Challenging Nature
published by Ecco/Harper Collins, 2006
Professor of molecular biology and public policy in the Woodrow Wilson school of Public & International Affairs at Princeton University
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Book Reviews
Featured Booklist Review (by Bryce Christensen)
The archetype of mortal defiance, Prometheus has found a new champion. Outspoken molecular biologist Silver argues that only scientists willing to join Prometheus in challenging divine prohibitions will ever deliver on the promise of new genetic technologies. Although despairing of ever expunging spiritual beliefs from liberal democracies altogether, Silver hopes that a truly open and rational public dialogue will expose the folly of continuing to allow religious fundamentalists to impose needless restrictions on scientific research. It particularly galls Silver that such religionists often confuse an ill-informed public by cleverly wrapping their religious objectives in scientific rhetoric. Surprisingly, Silver sees the Christian obstructionists of the Religious Right finding allies among the left-leaning, post-Christian devotees of nature. Both groups recoil from the prospect of using new science to improve human genes or to reengineer the plants and animals humans rely on for food. Both groups, Silver asserts, fail to realize that humans have been productively intervening in natural reproductive processes for millennia—and should now use available tools to do so more aggressively, both to minimize human suffering and to maximize ecological health. The relentlessness with which Silver disputes the views of his opponents will impress many readers—and alienate others. But this book will surely fuel precisely the kind of debate Silver recognizes as essential in a democracy sorting out perplexing scientific possibilities.
The New York Times: Science Tuesday Book Review (by Nicholas Wade)
Biologists Take a Turn at Raising Eyebrows: Engineers, particularly of the nuclear kind, are used to seeing the fruits of their knowledge refused by a doubtful or distrusting public. For biologists, this bitter experience has become common only recently as they have gained the power to manipulate the genes of crops, animals and people. Their frustration is much in evidence in a new book by Lee M. Silver, a molecular biologist at Princeton. In "Challenging Nature: The Clash of Science and Spirituality at the New Frontiers of Life," he hacks away at the various mysticisms and superstitions that, in his view, are impeding many rational exploitations of biotechnology like genetically modified foods and research on embryonic stem cells. . .
Dr. Silver's book is a valuable exposition of the rationalist's view of the world, showing how seriously it differs from many widely held beliefs. He notes, for example, how the ingrained rule of thumb, natural equals good, unnatural equals bad, makes people instinctively oppose laboratory forms of genetic manipulation. He argues eloquently that biotechnology holds the solution to many serious problems but is being shackled by public misperceptions.
Most scientists, Dr. Silver doubtless included, know very well that they must submit to the political process. But the public should perhaps understand better than it does the frustration of those it first trains to improve the human lot and then bars from using their knowledge.
Given Dr. Silver's boldly stated iconoclasm, it may seem ungracious to chide him for the one instance in which he pulls his punches. Discussing future human evolution, he notes that mathematical prodigies have fewer children than janitors, the first leg of R. A. Fisher's gloomy inference that because the rich and clever have fewer children than the poor, intelligence must inevitably decrease.
Dr. Silver leaves Fisher's specific conclusion unstated, doubtless because of the eugenic policies that were based on this argument by a co-founder of population genetics. But he warns that in certain conditions "positive natural selection will — for all intents and purposes — come to a halt." He suggests that genetic engineering — the selection of genes, not people — should be an acceptable way of side-stepping this anthropogenic jamming of the evolutionary process. Natural selection may not be as easily evaded as Dr. Silver predicts. Still, genetic engineering of the human germ line may be desirable and needed for other reasons. The clash of ideas that Dr. Silver describes, even though only from his perspective, is the sound of a battle that will continue far into the future.
Publishers Weekly
Silver, a molecular biologist at Princeton, examines new dimensions of the contentious debate between science and religion over cloning and other biotechnologies, and brings fresh insights to it. Many Western religious people believe biotechnology is an attempt to play God and that human clones would be created not in God's image but in the image of humankind. Such arguments rest on the nature of humanity, and Silver points out that the only characteristic that makes us human is not that we have a soul but that we have human parents. Silver also explores the debate over genetically modified foods and synthetic crops. He argues that the organic and natural foods movements make their case on spiritual grounds, imbuing Mother Nature with a spiritual force equal to the force of the Christian God. Silver points out, however, that Mother Nature is a violent, not a benevolent, deity, and can cause more disasters than the making of synthetic foods ever will. Finally, Silver points out that biotechnology presents little problem for Eastern religions that believe in reincarnation. In the words of one Buddhist scientist, therapeutic cloning "restarts the cycle of life." Silver's provocative ideas and his graceful prose open new avenues for discussion of the challenges that face science and spirituality.
Kirkus Reviews
A molecular biologist surveys the ethical and philosophical questions raised by biotechnology. Silver (Biology/Princeton) states that much of the controversy surrounding biotechnology arises from the Judeo-Christian religious tradition, with its emphasis on God's creation of all life. In comparison, members of Asian cultures with non-monotheistic religions have few qualms about "playing god," a phrase that recurs frequently in discussions of the subject. It isn't just conservative Christians who believe "there are things man was not meant to know." Politically liberal believers in the modern Mother Earth or Gaia myths are often strongly opposed to genetically engineered foods. On both sides, anti-biotechnical beliefs arise from the premise that science alone cannot explain life. Silver spends a fair amount of time exploring such cases as conjoined twins and chimeras (the nearly complete absorption of one embryo by another) and human monsters with two heads -- cases that disturbingly challenge the notion of individual souls. He also devotes considerable energy to tracing the origins of the organic-food lifestyle, of the vitamin industry, of homeopathic medicine and other movements that claim to be based in science but retain a hard core of "vitalism," the belief that a profound gulf exists between the living and the non-living. Anti-biotechnology activists such as Jeremy Rifkin cloak their statements in scientific language, but at the core, they also reject the idea that biological phenomena can be explained in materialistic terms. The Christian conservatives opposing stem-cell research and other cutting-edge biotechnology as violations of "natural law" are, in comparison, much more consistent in their beliefs. In the end, Silver admits that biotechnology has a significant hurdle to clear, but he believes that current prejudices against science will in time erode. Probing, controversial, well-documented and often persuasive.
The San Diego Union-Tribune
Among journalists covering biotech, it has long been known that if you're in need of a provocative quote from a scientist willing to throw off the cloak of caveat that graduate schools hand out with Ph.D.s, Lee Silver is your man. A Princeton molecular biologist, Silver has been one of the few researchers with both the credentials and the gift of phrasing to articulate what some other scientists thought but wouldn't say . . .    Brian Alexander
Talking Points Memo TPMcafé (by Michael Levi)
. . . [Challenging Nature] asks a simple question: How will different spiritual outlooks affect the future of biotechnology in the United States, Europe, and Asia? The results are fascinating – and say a lot about the future of biotech in America and abroad.
Advance Praise
Matt Ridley (author of Genome, The Red Queen, and other popular science books): Silver exposes the often dangerous consequences of a passion for spiritual and religious explanations that is innate in the minds of some people. His book is imbued with courage, suffused with humanity and written with grace.
Peter Singer (Decamp professor of bioethics at Princeton University, and author of Animal Liberation): Lee Silver has written a provocative and sorely needed book. Agree or disagree with his conclusions, the rich array of arguments will force you to think afresh about many cherished preconceptions. In this often-muddled area, that has to be a very good thing indeed.
Michael Gazzaniga (professor of neuroscience at Dartmouth University, member of President Bush's Council on Bioethics, and author of The Ethical Brain): A spectacular and riveting book that puts those who reason by assertion of prior traditions on the run. Professor Silver takes no prisoners and yet offers an upbeat and positive view of the human condition. Many people may not agree with his argument. But no one can deny he shakes things up and makes you think and rethink the most basic questions about the nature of human existence. I say Bravo!
Ian Wilmut (director of Regenerative Medicine at the University of Edinburgh and leader of the scientific team that cloned Dolly the sheep): Full of fascinating information, Challenging Nature will certainly help you clarify your personal views on biotechnology.
Lord Robert May (president of the Royal Society of England and past chief science advisor to the government of Tony Blair): As the frontiers of science advance, reaching toward understanding of the basic molecular machinery of life, people increasingly worry about which doors to open and which to leave closed. Some of these worries derive from scientific concerns about unintended consequences, others derive from religious beliefs, and yet others from feelings about what is ‘natural’. Lee Silver’s book gives a superb and sensitive account of the scientific facts in relation to these varied concerns. In an ever more complex world, this book is a beacon. Read it.

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