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Book Review: Natural Optimist
By Brian Morton

Scotland on Sunday
Spectrum, Pg. 25
February 1, 1998
833 words


ONE night about a month ago, I let three sharply suited Americans into the foyer of the BBC in Edinburgh where they had a booking for a lunchtime (their time) news bulletin. They were, they said, scientists and they had come in to talk about "Dali".

Given that Ian Gibson's biography of the great Surrealist had just been published, this seemed perfectly logical and in order. Having had a couple of quick shandies prior to the night train I felt confident enough to regale them with a few personal observations about Surrealism, the psychology of the 'paranoid-critical method' and my favourite anagram, Avida Dollars, coined by Ernst or Duchamp for the increasingly acquisitive S. Dali. For a few minutes they listened with the polite smiles Americans reserve for the clinically insane before revealing that they had actually come to talk about "Dahlly the sheep".

No overseas scientific initiative since the Russian A-bomb and Sputnik has so alarmed American public opinion, especially in the South, where fundamentalist anxieties are currently buzzing. Lee M Silver's job spec - professor of molecular biology and evolutionary biology at Princeton - is one guaranteed to reinforce them. Remaking Eden describes a scientific and technological future that has already caused a furore that far outstrips the notorious Scopes 'monkey' trial in Tennessee for its clash of belief systems; it also sketches in a world as surreal, even grotesque, as anything in Dali and as potentially lucrative as anything dreamt of by Avida Dollars.

America is a country of hyper-surrealism and a country already, and for all its suspicious resistance, innately attracted to genetic manipulation. One of the examples Silver adduces is a gridiron football team of the future in which each and every position - wide receiver, quarterback, kicker - could be genetically selected. Similarly, families might choose, as in Silver's opening tableau, to have children screened for negative traits, like one cousin's obesity or another's predisposition to drink, or armed with positive ones like blonde hair and an athletic build.

Silver promptly and correctly identifies a desire to maximise the life-advantages of one's children as a perfectly natural and extremely powerful one. In doing so, he also demystifies the process of genetic engineering, pointing out that it is no more than a moral whisker distant from such nowadays readily-acceptable procedures as in vitro fertilisation or, one might go on to say, antibiotic treatment and the surgical removal of genetically-determined tumours or deformities, both of which in some way confound natural selection.

Silver looks forward to a world divided according to reproductive provenance into Naturals and the GenRich, and divided not necessarily by class and wealth, but also, arguably, by residual ethics and even religious prohibitions.

There are beliefs which deny even children the benefits of transplantation, blood transfusion and penicillin. There is, though, an even greater distance between that species of dogmatic fatalism based on faith and a deliberate decision to refuse a reliable (if it should turn out so to be) prescriptive technology which takes unborn children out of the hair-raising lottery of birth and life.

Most parents will nowadays accept some measure of antenatal testing, even if they are unprepared to take action based on unwelcome results. What constellation of fears, prejudices and beliefs would persuade prospective parents not to take action that would eliminate the treacherous genes that lead to cystic fibrosis or even alcoholism? The rub comes immediately.

Who would define what were "undesirable" traits? Or would parents also be able to predetermine respectful obedience, a dislike of rap and hip-hop music and a collateral enthusiasm for washing dishes and cleaning cars? Or heterosexuality? Silver's book is a brave and honest survey of an ethical minefield. The dedication to his parents "for creating me the old-fashioned way" might point to a profound, if latent, loyalty to nature over culture, and certainly his approach to the subject is closer to the wonder of Miranda (herself a "miracle") discovering a "brave new world" of "beauteous" and "goodly" creatures than to Huxley's dystopia.

The "Dali/Dahlly" conversation limped on for some time and grew steadily more surreal. I was told that "Gahd" had given us dominion over the animals but that didn't - and try to stay with us here - give us any right to tamper with them, or indeed to make our own. That was a "si-yun." In the face of implacable logic, or indeed illogic, always fall back on Holy Writ.

As the taxi squealed outside, I pointed out that Genesis 1 promised dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, and indeed every creeping thing. Not so much as a mention of mutton. So that's all right then.