Customer Review

13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A good textbook for a bioethics class, April 5, 2011
This review is from: Genetically Modified Foods: Debating Biotechnology (Contemporary Issues Series) (Paperback)
I'm a graduate student in philosophy of science; I'm reviewing this book as a possible textbook for a course I'm developing on philosophical issues surrounding food. I give it a qualified recommendation, and it's the best textbook I've found for a class that doesn't focus primarily on GMOs. (For this review, by GMOs I mean the agricultural and culinary use of organisms whose genome has been directly and deliberately modified, often by the `splicing' of genes from other species.)

This is an anthology, comprising 35 readings in 8 parts (plus introductions by the editors to each part). The selection of readings is comprehensive -- almost all of the major ethical issues related to GMOs are covered with at least a few readings. On the other hand, many of the readings are short, and several are just 3-4 pages long. They would be more appropriate for first-year and sophomore undergraduates, but more advanced students may be dissatisfied with the brevity.

With the exception of a single very technical article, the readings deal pretty much exclusively with ethical rather than epistemological issues; for a philosophy of science class, I would recommend supplementing this book with, for example, the executive summaries of National Academies reports on what we know about the health, safety, and environmental impact of GMOs. Roughly half of the readings are written by academics in a professional capacity (eg, bioethicists and molecular biologists); the other half are written by activists and pundits (or by people writing in that capacity). Unsurprisingly, many of the latter sort are sloppy, disingenuous, and/or polemical; this is the primary reason I did not give the book 5 starts. I would probably either leave these readings out or assign them sparingly for critical thinking purposes.

The notion of `balance' in presentation is controversial among philosophers and historians of science these days, with some people arguing that it is inappropriate to present scientific controversies in a `balanced' or `fair' way. However, I am inclined to think that `balance' is appropriate, at least in teaching the GMO controversy. Some parts of this anthology are not balanced, and I consider this a mild-to-moderate vice. For example, all three of the readings in the part on labelling argue against labelling, and all three of the readings on patent and international law are critical of the current regimes for handling GMOs. Overall, however, the selection of readings seems to be balanced -- the pro-GMO parts balancing with the GMO-skeptical parts -- and it certainly does a good job of bringing out the complex array of values that are relevant to GMOs.

It's worthwhile and appropriate to compare this anthology with two other prominent anthologies on the same topic: The Ethics of Food: A Reader for the Twenty-First Century, edited by Pence, and Ethical Issues in Biotechnology, edited by Sherlock and Morrey. I find Pence's anthology to be quite poor: despite the title, it deals largely with GMOs; the readings are not at all balanced (it's heavily skewed in favor of GMOs); and there are almost no readings by philosophers or pieces written by academics in a professional capacity. Sherlock and Morrey is an extremely thorough and involved anthology, covering GMOs and some related issues of biotechnology (eg, cloning). Many of their readings are 10-20 pages long, and their introductions to each part make a reasonable effort to explain the relevant science. I recommend Sherlock and Morrey for a class that spends at least half of a semester on GMOs, or an advanced undergraduate class, and Ruse and Castle for class that spends 3-6 weeks on GMOs.

Finally, a few small notes. The binding on my copy seems a little flimsy; I worry that it would not survive a single semester completely intact, much less regular use over several years. It's quite inexpensive, and published by a small and eclectic press. First published in 2002, it's occasionally a bit dated, and undergraduates today are unlikely to remember the public controversy over Golden Rice and protestors dressed up as monarch butterflies.
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