A nail in the coffin of humanity. The genetic revolution is in its infancy but its effects will define the next century. So who will monitor the scientists? A humanist polemic warns of the dangers ahead

Brave New Worlds: Genetics and the Human Experience

Bryan Appleyard <em>HarperCollins, 188pp, £16.

The genetic revolution is in its infancy but its effects will define the next century. So who will monitor the scientists? A humanist polemic warns of the dangers ahead

This is a title which really does say it all. The ironic extension of Aldous Huxley's ironic gloss on Miranda's passionate wonder at a world which "hath such people in it"; then the central shaft - genetics - and finally, in full view, the subject, "the human experience". This is Bryan Appleyard riding on the white horse of liberal humanism as he waves his sabre, charging towards the cannon's mouth of "a supine technological determinism which is being employed as a bracing antidote to culture and civilisation".

In Understanding the Present: science and the soul of modern man (1992), Appleyard wrote that science had done "appalling spiritual damage and there is much more it can still do". He explored the theme further in his novel The First Church of the New Millennium, and returns to it again in this provocative attack.

The new genetics threatens to change and dominate the next phase of civilisation (or lack of it), and in many ways it can be seen as rather a British property. The present flooding of genes into the consciousness of everyone, from the deepest don to the dodgiest punter ("the answer lies in the genes") began in mid-century Cambridge with Watson and Crick's beautiful double helix - a discovery Appleyard considers the most important in intellectual history. The cloning of the nearly-pretty Dolly in Edinburgh, half a century later, intensified interest. It is fitting, then, that from the mid-point - Manchester, Appleyard's birthplace, a sound mill of scepticism - should come this loud hailer of alarm.

Appleyard has many anxieties, some expressed trenchantly, others more tentatively. One central fear is that science, or "the cosy shallowness of the popular scientism now on offer", is the third nail in the coffin of the century, especially as it follows hard on the heels, as he sees it, of the quasi-scientific systems of Nazism and communism. In my view, he is being unduly alarmist, and gives far too much credit to those totalitarian dogmas which reached for science as a fig leaf, and not as the hard-headed search for truth which is its mission. Scientists can rightly be annoyed at being lumped in with the treacherous apologists of those brute systems.

Appleyard is urgent that geneticists pause, even stop altogether, before the human personality as we have known it historically - especially in its spiritual dimension - is burned by fiddling. While I have some sympathy with him here, his is, alas, not even a voice crying in the wilderness; it is a voice from another planet. We humans are driven by curiosity and will not be denied; and who knows, in the longer future, whether such curiosity might lead to our salvation and not, as Appleyard fears, the extermination of human kind.

The cloning of Dolly the sheep is such an important trigger of this stimulating polemic because it is like nothing that has gone before, particularly in the implications it has on everything from insurance to the environment, from the breaking down of the barriers between the species to what it is to be most human. Yet it promises as many opportunities as threats.

Appleyard acknowledges that the discovery of a particular gene amounts to no more than a genetic disposition towards a certain condition; but he writes as if it were deterministic and fears that genetics provides an all too probable opportunity for controlling and manipulating human beings, for imposing another authoritarianism in the name of science and for the setting up of belief systems which can be subverted for such purposes. Even Christianity and the other great religions have been so subverted. Control, like curiosity, can be an exterminator. He has a strong point here, but it is an argument which applies across the board of "progress". Yet science does not claim to have all the answers and has never claimed to have the final one.

Appleyard spotlights the Asilomar conference of 1975, when some scientists suggested that "maybe knowledge was not neutral". He concludes, therefore, that knowledge can be morally bad. So what do we do about that? Well, it is a question that needs to be asked and answered repeatedly. My own answer is that knowledge is indeed neutral. It is we as citizens who use it well, or use it for evil. Eugenics has proved - if you need further proof - that a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing.

As Appleyard points out, Hitler's biological theories had a surprising degree of credibility at the time. And the timing is crucial, since what appears to be a truth in science in one century, or even in one generation, can be qualified and even rejected in the next. He is right, surely, to query genocentrism, even if in his eagerness to destroy he can put his argument at risk. To state, for example, that "genetic truths are negative and socially divisive" is to state only half the case.

The core of the book, however, carries a different sort of conviction, particularly on the subject of Appleyard's late niece, Fiona, who suffered from a rare form of muscular dystrophy. She outwitted and outlived all expectations, and reached the remarkable age of 30. "She changed lives," writes Appleyard. "She is the most extraordinary person I've ever known."

Had her parents been warned of the strong possibility of her condition, would they have agreed to an abortion? Or, if technologically feasible, even permitted some form of genetic engineering? In both cases, Fiona, this "extraordinary person" (and one believes Appleyard wholly that she was indeed such a person) would not have lived. In that most personal, poignant example, the polemical thrust of Brave New Worlds finds a true point of entry into the world of lived lives.

The very existence of Fiona, who died just before the publication of the book, raises compelling questions. As presented by Bryan Appleyard, she is a necessary icon, not so much of liberal humanism, but of an older history - a spiritual, even Catholic destiny, which haunts this book as the true enemy of modern science, and of the new genetics in particular.

Lord Bragg is a novelist and broadcaster

This article first appeared in the 22 January 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Goodbye to all that boiled cabbage