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Not dazzled by biology

17 October 2014

Duncan Dormor on a helpful guide to the state of biomedicine

Beyond Human? Science and the changing face of humanity
John Bryant
Lion £9.99
Church Times Bookshop £9 (Use code CT131 )

IT HAS become a cliché that if physics was the science of the 20th century, it is the technological fruits of biology which will dazzle and dominate our foreseeable future. There is, then, a need for a popular and accessible book that assesses recent and forthcoming developments in biomedical science, by an author who knows the field. This is - and isn't - that book.

John Bryant is a scientist who has a good understanding of biomedicine and, frankly, a balanced perspective on the issues. He gives short shrift to hyperbolic assertions about the ways in which technology will change human nature, and there is nothing, in his view, that could be described as taking us, in any real sense, "beyond" human nature.

What Bryant provides is an informed, clear, and wide-ranging discussion of the impact of contemporary genetics on medicine. Recent exciting developments such as that of stem-cell therapy, whether embryonic or adult in origin, are appropriately and responsibly placed in a medical framework rather than a more abstract "scientific" one. His discussion of contentious issues such as "saviour siblings", germ-line alterations to mitochondrial DNA, or the shifting boundary between therapeutic and enhancing interventions is also reassuringly balanced and sober.

In reality, however, all this constitutes "a book within a book". And, while this nourishing kernel (composed of chapters five to seven) certainly justifies the book's modest price, other chapters may struggle to engage the reader: in particular, the first four, which are devoted to a consideration of the human condition; a rather pedestrian history of the world, with a particular focus on Britain; and a sketch of different schools of ethical thought.

Clearly this is scene-setting, but given that Bryant, in the main, eschews ethical and theological assessment, the rationale for this approach seems unclear (although he is obviously and rightly very concerned about who will benefit from these advances in health care, and who will not).

In terms of the history, Bryant has possibly missed a trick: a much more interesting approach might have been to tell the human story by rehearsing the findings of population geneticists such as Luigi L. Cavalli-Sforza (whose popular work Genes, Peoples and Languages is a fascinating read). It could even have mentioned the recent discovery that modern humans have "Neanderthal" DNA: a very interesting starting-point for a reflection on human nature.

The Revd Duncan Dormor is Dean and President of St John's College, Cambridge.

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