Avon, 1997, 317 pages, C$32.00 hc, ISBN 0-380-97494-0
The biggest hardship imposed on humanity by genetic engineering might not be the appearance of a race of supermen as much as it’s the flurry of bad jokes and titles oh-so-cleverly plugging in the expression “Brave New World” everywhere they can. Governments should seek a moratorium on that expression rather than looking to ban human cloning research.
Lee M. Silver, author of Remaking Eden, doesn’t fear the supermen. In fact, his non-fiction exploration of the possibilities of genetic engineering seems to welcome the advent of homo sapiens plus. As such, he’s far removed from the usual naysayers and knee-jerk reactionaries: No wonder he spends most of his book addressing their objections.
Genetic Engineering is not something we can forget about, for a variety of reasons. The first is that it is not, comparatively speaking, an expensive technology. In an age where any new important endeavor in the field of physics require multi-million equipment, genetic research -and, more significantly, the implementation of existing research- can be done in the confine of large private clinics. Much as computing was popularized by easy accessibility of computers to the masses, reproductive technologies will be used widely, whether we want it or not.
Another reason why reproductive technologies will not be stopped is that the impetus driving them is no abstract business sense, national competition or far-off payoff: Research in this area is driven by the basic human need to procreate. Parents, not presidents, will insist that the newest technology be used to enhance their children. After all, what’s a tweaked gene or two when some of them are willing to pay for the best schools, the best music teachers, the best social clubs?
Genetics is not a simple subject, so Silver can be excused to spend more than half the book discussing past and contemporary research. “Bottle babies” aren’t exactly making headlines nowadays, and that’s exactly the point Silver wants to make: These once-“immoral” technologies are now firmly entrenched into accepted social norms. Further genetic research -like cloning, or children born of same-sex parents-, will soon be here, and we can eventually expect them to pass into the same kind of acceptance.
The book really hits its strides, however, in its last three chapters, where Silver really goes beyond today’s technology to explore the future possibilities offered by The “virtual” child and the “designer” child. The virtual child is an extension of today’s methods, except it consists in fertilizing several eggs, analyzing their genetic makeup and allowing the parents to select the “best” of the embryos. This is only a temporary step to the designer child, which lets parents specify the actual genetic makeup of their children. Of course, we’re not there yet: our knowledge of genes is still too primitive… but we’re getting there. To Silver’s credit, he sees it as a boon and not a doomsday device.
Remaking Eden is a pretty good book for iconoclast, and a work of Satan for the fundamentalist. The first chapters pretty much destroy the notion that a “natural” threshold exists between living and non-living and that birth is the best compromise we can find. Even for stone-cold atheist humanists, Remaking Eden is at time a harsh read. Make no mistake: this is a book written for controversy. Silver uses the book at tribune to counter-argument some of the most persistent clichés against reproductive technologies. It’s a breath of fresh air to see that he’s so convincing.
This brand of open-mindedness is absolutely essential to discuss this type of research convincingly. Cloning means, for instance, that there is essentially no conception. That someone’s grandparents can actually be his biological parents. It will take some heavy-duty mental reforms to ensure that these clone children find their harmonious place in society.
Remaking Eden is a needed rarity: A well-written, accessible book about reproductive technologies that allows us to imagine a better future. Lee M. Silver has done us a real service by writing this book, and allowing to envision a future not necessarily dominated by fear and weakness. It’s well worth reading.