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A Review of A Consumer’s Guide to A Brave New World

A Consumer’s Guide to A Brave New World is a new book on bioethics by Discovery Institute Senior Fellow Wesley J. Smith. It is available here

Goats with milk full of spider-web silk. Mice with heads made of human brain cells. Human children with genomes so altered, they are not really “human.” All of this and more can be expected from science as humanity realizes the troubling imagination of Aldous Huxley. In A Consumer’s Guide To A Brave New World, Wesley J. Smith prepares readers to join the debate over the proper role of humankind’s expanding biological knowledge.

This book brings a missing ethical flavor to bioethics, applying a refreshing conservative morality to what is typically an amoral debate. Smith seeks to both educate readers on the history of the debate and to convince them of certain moral conclusions.

Readers will find themselves quickly caught up in Smith’s sense of impending doom, and impressed with his understanding of the subject. Smith writes with authority as he cites academics, politicians, and relevant literature and policy. Still, the second half of the book must be taken with caution as Smith predicts the future of humanity, a rare accomplishment.

Smith’s strength is in his moral sense. Few biotech experts are moral creatures first and scientists second; few biotech books make moral rather than scientific assumptions. Perhaps it is sad that the terms “morality” and “science” are not intertwined, but according to Smith they have competing interests. There is a new devotion to things scientific, both in the academy and beyond. This “scientism” resembles a sort of religion in which a commitment to scientific discovery replaces morality.

Scientism argues for the need to conduct human stem-cell research on organically viable offspring, to clone human beings for the purpose of harvesting organs, and even to create through genetic enhancement a “posthuman” race beyond comparison to today’s humanity. Smith, with his moral conviction, rightly upholds the sanctity of human life and believes that scientism is dangerously destroying our reverence for it. He argues instead for adult stem-cell research, limits on scientism, and protection of the unborn.

By no fault of his own, moral conviction is also Smith’s weakness. His moral aversion to bizarre new technologies is commendable and probably shared by lay society, but lay society is not in control of this beast, and those in power easily deflect moral arguments. So it is difficult to see this book impacting the established scientific community, though it will be a godsend to moral conservatives interested in the debate.

Smith’s approach also excludes another powerful, conservative idea that may be helpful: the free market. With the correct rules of law driving market outcomes, many moral dilemmas may well disappear. Smith’s book mostly addresses questions of reproductive science, where rule of law concerning the unborn is shaky. At the level of the adult, where rule of law has had thousands of years to evolve and be defended, there are few moral dilemmas regarding the use of new technology; market consumerism protects each individual interest. The trouble is that an unborn child has no voice in the market and none of the legal protections that adults enjoy. Perhaps this is why Smith dismisses market solutions.

Still, Smith’s distrust of the scientific community is wisdom. His reluctance to allow researchers full control over biology and its uses among our children is dead on the mark.

Trapier K. Michael has studied health economics at Vanderbilt University and health policy in Washington, D.C