Book Review: Breakthrough Books
By Jeremiah P. Ostriker

Lingua Franca
April, 1999

Jeremiah P. Ostriker, professor of astrophysics and provost at Princeton University and co-editor of FORMATION OF STRUCTURE IN THE UNIVERSE (Cambridge, 1999).

The Japanese government successfully kept firearms banned from Japan until 1542, but, in general, one can make a strong case for the inevitability of technological advance (if not progress): When something can be done, it will be done. Two books, REMAKING EDEN:HOW GENETIC ENGINEERING AND CLONING WILL TRANSFORM THE AMERICAN FAMILY (Avon, 1997), by Lee M. Silver, and AGE OF SPIRITUAL MACHINES: WHEN COMPUTERS EXCEED HUMAN INTELLIGENCE (Viking, 1999), by Ray Kurzweil, are among the more provocative of the recent flood of offerings treating the two fields - biotechnology and computers - that have the greatest prospects for dramatically changing the way we live. The fields with the greatest prospects for changing the way we think would be quite different (I would nominate neuroscience and cosmology), but that's another story.

Silver addresses imagined futures for human reproduction. There are, in addition to the well-publicized advent of cloning, innumerable entertaining or frightening options, such as male pregnancy and offspring from a blend of two or more same-sex parents. The possibilities are endless and not at all far-fetched. More than a decade ago, Science magazine ran on its cover the picture of a tobacco plant that glowed in the dark, thanks to a gene from the common firefly (luciferase). If that's possible, anything's possible. And, if the prepared mind provides the best insurance against the vicissitudes of change, then Silverâs book will help you to prepare. There is perhaps more enthusiasm for the imagined future than many of us will care for in this book, but it is a good and a very instructive read.