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As a society, indeed as a species, we are in the process of making some vital decisions, whether most of us know it or not, about what it is to be human. This is something that affects all of us, and potentially all of our descendants, but so far the public discussion has been far too limited and often ill-informed. Please join me in thinking about these issues.

These are some of my own writings, either directly on the issue or on subjects that I see as closely related.
This is a reading list, with critical comments, which includes both advocates for and opponents of the new technologies.
Everything is moving so fast it's hard to keep up. These sites, grouped and annotated, should help.

Modern genetics is raising profound questions that we as a species need to face. For example: What is a person? What is a disease? Which of the possible applications of the new genetic technologies are appropriate and which (if any) should be banned? Who should decide?

Some people, even some geneticists, find these issues so hard to discuss that they try to ignore them altogether. For example, Tim Tully, who works at the Cold Spring Harbor laboratory under James Watson and is one of the leading experts on the genetic basis of memory, has discussed the possibility of a drug that could block memories of trauma, and added, "Then again, I wake up in the middle of the night and say, 'Yeah, but would I be who I am without suffering?' That's a tough one. Thank God I don't have to answer it. I just play with flies." [Quoted in Time, Love, Memory by Jonathan Weiner, Knopf 1999, p. 230]

And that is simply discussing a kind of high-tech anaesthetic. How much harder is it to deal with questions that involve what kind of children we have, and what kind of children they have, and so on for ever? There are very frightening possibilities here.

We have to face them. If we don't, we may find – very soon – that the unthinkable has become real. Even that someone has created a new species of humans. Some people want that; I do not. Some think it inevitable; I do not.


The essays are my own, and some of them may appear (in different form) as parts of a longer work. They make no pretence to completeness, and were not written to be read together; there is even a little overlap in content. Designer Babies probably makes the best introduction, while Out of Time (which on its surface does not even mention genetic technologies) and The Necklace may serve as some kind of corrective to the over-intellectual approach that often mars this kind of discussion.

Designer Babies
The first significant piece I wrote
on these issues, in May 2000

Out of Time
A personal reminiscence from a trek
in Nepal that leads to some thoughts
about what it is to be a person

Nuclear Physics and Molecular Biology
Some lessons from history, notably that
a certain skepticism is appropriate in the
face of technological euphoria

The Necklace
A poem, and a discussion of what inspired
it, the testimony of Glenn McGee to the
California Committee on Human Cloning

Discussing some of my deepest
assumptions, and why I believe that
non-rational beliefs are important

What Becomes a Legend Least
A critical look at James D. Watson,
the grand panjandrum of molecular biology,
a remarkable man with remarkable flaws

Soccer and the Taliban
A trivial issue in a foreign land that
points up some rather deep moral
questions we need to consider at home

Playing God
Written in response to the 'first draft'
of the Human Genome Project

Hype and the Human Genome Project
A cautionary note about how much we still
do not know, and the work that still needs
to be done, by society as well as scientists

Genetic Testing and Healthcare
Many of us worry that genetic
technologies may benefit the rich, but
they might lead to universal healthcare

The Most Important Issue
Nuclear weapons made us face the
possibility of our own mortality; so in
a different way does techno-eugenics

The Human Cuckoo
On the importance of leaving the
next generation with a choice

Some Thoughts on Lee Silver
The author of Remaking Eden is a
dangerous man, and parts of his book
are intellectually dishonest