Sunday, March 21, 2004

The Government PrintingOfficealmost never publishes poetry, and rarely anything generally regarded as passable prose. When it puts together thick volumes of testimony collected by presidential commissions, nearly everyone who has to read them skims the dull stuff, the mathematical tables and abstractsin small print at the back, and tucksthem awayona high shelf for reference, when and if necessary.

But not the recently published “Being Human: Readings fromthe President’sCouncilon Bioethics,” alsoavailableat If you can’t tell a book by its cover, the cover of this one suggests that it’s no ordinary government document. The cover is graced by two artworks, a photograph of a ballerina leaping lyrically through the air like an angel and a famous woodcut portrait of Andreas Vesalius, who wrote the first complete textbook of human anatomy in the 16th century. Together these illustrations tell you that this book wants to create a dialogue between biology and art, science and the humanities, medicine and poetry.

It’s meant as a companion piece to the report published by the council last year, titled “Beyond Therapy: Biotechnology and the Pursuit of Happiness,” which examines the ethical questions erupting in the expanding science of biotechnology. Topics to ponder include the limits of stem cell research, cloning, the problems posed by “designer babies,” advances in drug therapy and the moral dimension we confront in our desire to cure disease and live longer, i.e., the social and ethical implications of scientific progress in the pursuit of happiness.

The new book neither pontificates nor philosophizes. Instead it presents an anthology of poetry, essays and fictional narratives for the whole family. Leon Kass, the chairman of the President’s Council, rightly says it “can contribute to a richer understanding and deeper appreciation of our humanity, necessary for facing the challenges confronting us in a biotechnical age.”

What’s so extraordinary about this volume is that it’s devoid of grandstanding, lobbying by “experts” and pompous recommendations of what to do and how to do it. It asks, with a certain humility, for the reader to think for himself about the implications of the scientific discoveries that can make our lives happier, healthier — and scarier.

The 95 readings from the ancients onward include those from Aristotle, Shakespeare, Walt Whitman and J.M. Barrie (creator of Peter Pan). They are meant to educate through the wisdom of others. Rather than propose solutions, we’re teased with Faustian temptations to alter human nature and to contemplate how far we might go to pursue high-tech happiness in a bioengineered world.

The first section, called “The Search Perfection,” includes Nathaniel Hawthorne’s haunting short story “The Birth-mark,” about a scientist who is married to a beautiful woman whose face is marred by a birthmark. The flaw accents her humanity, but her scientist-husband’s hubris and overweening zeal for exerting the power of perfection over his wife compels him to erase the birthmark and so to destroy the woman he loves.

An excerpt from George Eliot’s novel “Middlemarch” is a reflection on the limits of medicine. It cuts to the bone, rendering medicine impotent when a doctor must explain to his patient’s wife that her husband hasn’t long to live. What should the doctor tell Dorothea, who sits silently “as if she had been turned to marble, though the life within her was so intense that her mind had never before swept in brief time over an equal range of scenes and motives. ‘Help me pray,’ she said.”

In considering human dignity, the volume reprises “The Village Blacksmith,” Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem once committed to memory by nearly every schoolchild, but now quite out of fashion. Malcolm Gladwell, in “The Drugstore Athlete,” has an ambivalent consideration of artificial enhancements, such as steroids, to increase an athlete’s ability. We don’t like the unfair advantage drugs give to athletes, but we have no problem cheating nature in other ways: “We have come to prefer a world where the distractable take Ritalin, the depressed take Prozac, and the unattractive get cosmetic surgery.”

Dr. Kass is eager to establish a national dialogue about issues both rarified and as down-to-earth as science fiction. We’re wandering over terrain studded with hidden landmines. How do we balance regulation and responsibility, limitation and aspiration, our longing for the stars when our feet are made of clay? How do we resist allowing the light of information to shade into the darkness of manipulation?

“Some books,” said Francis Bacon, the 17th century essayist, “are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested.”

This unlikely offering from the bowels of government bureaucracy offers an abundanceoffoodfor thought. Bon appetite.

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