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by Michael J. Reiss and Roger Straughan
Cambridge University Press, 1996
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D. on Mar 12th 2000

Improving Nature?

Published in 1996, Improving Nature? is now a little out of date in the fast moving world of genetics. Nevertheless, it is still a useful and thorough resource for anyone wanting to learn about ethical issues in genetic engineering. It's a scholarly book with 35 pages of endnotes but it also features some photographs and cartoons. The authors divide it into three main sections, the first outlining the practicalities of genetic engineering and general moral concerns that the technology raises, the second discussing in much greater detail the genetic engineering of microorganisms, plants, animals, and humans, and the final section briefly raising the issue of the educating the public about genetics.

I used this book in an undergraduate class on genetic ethics, and the students without a strong background in science found the book's initial explanation of genetics dauntingly technical. But very little of the rest of the book or the discussion of genetic ethics generally relies on the detailed scientific information, which is why it is possible to teach such a class to non-scientists. One can raise and discuss almost all the ethical issues in genetics in a sophisticated way without worrying too much about the scientific technicalities. For those who have the capacity understand the science but don't know much about genetics, Improving Nature? explains the details well, although I would not recommend using it as your only source of information about the science.

The authors are British, and consequently their book contains as much detail about British reactions to genetic engineering as it does about the rest of the world. This turns out to be a slight advantage since it is in Europe and Britain in particular that the most protests have been made about genetically engineered food, an issue that has only recently gained the attention of the public in the US.

Particularly notable about Improving Nature? is its systematic discussion of issues. While the argument often goes swiftly, it nearly always covers all the main points relevant to an issue. The authors are not afraid to express their own opinions and to argue for them, but they are conscientious in including a wide range of points of view in their survey of the debates. Readers may not always agree with the opinions of the authors, but they will be intellectually challenged to carefully reconsider the basis of their own personal views.