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In search of Prometheus

Nature volume 440, pages 150151 (09 March 2006) | Download Citation


Bioethics and the New Embryology: Springboards for Debate

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Sinauer: 2005. 280 pp. $14.95 0716773457

Modern biotechnology raises some difficult questions. What is a person? What ought to be the moral status of human embryos? How should we define ‘normal’ and ‘human’? Should we genetically engineer future generations of humans? And what about human cloning? A first step towards finding answers to difficult questions is to get the facts. Most people, even well-educated ones, do not have the facts needed to develop informed opinions on these questions. In a university cell-biology class that I recently lectured, only one of 140 students knew the source of embryonic stem cells; a multidisciplinary group of ten professors did no better.

In a remarkably far-sighted book, The Prometheus Project (Doubleday, 1968), physicist Gerald Feinberg wrote about humanity's need to ponder questions like these. He warned that human genetic engineering, age retardation, chemical and electrical mind modification, and artificial-intelligence technologies would force upon us irreversible decisions that should be the focus of a Prometheus (from the Greek word for ‘foresight’) project that would draw on informed thought from all of Earth's peoples.

Prometheus unfound? No project to explore what we want from biotechnology has been forthcoming. Image: AKG-IMAGES

Decision time is here, but a consensus on who we are and where we are going is nowhere in sight. There has been no Prometheus project. National and state governments, private industry and even cults are going separate ways in research on embryonic stem cells, human cloning, and the creation and use of genetically modified organisms. And the strident voices of scientists, politicians and ethicists are urging us either to embrace the new biotechnologies for their potential benefits or to restrict them for fear of an undesirable future for our species.

Scott Gilbert, a respected developmental biologist and textbook author, has now entered the fray with a calm and rational voice. In Bioethics and the New Embryology, he and his two student co-authors provide information for students, other academics and the public about many of today's most urgent biotechnological issues.

Each of the book's seven sections explains the biology underlying a specific biotechnology and discusses the relevant ethical issues. Topics include early human development and personhood, assisted reproduction, sex selection, human cloning, stem cells, human genetic engineering, defining what is normal, genetic essentialism, and the ethics of using animals in research.

Ten short, interspersed essays treat specific biological, ethical and policy issues in greater depth. For example, an essay on contraception tells how a group of pharmacists that was opposed to filling prescriptions for emergency contraception had claimed that ‘morning after’ pills cause abortions. In fact, the evidence indicates that such pills act by preventing fertilization. This misinformation may result in preventable, unwanted pregnancies. Similarly, false claims by Vatican officials that the HIV virus can pass through intact condoms may jeopardize the lives of women in regions where AIDS is rampant. “The tragic irony,” Gilbert writes, “is that being ‘pro-life’ regarding the creation of zygotes can make one complicit in the deaths of adult men and women.” Other essays address preimplantation genetic diagnosis, umbilical-cord stem cells and eugenics. A 200-word glossary and an accompanying CD with modifiable figures and PowerPoint presentations for each chapter enhance the book's user-friendliness.

The information that Gilbert presents can largely be found in websites and other books, but nowhere else are the biological facts and the bioethical issues gathered and offered up in such a tastefully concise, beautifully illustrated, engaging and easily consumable format. For example, Biotechnology: Demystifying the Concepts by David Bourgaize and co-authors (Benjamin Cummings, 1999) is an excellent introductory survey of molecular genetics, genetic-engineering technologies and associated ethical and policy issues that addresses in 400 pages what Gilbert discusses in just 34. Similarly, 33 of Gilbert's pages very adequately explain the material covered in the 200-page Human Embryonic Stem Cells by Ann A. Kiessling and Scott Anderson (Jones & Bartlett, 2003). For cross-disciplinary perspectives on cloning, Michael C. Brannigan's Ethical Issues in Human Cloning (Chatham House, 2000) is very good, but so are the corresponding 16 pages in Gilbert's book. To delve deeper into any of the issues he discusses, one can download non-illustrated, book-length reports by the President's Council on Bioethics (

With its broad-ranging coverage of embryo-related biotechnologies, Gilbert's book makes an excellent text for high-school and university biology students and for bioethics courses. It also superbly meets the need for an accessible, accurate resource for the biotechnological knowledge needed for informed policy-making. Although lay readers may struggle with some of the science, the book is an important contribution to informed dialogue among citizens from a wide range of educational levels, professions and generations — a first step towards a Prometheus project.

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  1. James Bradley is in the Department of Biological Sciences, 331 Funchess Hall, Auburn University, Auburn, Alabama 36849, USA. He is currently writing a book for non-biologists called Twenty-First Century Biotechnologies and Human Values.

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