'Brave New Worlds: Genetics and the Human Experience'

by Bryan Appleyard

Harper Collins, London, ISBN 0 00 257021 1 h/b, 188pp.

Reviewed by David J. Heaf

I had been on the look out for some time for a popular modern book -- and popular it will be without a doubt -- on the ethics and philosophy of modern biotechnology that convincingly points a way out of the nightmare of genocentrism. And bar my few reservations I think Appleyard's book does it.

Dominic Lawson vividly exposed the problem when he wrote in the Spectator: 'Two emotions coursed through me as the consultant gave me a guided tour of the stigmata of Down's syndrome. The first was anger. While I understood that the doctor was only doing his professional duty -- to explain as clearly and as quickly as possible the condition of his patient -- I wanted to shout out, " This is my daughter you are prodding, not some random strip of flesh." The second emotion was love...I felt an intense, almost physically painful love for this third daughter. ...the Down's baby is as much the product of his or her parent's genes as any other child... There is no possible alternative Domenica Lawson without Down's syndrome. That is her identity, her very essence, along with all the other genes she has inherited from us.' In his book Appleyard lays bare the whole process that makes such manifestations of 'professional duty' phenomena of everyday life and he ends by pointing to a truly human alternative.

In a broadsheet journalistic style which assumes his readers are au fait with gene jargon (there is no glossary), Appleyard begins with a brief sketch of the advent of DNA-thinking and follows it with a call for more self- reflection amongst the 'fools' he has met -- those we gather later who are in the grip of 'popular scientism'. These, I imagine, include the biotechnologists who want their inventions -- genetically modified crops etc -- to be judged by the public on a scientific basis. The contents of the first chapter, a speculation into the possible future fruits of the new gene technology, such as 'the study of the mind will become much more like the study of anatomy' (p.31), will not surprise anyone who has kept up with the TV news of the past few years. One could perhaps quibble a bit with his understanding of science in places, e.g. 'All life for as long as it manages to endure is an incredibly ingenious victory against huge environmental armies' (p.14). Surely life needs its environment. But such quibbles do not destroy his central argument. So far as I can see, there are no straw men in this book. If men are challenged at all, it is real ones, geneticist Steve Jones, for instance. And there's no allegation that all scientists are possessed by popular scientism.

Chapter 2 charts the development and public perception of gene technology from its outbreak in the early 70s to recent utterances by the Prince of Wales. Did the scientists at Asilomar in January 1975 really think that their new toy of recombinant DNA technology was 'taking control of life' (p.33) or did most know in their heart of hearts that they had found only one more condition for life to manifest, like nutrients, warmth, solar system etc.

The next two chapters survey compactly and vividly coercive eugenics; the philosophy from Plato, Hitler, Russell and Pauling et al. that is behind it and the modern consumer eugenics of the free market. And if this book is about nothing else it is about eugenics. What the Inquisition did with Jews, modern biotechnology will do in its own relentless way with schizophrenia. Designer babies do not need to be made compulsory. Freedom of choice will simply make it difficult to resist what is offered by geneticists. If all mothers are routinely tested for trisomy 21 (Down's) foetal cells in their blood many will have a moral dilemma thrust on them: 'Society is cruel to the disabled. I cannot inflict this on my child.' Can they say no to abortion in such circumstances? What is at issue here, as we have seen with Domenica, is a human individuality and what Appleyard is confronting is the assault on the individuality which was seen as a moral absolute in Christian and Enlightenment thinking. Once we have judged a gene to be defective, private eugenics has the justification it needs to deploy its main tool -- abortion. Like all the facts of nature, a gene sequence is morally neutral until we pass sentence. And sanctioning eugenics with 'rights of the unborn' to sue parents, once born, for 'wrongful birth' is, according to Appleyard, like saying they have the right to be Linford Christie.

Chapter 5 takes a closer look at the mighty gene and genetic determinism. Throughout the book there is no shirking philosophy, biological epistemology, even a little evolution versus creation, and all referenced with a bibliography of over 60 books. But even by page 120, nearly three quarters of the way through the book, Appleyard has not nailed his philosophical colours to the mast. For the reader, the suspense of not being sure of his viewpoint is intense. So far it has all been an impartial description of the scientific, social and historical phenomena. Even with The Bell Curve he admits that Murray and Herrnstein's conclusions, unwelcome to so many, are the sort that are logically bound to be the outcome of the genetic enterprise. And those who feel uncomfortable with the new determinism -- the biologists of the left -- have so far failed convincingly to refute it.

But in the next chapter -- one that formed the bulk of his two page article in the London newspaper The Sunday Times (3.1.99, p.5.1) -- Appleyard introduces us to his niece Fiona, who has since died aged 30, after struggling daily with muscular dystrophy and its consequences. He writes: 'I have saved my discussion of disease and genetics and my story of Fiona until this late point in my book in acknowledgement of the fact that, for gene and science sceptics like myself [my italics], disease is the most serious challenge to our scepticism.' So here is the clearest declaration of his philosophical position. And the last quarter of the book, where he wrestles with genetic determinism and scientism, is the most pithy.

In spite of this, however, I find no evidence that Appleyard does not subscribe to the theory of the physical cause of disease (bad viruses, bacteria, genes etc.) and even the human 'self'seems to be written about in material terms (p. 5). Not surprising then that there is no sign of the unorthodoxy -- at least in western society -- that there may be factors behind disease that are far more fundamental than nature (genes) or nurture (upbringing/environment). But, drawing on Blaise Pascal's essay A Prayer to Ask God for the Right Use of Sickness, Appleyard concludes that health and disease are inseparably essential to our being fully human. 'In knowing [Fiona],' he writes, 'I have glimpsed what Pascal meant.' One can think for instance of one thing not mentioned in the book -- certainly not explicitly -- that disease brings with it through the necessary involvement of other people including the healthcare staff, a whole web of personal relationships. And only through relationships can our humanity manifest in the world and evolve. As Appleyard testifies, Fiona changed people.

He makes the point that genetics appears to take us over the edge of an abyss. But if one is prepared to change one's lifestyle just on the basis of new genetic self-knowledge -- for instance, knowing we will live for only three years instead of the thirty we had counted on -- doesn't this nullify our present life? Do we lack the imagination to live life to the full without knowing our codes? The power of the new technology, which we need not rehearse here, certainly demands urgent moral development by society if we are not to misuse it. Appleyard disagrees with the popular scientists who try to reassure us that the free market will see that it all turns out for the best. And I think he could be safely reassured that he is not, as he thinks (p. 161), alone with Mitchell G. Ash in realising that our moral cultural legacy is no longer intact and can never be put back in its old form. So how will we do the right thing and survive the new knowledge? Is knowledge morally neutral?

Appleyard answers this with 'the survivors will be those who can maintain a sense of spiritual depth within themselves.' What this spiritual depth is, we are not told. It's for a sequel perhaps? If so, I offer a few possible lines to pursue in it here. Spiritual deepening, or spiritual search, as he calls it on the last page, surely means first and foremost thinking or contemplation. And there are indeed some bits of Brave New Worlds that deserve more thought. Firstly, one would surely feel less threatened by the knowledge obtained by genocentrism or DNA-thinking if one realised that a science that sets limits to knowledge by saying only things that are discoverable (invented?) by confining the knowledge process to what can be gained from a materialistic world outlook guided by one-eyed colour-blind sensory observation is not the only conceivable kind of science. Perhaps this is what Appleyard means with his first moral of the book, namely about making that science 'the target of the most rigorous scepticism' (p. 163). But the scientific method, which he admits has given so much, need not in my opinion be discarded completely. It needs complementing with observational and cognitive approaches that are already partly developed in some people and lead to a science of the spirit as reliable as science hitherto. This would mean replacing the Haeckelian materialistic monism that Appleyard warns against, not with dualism but with a monism of the spirit. And with a science of the spirit we need not become inhuman.

Secondly, there are the questions of equality and freedom that Appleyard raised. Why surprise at the new biology showing us that we are not all equal (p. 170)? We could have deduced that pre-1865. The concept equality is quite out of place in the cultural sphere of the body social but is a must when it comes to the sphere of rights -- law- making/enforcing and justice. And freedom is out of place in the market, which must and already does have some of its worst excesses curbed by laws. Admittedly we cannot legislate for brotherhood in the marketplace but that is what it needs. No, freedom is a cultural matter -education, health, language, research ('spiritual search').

Appleyard does not put freedom under the microscope even though he uses the word many times in his book, for instance when he says that 'our apparently free choice is rigged' (p.161). For the individual, freedom must surely come in two forms -- outer and inner. Outer freedom is our everyday understanding of the world. But there is an inner freedom that for most if not all individuals remains an attainable reality. Once all the religious or Kantian moral absolutes, laws, customs, psychological dispositions, genetic susceptibilities and all other limits to freedom are made conscious in the determination of an action, then that action is free in the most human sense of the word. Then freedom exists in the darkest dungeon or after being dealt the cruellest sequence of genes.

David J. Heaf, 30.1.99

To Ifgene home page