Genetic Engineering: A Documentary History

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Author: Bruce Neville
Date: Summer 2000
From: Reference & User Services Quarterly(Vol. 39, Issue 4)
Publisher: American Library Association
Document Type: Book review
Length: 574 words
Content Level: (Level 5)

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Genetic Engineering: A Documentary History. Ed. by Thomas A. Shannon. (Primary Documents in American History and Contemporary Issues.) Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Pr., 1999. 282 p. acid free $49.95 (ISBN 0-313-30457-2; ISSN 1069-5605). www. greenwood.com.

A colleague of mine says that the cloning of Dolly the sheep divided time into a "before" and an "after." Certainly, few scientific breakthroughs have captured the public imagination or stirred public debate like genetic engineering. Not since the advent of nuclear technology has science placed such potential for both benefit and harm before society. Genetically engineered food, cloning, genetic screening, and the Human Genome Project raise significant ethical, moral, religious, societal, personal, legal, medical, biodiversity, and interspecies issues.

This volume excerpts 136 original documents relating to issues surrounding several facets of genetic engineering. The documents include scientific papers, newspaper articles, position statements, and Web sites, ranging in date from 1938 to 1998 (only four date from before 1975) and in length from three lines to eight pages. James Watson, who shared the Nobel Prize for the discovery of the structure of DNA and was the first director of the Human Genome Project, is represented by five documents; Jeremy Rifkin, an opponent of biotechnology, has two; the Catholic Church, several Protestant denominations, and Islamic and Jewish leaders at least one each; and the National Pork Producers Council one. Science magazine is represented by eighteen documents, the New York Times by thirteen, the New England Journal of Medicine by six, and Mother Jones by one. Watson and Crick's landmark paper on the structure of DNA is included, as is Ian Wilmut's group's announcement of the birth of Dolly. Some of the editing is a bit rough, and there is no indication of what or how much was edited out, making some of the essays difficult to read and interpret. The volume also includes a brief timeline and a bibliography.

Many of the documents espouse a particular view of genetic engineering, so it is often necessary to read several essays to achieve a balance. The editor is Professor of Religion and Social Ethics at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. In such a discussion, it is probably impossible to be totally neutral, and I was afraid that the collection might be biased toward religious or extremist views. If anything, however, the collection as a whole is a bit too blindly accepting of the sometimes unsubstantiated promises of the scientists.

The Genetic Engineering volume of the Opposing Viewpoints series (Greenhaven Pr., 1996) provides longer essays in a more formal debating style on some issues in genetic engineering. LeVine's Genetic Engineering: A Reference Handbook (ABC-CLIO, 1999) in their Contemporary World Issues series provides additional reference material, such as biographical sketches, a directory of organizations, and an extensive annotated bibliography, in addition to brief discussions of the pros and cons of many aspects of genetic engineering. Good discussions of ethical issues associated with genetic engineering can also be found in such reference works as the Encyclopedia of Bioethics (Macmillan, 1995) or the Encyclopedia of Genetics (Salem Pr., 1999). With such complex issues, however, it is important to have access to the original documents, which this volume provides. In a field that changes so quickly, there is also no substitute for the periodical literature.

I recommend this book highly for high school, public, and undergraduate libraries, but suggest that it (or another copy) be placed in the circulating collection.

Bruce Neville, Reference Librarian, University of New Mexico Library, Albuquerque

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Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|A64776306