- Hardcover: 288 pages
- Publisher: Johns Hopkins University Press (6 Aug. 2012)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 1421406691
- ISBN-13: 978-1421406695
- Product Dimensions: 15.2 x 2.4 x 22.9 cm
- Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 2,120,260 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
Transhumanist Dreams and Dystopian Nightmares: The Promise and Peril of Genetic Engineering Hardcover – 6 Aug 2012
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Bioethicist Maxwell Mehlman thinks that we will inevitably reengineer the human species, and he writes about that and the mistakes we might make in the process... A deep and wide-ranging catalog of the implications of transhumanism as a philosophical doctrine and a careful analysis of potential pitfalls and concerns... Accessible while having enough scientific substance to be taken seriously, Transhumanist Dreams provides a thought-provoking read for genetics professionals, ethicists, interested scientists, and concerned citizens.(Michael A. Goldman Science)
A well-balanced and well-documented look at how we now are positioned (at least in the United States) to control this process, and what some of the pros and cons of enlarging control, or alternatively loosening it, might be.(International Journal of Feminist Approaches to Bioethics)
In his highly readable and especially timely new book, The Price of Perfection, Mehlman makes it clear that he is not at all persuaded that the ethical response to the availability of performance-enhancing drugs in sports―or elsewhere in society, for that matter―is to ban them and then spend a lot of effort testing for those who use them anyway.(Perspectives in Biology and Medicine) See all Product Description
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(It should be noted that Mehlman's scientific education is an abomination. He demonstrates this time and again. His formal education is primarily in political science, not ethics, not biology. This will be amply demonstrated in this review. I, on the other hand, have been performing active research in the fields of molecular biology, cloning (the non-human kind), genetics, and genetic engineering (I've even made my share of genetically engineered organisms) for the past ten years, including obtaining a Ph.D. in a related field. While I won't list my name or the accredited university that granted my degree, or the prestigious organization that I work for now, a simple perusal of Wikipedia will reveal that my words are true.)
(Several people have pointed out that the above paragraph lacks clarity. To wit, I mean that if you read articles on Wikipedia about adenoviruses (which aren't retroviruses at all, which is actually an incredibly important distinction, with respect to the likelihood of causing cancer in humans), about human fertilization processes and the process of zygote formation (which cannot possibly occur when the paternal and maternal contributions have vastly different makeups in terms of chromosomal number, etc.), and about ethical theory and fallacies (particularly, as I cite below, the pure sophistry of the "But think of the children!!" argument that the author uses as his go-to strategy), you will quickly discover that there is a LOT going wrong here.
That said, if you try to find a Wikipedia article about me, you won't find one. Full disclosure, indeed. (You'll also not find one about the author.) End parenthetical aside.)
First, being a bioethicist really requires you to master two crafts. One of these is biology. While it's unnecessary to be a master in practical scientific research, at least a passing familiarity with science is clearly a necessity. Which is what makes it so damning when Mehlman makes such utterly, abominably ridiculous claims as the following:
"Eventually, scientists may attempt to fold nonhuman DNA into a person's germ line, so that the animal DNA would be passed along to his or her descendants. One technique would be to fertilize human eggs with animal sperm to produce so-called animal-human hybrids."
That's just insipidly, painfully naive and inaccurate. First, the proteins that coat the ova of human beings require recognition of factors in human sperm. This isn't going to happen when the sperm is non-human. Second, the fusion of the haploid genomes of the parents will not, WILL NOT, occur properly if the two parents do not have the same number of chromosomes. Even if you artificially introduced the genome from, say, a raccoon, into a human ovum, you wouldn't get Raccoon Mario. You'd get an non-fused, non-zygotic embryonic crash. Raccoons have 19 haploid chromosomes to human's 23. You're not going to see Raccoon Mario outside of a video game any time in the near future. This is not an isolated case. Mehlman continues to make such mistakes throughout the course of the book. Most of them are not quite this egregious, but they're equally problematic.
With such a clear demonstration of an inability to understand science, it's hard to trust a BIOethicist. By the time that I reached page 80, I'd lost any trust in his ability to accurately report what is and is not scientifically possible.
Which brings me to the second hat that Mssr. Mehlman needs to don. The second half of bioethicist focuses on social philosophy. An ethicist needs to have a fundamental and rock-solid understanding of ethics and philosophy. One aspect of that that you can't neglect is the nature of fallacies.
Time after time, Mehlman decides that logical, well-founded, and well-argued positions are entirely disposable. For example, it doesn't take but to the third chapter for Mssr. Mehlman to resort to the tired cliche of, "But think of the children!". A quick perusal of the wiki for it, (found at Children's Interests), will demonstrate that this is a well-known, hackneyed, and trite method to avoid actually discussing the implications of the matter in question. Similarly, most of Mehlman's arguments consist of the following form:
"What if ...."
Where .... represents some sitution that has not occurred and, in fact, may NEVER occur, but the author chooses to present as a certainty.
"And if that, imagine what kind of damage could happen!"
Well, sure. But if NOT that, then perhaps nothing bad might happen whatsoever.
Here's a great example. At some point, Mehlman suggests that people might genetically engineer their children. That's a given, otherwise the entire argument would be moot. Now, given that, he further imagines that people would feel an intense revulsion toward that person. He goes on to cite Leon Kass, of all people, to state: "In crucial cases, repugnance is the emotional expression of deep wisdom, beyond reason's power fully to articulate it."
In other words, there may be some deep part of you that is "wise" that is able to make grand, philosophical and moral decisions that are beyond the ken of the rational mind. Just go ahead and ignore the fact that, in many cases, repugnance has literally nothing to do with wisdom and comes from the fear of the Other (choose your bogeyman). Just agree with Mehlman that, for example, the repugnance felt by some white Americans toward interracial marriages during the Civil Rights Era are just aberration, but that this deep repugnance does reflect some kind of "wisdom".
The crucial part that is missing here is that repugnance of that ilk is curable, transient, and all-too able to be remedied. The cure is good, old-fashioned education. By teaching people that the genetically engineered aren't evil power-mongers that are trying to take over the world (well...any more than anyone else, at least), we can remind ourselves that even a genetically engineered person is still a person. That's the reminder that we all need for a little tolerance and acceptance. And resorting to repugnance, rather than education, is more than a trifle upsetting on the part of a professor at an institution of higher learning.
I can hear your voice now. "Well...maybe he's bad at biology. And maybe he's bad at philosophy, too. But that's okay. I'm pretty smart. I can pierce the buckwheat and figure out what's smoke and what is mirrors. As long as he presents both sides of the issues, I can figure out whether I support these things..."
Yeah. About that. First, you can't really count on getting any information out if the source is bad. If you know enough to tell that the most fundamental aspects being presented are bunk, you should already be suspicious of your abilityto get literally ANY useful information back out. Anything that you are trying to weigh is likely to be so badly mangled that any decision you make is going to be on such shaky ground that you'd never know whether it was legitimate or not without reinvestigating every single thing that Mehlman told you in the first place.
Even that wouldn't be so bad; if you had to go back and relearn anything about biology that was in this, that wouldn't be the end of the world. Provided that the ethics were good. I.e., if he'd managed to present an unbiased case, telling us the pros and the cons of each position, we'd at least be able to make an informed decision about them, even if he didn't (because he didn't bother to construct an argument, because he was too busy making strawmen and slippery slopes), right? Wrong again. Realistically, what he's managed to do is take fringe positions, like transhumanists making claims that are patently ridiculous (e.g., no matter how much we understand about genes, our genomes, and the various interplay of our genes and environments, you're probably not EVER going to be able to engineer a child to be, say, a certified public accountant...you may be able to engineer the ABILITY someday, but it's incredibly naive to think that you could engineer the INTEREST). Meanwhile, put up against patently absurd claims and wish lists (for lack of a better term) of extremists from the side of transhumanists are the much more conservative (in all ways) opinions and positions of people who are far more reasonable (such as the aforementioned Leon Kass). While the entirety of these people's positions aren't reasonable (again, see the ridiculous statements from Leon Kass that have already been mentioned), they're frequently couched in the comfort of positions of authority, such as the Chairman of the President's Council for Bioethics. People who don't know better might believe that this is an endorsement of the quality of these opinions. (Hint: It's not.) An uninformed, uneducated person who was looking for information could be entirely misled by this presentation into thinking that the arguments of the transhumanists are all insipid and pie-in-the-sky, while all of the statements by conservatives are grounded and well-thought out. Protip: this isn't how you do unbiased.
So, if you're willing to take the opinion of a bioethicist that is bad at both biology (BIOethicist) and philosophy (bioETHICIST), feel free to purchase this book. If you want to see an example of how to do it wrong, this is a good one. But if you're actually looking for an informed, unbiased, and solid discussion of these issues, I suggest that you keep looking. Because Mehlman is not the place to find these things.
Long story short, the only thing this is good for is an example of what NOT to do.
Prominent futurists and public intellectuals spin yarns of how genetic engineering will advance human evolution, better suiting us for the actual world around us. Not only have gene therapies made it possible to treat, and potentially eradicate, genetic diseases, but they may soon make material improvements in human physiology. Ray Kurzweil is probably the most prominent such voice, but others, like Gregory Stock and Simon Young, are making names, too.
In the other corner, science fiction authors have, for the last generation, predicted catastrophic consequences as we manipulate human flesh. From strange chimeras and rapid devolution to the creation of genetic castes and tyrannical supermen, genetics has been seen as the key to untold failure of our shared humanity. These narratives have struck much more of a chord with the general public than the futurists' technical discursions.
Both these views have their limitations. Despite its reputation for technophilia, science fiction has more often feared than embraced development. This goes double for Michael Crichton, whom Mehlman cites copiously, and whose basic authorial stance was to just hate everything. But the futurists tend to gloss over known setbacks, seeing science as an unbroken trajectory of progress. Their optimism renders opinions as lopsided as the authors' pessimism.
Mehlman, by contrast, weighs both trends, seeking the truth in the broad, uncharted territory between them. At times, Mehlman maybe drifts too much into merely cataloging others' opinions; his endnotes run thirty-five pages. But in surveying the broad terrain of genetic futurism, he gives us plenty of angles to view an important problem. And he resists facile arguments, rejecting pollyannaism as much as needless paranoia.
What does it mean when we go beyond fixing illnesses in the present, or giving individuals enhancements that will end with themselves? Why shouldn't we use germ line genetic engineering to create inheritable improvements? What objections exist, and which objections should we treat seriously? How should we calibrate potential risks versus likely benefits, particularly for future generations that cannot speak for themselves?
This may sound like tedious reading, but Mehlman translates difficult and contentious positions into plain English. His prose reads as easily as most novelists, letting us grasp issues usually cast in language too specialized for us amateurs. He also, as he spells out the parameters of the controversy, avoids hemming us in. He seldom openly intrudes his own opinion into the discussion, much less telling us what he thinks we should believe.
That said, his work is not objective. No work by a human ever is. He does mock objections he considers beneath him, especially religious ones. Though he does not dismiss religion, and seems warm to scientific-minded Christians like Francis Collins and Teilhard de Chardin, he has no patience for creationism, or its gussied-up cousin, Intelligent Design. Anyone who dismisses literal (read: blind) evolution merits Mehlman's naked disdain.
Likewise, he refuses to place his trust in science alone. Some non-religious people have raised objections that we should not interfere, say, with natural evolution. But natural evolution has been slow, haphazard, and unresponsive to rapid environmental change. Mehlman is unabashed in thinking that evolution sets a poor standard, and that it could benefit from some guidance by informed, presumably beneficent human wisdom.
I had two specific objections which Mehlman never answered. First, as anyone who has read Thomas Kuhn knows, science lacks the precision implied by calling it genetic "engineering." Indeed, Rampton and Stauber describe how engineered plant genes are vulnerable to chromosomes landing on the wrong allele, degradation in transit, or unanticipated interactions. How do we prevent that in human subjects?
Second, and more important, we don't need to speculate on the future to see serious risks. Look at the present. Look at global warming, antibiotic-resistant microorganisms, and nuclear waste disposal. Mehlman never gives me any reason to think we will handle live human genetics any more responsibly than technology we already have.
Mehlman's guided debate will not resolve the concerns he raises. I doubt he means it to. But it does spell out at least one set of terms we can use as we proceed, to determine what we consider acceptable risk, and what we will reasonably refuse.
I'll start with Good Points. The cover art was perfect - made the book very enticing. The book itself was a very sturdy, high quality hardcover - so many hardcover books today are very shoddily constructed. Background information presented for various sections of the book was often interesting and well presented. A few "food for thought" ethical issues were well presented and discussed.
Now for the Bad Points. At the beginning of the book, the writing itself was OK, but it left much to be desired as the book went on. Overly long paragraphs and unnecessarily complex sentence structure made it very hard to follow what the author was trying to say. Did the publisher edit this book or just publish a rough draft? Section subtitles would have helped a lot - they used some odd symbol instead which added very little by way of clarity. Overall, I would have a hard time telling anyone what the author's main points were - that's how confused the book left me.
When I read non-fiction, I prefer books where the author is objective. I find it hard to call this author objective when this book made it crystal clear that he is very partisan politically and which side of the aisle he cheers for, so to speak.
The author is a law professor and wrote this more like a law review article than anything else - I'm a lawyer, so I can tell. That didn't turn out well in this context. It's really the way he handled sources - I have no idea who these people are and information given about them does little to clarify, so why should I care what they think kind of explains how it came off.
Finally, there are factual errors. Other reviewers have commented on several - and added that the author was probably a political science major and way out of his depth here given that so much hard science is involved. I saw two errors that I didn't see mentioned in other reviews. First, an embryo does not turn into a fetus simply by becoming implanted in a womb as the author states - an embryo becomes a fetus after a given number of weeks (some say it's 11) of gestation. Second, in Gonzalez v Carhart, the Supreme Court did NOT uphold partial birth abortions as the author states, it rather upheld a federal law banning them. Do editors not fact check anything anymore?
Though it had some good points, I would not recommend this book.
Firstly it violated Miss Piggy's law of book titles. (That's "Never try to read a book that has words in the title that you don't use every day." I scored 75% on understanding the word "And," but the rest of the words in the title were alien to me.)
Secondly, the book was from a university press. All too often such books are written for academics by academics, and you can't understand the arguments as a layperson. In some cases the books appear simply because authors need to have a book title for tenure.
Thirdly, there is an author picture. Professor Mehlman looks the part of an academic and the director of the Law-Medicine Center at his university. His neatly combed receding hair, his suit and tie, indicate some sort of stick-in-the-mud academic who specializes in being behind the times. I started reading the book with trepidation but discovered I was completely wrong in my fears.
In fact, you could say, "Never judge a book by its cover." (I'll have to patent that saying.) The book clearly explains one of the forthcoming changes to medicine and society in a way that I read it all the way through with no trouble.
The reason why I'm interested in this subject is that I read Ray Kurzweil's, The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology. This opened my eyes to the possibility of genetically engineered humans that were turned into superhumans. Given that society has discriminated against people who had a black skin, or Asian appearance, or who spoke with a foreign accent, the chances are that genetically engineered people would have trouble fitting into a normal life.
Kurtzweil predicts that such people will appear by the year 2050. It seems to me that most people aren't aware of this and there should be some discussion starting now. That's why I'm so glad of Mehlman's book. He has gathered together pretty much all the thinking about man-made supermen, including some eye-opening accounts from fiction.
If Mehlman's book is balanced, (and I have no reason to think it isn't), then we get most of the views of people who support either side - improve humans, or leave things alone. There are numerous big issues here - how will supersmart children work with those who aren't artificially enhanced? And is this the end of the human race as it stands today?
Should we allow genetic improvements only to those who can afford them? How will unenhanced humans relate to their supercharged cousins? History shows us many cases where situations like this led to conflict - it seems to me the best way of avoiding this conflict is to point out the inevitability of these changes to today's society.
Luckily, if all books are like Mehlman's, the changes will be easily understood. He writes in an easy to understand manner, with occasional touches of humor - some had me laughing out loud. In fact, if he took off his suit and tie, I'm sure he would be just like the rest of my friends. That bodes well for discussions of the issue.
This book provides me of some of the early books about the Internet. The few people who understood the social implications described it to us in a way that we could expect what would happen. I'm sure genetic manipulation will have every bit of a social impact, if not more, than the Internet. Read this book and find out why.
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