The Government Printing Office almost 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 abstracts in small print at the back, and tucks them away on a high shelf for reference, when and if necessary.
But not the recently published "Being Human: Readings from the President's Council on Bioethics," also available at www.bioethics.gov.
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, entitled "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.