humans is within reach, and society as a whole is caught with its ethical pants down.'' To make responsible ethical decisions it is necessary, as Turney argues, to consider not broad concepts, the material of myth, but the details of the techniques, and of their possible applications. To allow oneself to be driven time and again into the arms of Frankenstein's Monster is inevitably to polarise the debate. If we want to regulate the applications of research rather than prohibit them, we must try to avoid these symbolic cliches, and consider new results carefully, one at a time. Lumping together things that differ can never be a sound basis for moral judgement.

John Harris has updated his book Wonderwoman and Superman, published in 1992, to cover ethical debates about, for example, human cloning, both the cloning of human tissue, and the cloning of embryos to produce new human beings. While the joins of old material to new are sometimes visible, the enterprise was well worth undertaking. The book will be very useful to bioethics students. It is comprehensive, intelligible, and brisk, though not offensive, in its way of dealing with views opposed to those of Harris himself.

In his introduction, Harris sets out the limits of his subject matter. He is concerned only with the applications, and possible future applications of human biotechnology. He is interested, that is to say, not in the wide issues of the genetic modification of cells, plants, insects or animals other than human animals. Concentrating on what he regards as a fact - that now for the first time we can change the nature of human beings - he demands that we recognise the need for informed moral decisions about whether, and in what ways, such changes should be undertaken.

Such philosophical studies always have to face the problem of how far to take account of the possible future. Moral judgements may be thought to lose their force if they are applied to things that may never happen. One may respond to this in two ways: first, even purely fanciful hypotheses may be used to expose moral principles. Thus Plato in The Republic used the myth of Gyges's ring, which rendered its wearer invisible, to explore the nature of an internal vision of the good which might prevent someone who wore the ring from acting badly, even though he would never be found out. In this case the fact that the ring did not and could not exist is not an objection to the form of argument. Second, we know enough about what is possible now to be able with confidence to foresee at least some of the developments. We can be sure, for example, that if any mammals can be cloned by nuclear substitution, as Dolly was, (however difficult the procedure, and statistically unlikely to succeed) then this procedure can be applied to humans as well. And so it is perfectly proper to look ahead to possible uses for such a procedure, applied to humans, and to the possible moral objections. It is probably to the first chapter of his book, where Harris discusses this issue, that most readers will first turn. But this is by no means the only moral issue that he addresses. His arguments are equally clear and forceful when he considers research, using human embryos; whether there can be such a thing, in law, as a "wrongful birth", whether germ-line cell or only somatic cell genetic manipulation should be undertaken, the uses that should be made of genetic screening. These are all the by now familiar subjects of bioethics. Harris brings to the discussion of all of them a philosophical habit of mind: clarity, boldness in thinking up examples, the recognition of possible objections and counter-arguments. In every case he applies the principle of utility: would this application of research cause more benefit than harm? He has no recourse to myth.

Ho's book is of wider scope. She is concerned not only with human genetics, but with the genetic modification of plants and animals and its commercial exploitation. She has no desire to avoid mythology, or rather demonology. What she fears most is the "unholy alliance" between commercial interests and academic institutions. Thus, of the human genome project she writes:

"It may have been a brilliant political move to capture research funds and, at the same time, to revive a flagging pharmaceutical industry, but its scientific content was suspect from the first." However, her real objection is not so much that the scientific content is poor, as that what motivated it in the first place was genetic determinism, "the idea that organisms are determined by their genetic make-up". There is, she argues, a necessary connection between Darwinian biology married to Mendelian genetics, and capitalist competition. "Genetic determinism and capitalist economic theory stem from the same roots in 19th-century imperial Britain, which they served remarkably well''. It is not surprising, then, that she directs her polemic equally at geneticists and the pharmaceutical industry.

There is everything to be said for reminding us that genes alone do not constitute a person. We know, if only from our knowledge of identical twins, that people are differentiated one from another not only by their genes but by their physical separateness and by their environment, from their life as embryos onwards. It may be that those engaged in the Human Genome Project are more prone to forget this than the rest of us. But to believe that it is worth trying to find the genes responsible for devastating monogenetic diseases, or for proneness to conditions such as alcoholism or schizophrenia, is not necessarily to embrace a full-blown genetic determinism; nor is such a project necessarily "bad science", unless "bad science" is taken to mean science that is capable of abuse. But this would rule out almost all knowledge. Even the Greeks knew that a technique could be put to good or bad use ... a doctor could become a poisoner.

Ho is not the cheery optimist that Harris is. Far from it. Yet her thesis is that there is a better way. We can, if we take note of her analysis, change our ways, and devote science to the understanding of organic wholes, whole people and, especially, whole ecological systems. We need not allow ourselves to be dominated by "genetic engineering biotechnology". However, the message is delivered in a most confusing way. Ho throws herself into the deployment of myths and symbols, exploiting their meanings at every turn. Indeed her book would be a rich source for Turney. And the use of these symbols is combined with a painful jokiness. One of her chapters is entitled "Hello Dolly I Down the Animal Pharm". We would be forgiven for thinking that the book is addressed to the less than scientific reader. On the other hand, unexpectedly, it would need a fair understanding of biology to follow the details of the exposition, or the accompanying diagrams. The marriage between pop images and technical scientific language is uneasy. Perhaps she is deliberately demonstrating that even a professional biologist may be frightened by the images. But the device does not work.

These three books leave us with a problem of balance. How are we to balance the moral view that we are heading for disaster, and that we have a moral duty to mankind to halt the precipitous decline down the slippery slope, (a view which, if widely held, and if incorporated in restrictive or prohibiting legislation, would bring to an end enormous medical benefits to numbers of afflicted people) against what some may see as the unduly rational and optimistic moral views of Harris? The question is about what one thinks is the nature of morality.

Harris regards morality as the rational measuring of known benefits against harms, harms which turn out, on analysis, often to be fancied rather than real, feared for no better reason than they give rise to an instant gut reaction. Harris would doubtless agree with Turney that such gut reactions are encouraged and fed by, for example, the Frankenstein myth. Harris designates a reliance on feelings as "sentimental morality", and he accuses me, among others, of being unduly influenced by David Hume, who held that morality was "more properly felt than judg'd of". I believe that morality itself must be derived in part from a moral sense, in that if there were no such sense or sentiment, morality could never get off the ground. Even a notion of justice must start from the feeling (known to Hume as sympathy) that other people besides oneself have sufferings with which oneself is involved. No amount of rational argument could start a person on the course of holding other people as important as himself. This sentiment, which is sympathy, need not involve one in a universal beneficence to all mankind (though Hume later professed that it did). But it does entail that other people's feelings, their pleasures and pains, likes and dislikes, harms and benefits are as important as one's own. This is the morality of conscience - private morality. But these books are concerned not with what each of us might feel it right to do as individuals but with public morality, or public policy, in an area which is manifestly of moral significance.

What should it be permitted to do, as a matter of policy? Where should legislation be required to intervene, to prevent something publicly seen as a moral outrage? As Harris puts it: "It has been said that politics is the art of the possible, I rather think of it as the art of the permissible. We ought only to do what is possible if we ought to do it." And he goes on to say that in order to know whether we ought to do it or not we need to weigh up the arguments for or against doing it. I agree with this, and I agree with Turney's level-headed appeal that we try to escape from the bonds of the myths and symbols which too readily determine our collective thinking. But it is of no use to legislate if the collective dictates of private moral sentiments cannot accept the legislation. It is of no use to permit something to be done without control if this collective voice too deeply abhors it. The balance must be struck between the cool voice of reason (Harris's voice) and the hysterical voice of doom (Ho's voice). This balance, as a matter of public policy, is often struck (as, for example in the case of the use of animals, or indeed of embryos for experimental purposes) by means of regulation rather than either prohibition or a free-for-all. I suspect that this may be the way forward in the new bioethical problems that face us.

Mary Warnock is a member of the Archbishop of Canterbury's advisory group on medical ethics.

Clones, Genes and Immorality: Ethics and the Genetic Revolution

Author - John Harris
ISBN - 0 19 88080 2
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £7.99
Pages - 328

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.