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ss triple helix - winter 2005,  From cells to souls (Book Review)

From cells to souls (Book Review)

From cells to souls - Changing portraits of human nature. - Malcolm Jeeves (Ed) - Eerdmans Publishing 2004 - £19.99 Pb 250pp - ISBN 0 80280 985 5

The Psalmist's question 'What is man that you are mindful of him?' has never been more relevant than today. The Christian understanding of man is now under particular pressure from neo- Darwinians such as Dennett and Singer who look at our biology and morality, and from neuroscientists who challenge our concept of consciousness and of free will.

This book, written from a clearly Christian perspective, examines the current debate about the nature of human personhood. Its contributors are philosophers, theologians, psychiatrists, neuroscientists and biologists. Malcolm Jeeves, the editor, deliberately skews the mix towards a clearer understanding of the implications of current science. This is helpful, as it ensures the debate is as well informed and as contemporary as possible.

Inevitably a multi-author book will have its stronger and weaker parts, and my opinion will differ from yours as to which bit is which. Some of the book, such as its consideration of cloning or the definition of personhood, goes over well worn ground, but this will help those who have never considered the issues before. The standard of contributions is high. It is easy to read bit by bit, as the chapters naturally stand alone, as a series of separate articles around a theme.

For me the important core of the book is in its consideration of the nature of consciousness and an understanding of human agency. I enjoyed the contributions of Alan Torrance, a theologian, and Diogenes Allen, a philosopher. They point out the paradox of scientists, clearly acting as agents yet at the same time questioning the nature of agency as a plausible concept.

Another theme of the book is that man is defined by relationships. It explores the relationship between mind and brain and body, and calls for an integrative view of man, rejecting both a dualistic and reductionist view of man's nature. Glen Weaver describes man's nature as 'embodied spirituality', a helpful concept. The book also explores our nature in terms of our own relationships, not least our potential for relationship with God.

This is a rewarding and useful book. It could have been even better if it had an index and suggestions for further reading. It makes me realise just how much we don't yet know about ourselves - how much basic theory is still being played with on the drawing board. The philosophy and theology of neuroscience will be a hefty issue for the church of the 21st century. Reading this book is an excellent introduction.

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