Book Review: Why alien genes can run amok: Genetic engineering can seriously damage your health
by Mae-Wan Ho

Financial Times (London)
Books; Pg. 06
March 28, 1998
815 words

If timing is everything, Mae-Wan Ho's Genetic Engineering: Dream or Nightmare? has it. This month the UK National Consumer Council's report highlighted the dangers of genetically modified (GM) food, and America held the first international conference on the alarming increase in new infectious diseases. One "nightmare" in Dr. Ho's impassioned expose is that genetic engineering can foster the rise of new diseases and spread more severe, and antibiotic resistant, strains of old ones - threats which help to make genetic engineering "the biggest single danger facing mankind today".

Apart from sharing the theme of genetics, Professor Lee Silver's Remaking Eden: Cloning and Beyond in a Brave New World could hardly be more different. Where Ho offers commitment, Silver tiptoes through the moral minefield of human reproductive science and genetics as if the Angel of Mons was guiding him.

His trick is to use science fiction to present the more controversial points. Page one, "Dateline 2010", sees Barbara nursing a newborn baby selected "from an embryo pool" to ensure that it isn't "overweight or alcoholic". But, before we warm to such benefits, Silver whisks us forward to 2350 AD, to a society split between the dominant "Gene-enriched" and the poor "Naturals". And eugenics, which - but no, that would spoil the ending.

The factual body of the book details the seemingly harmless, extraordinary, and often beneficial, steps in reproductive science which, from the first artificial insemination to Dolly the sheep, have been leading inexorably to some of the greatest moral dilemmas mankind has ever faced. And, as Silver points out, all this has consistently been deemed impossible, and therefore we are morally and legally unprepared. He offers no easy answers: simply disquieting facts about what is, and may soon be, possible in human fertility treatments and genetic engineering - facts which provoke very uncomfortable questions.

Of course, if Ho is right, few characteristics can be traced reliably to single genes, and genes are too interactive, and childhood too formative, for scientists to be able to cut out an alcoholic gene, splice in a musical one and give parents a Mozart, not a drunk. Yet will that be what people want to hear? As Silver points out, sperm banks for "superior" genes already exist and, faced with a crowded planet and rising medical costs, governments (and insurance companies) may prefer to believe that screening is infallible: pressure may grow to abort foetuses carrying even a small potential for health, or other, problems.

These thought-provoking books are worth reading in tandem. For, between them, Silver and Ho raise questions not just about genetic engineering, fertility treatment and eugenics, but even about the extent to which the law lets us own our own bodies and the cells, sperm, ovum, and embryos that stem from them: about what it is to be alive - and human.