Non-Fiction Reviews

Redesigning Humans: Choosing Our Children's Genes

(2002) Gregory Stock, Profile Books, 17.99, hrdbk 277pp, ISBN 1-86197-242-3

I am not a great fan of social science as applied to science; one only has to look at the Britain's Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) science in society programme (2002) to see why (and hopefully we will shortly be revealing all elsewhere on the Concat site). Yet excellence has the knack of popping up in the most surprising of places. Every now and then one comes across on a book that you know will profoundly affect your thinking irrespective of whether or not you agree with its message. Some even capture may of the public's attention. Now I do not know whether Stock's Redesigning Humans will do this last but it deserves to. Stock has tackled a controversial topic - the genetic modification of humans - in a controversial area of science - eugenics. Eugenics is very much a dirty word due to W.W.II and understandably so. Yet the World moves on and scientists and society simply cannot continue to ignore this topic if we expect to 'properly' manage the applications of our new genetic modification potentials.

Already in the 21st century we have the entire genomes of a number of species of plants and animals and even a good rough draft of the human genome. We are aware of the genetic basis for a number of diseases (such as Huntington's chorea) and there is the (currently elusive) promise of gene therapy. We have Dolly, GM crops, IVF techniques and some genetic screening ability. We are even beginning to construct artificial chromosomes! In short we are rapidly gaining the ability to directly affect on the genetic level our species' evolution. Could we or should we genetically modify our children to be faster and stronger than we are? We have the technology. We can build them. Of course as has been pointed out before (especially by the ladies), sometimes faster is not better.

Surprisingly, Redesigning Humans is not a sensationalist book; though one can imagine it could easily have slipped into being one. It is a surprisingly sober look that draws upon current examples and known technology before extrapolating. But the extrapolation does not go into exactly how these abilities will become manifest, rather the ethical issues that they raise. But Gregory Stock is not being prescriptive. Indeed the author ends up presenting eight questions for the reader to answer. Here are two. First, with hormone treatments women can have a baby after the menopause, at what age (if any) should women be no longer allowed to get pregnant? Second, would you intervene to raise your child's IQ twenty points? If not, what would you say if your kid grew up to ask why s/he was not as smart as the other kids?

Make no mistake. Such questions are not irrelevant and your grandchildren could well be having to face these in all seriousness, and their grandchildren cope with the consequences. We need to start thinking about, what for many may be, the unthinkable now. GM humans.

Redesigning Humans is written at a New Scientist magazine level and so should be accessible to many especially SF folk with a little knowledge of science. I thoroughly commend Gregory Stock's book to you be you a scientist or an SF fan as first and foremost you are human. (Though given stock's questions, for how much longer I wonder.) And, fair is fair, to Gregory Stock I commend Bruce Sterling's (1999) Nature, vol 402, p125 piece as a sort of related accompanying comment. Enjoy.

Jonathan Cowie

A version of this review has been published in Biologist

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