New Questions From the New Biology

Where Do We Go From Here?

It is likely that the reader is, by this point, ready to dismiss all of what has gone before as science fiction. (In fact, many science fiction writers have been deeply concerned with the issues raised here, and have explored their implications in a number of short stories and novels.) However, it is precisely because we are rapidly approaching a time when renewal of neurological tissue, replacement of defective genes, etc., will be within the realm of possibility that asking what humanness is and what we want ourselves to become is so important. It is possible that we will lose, not only our variety as unique individuals, but also the potential for development in currently unknown directions by altering the nature of the human gene pool. We will certainly be altering our human societies in fundamental fashion. The problem that faces us now, and that will become more acute in the near future, is not whether such technologies will be used, but rather how we use these technologies to their best effect. In order to cope with these dilemmas of the future, we have to obtain a clearer understanding now of what makes us uniquely human.

Jane F. Koretz 


Because modern biology is such an enormous area, it is difficult to suggest references which can provide a relatively non-technical, but accurate and objective, introduction to the area. Most introductory college-level biology textbooks provide a general introduction to recombinant DNA techniques, however, and the most generally used college textbook for an introductory course in molecular biology isJames Watson’s Molecular Biology of the Gene (WA. Benjamin, Inc.)

E.O. Wilson has written a number of technical and non-technical books about sociobiology, including: Sociobiology: The New Synthesis (1975) and On Human Nature (1978). .

Both are published by the Harvard University Press. A less arduous book is The Promethean Fire, co-authored by him. The major response to the sociobiological thesis is:

R. C. Lewontin, Steven Rose, and Leon Kamin. Not in Our Genes: Biology, Ideology, and Human Nature. Pantheon, 1984. It is unabashedly Marxist in stance, but the authors’ contention is that sociobiology is itself political (and not objective science). Reading any of the Wilson books, followed by the Lewontin et al. book, is an excellent way of becoming thoroughly familiar with the geography of this battlefield.

For the description and discussion of recent advances in biology and medicine, read your local newspaper. The Science Times, published every Tuesday in the New York Times, often has articles that are relevant to the subjects discussed in this essay (e.g., on6/9/87, there was a long article on the economic, ecological, and ethical implications of “gene-engineering” animals.) Some of the ethical implications of these, and more standard biomedical issues, are discussed in journals like “Issues in Science and Technology” or in the news sections of professional scientific journals like “Science” and “Nature”. In my personal opinion, however, the very best exploration of the implications of some of the current and potential advances in biotechnology can be found in science fiction magazines, short story collections, and novels.