The Biotech Century

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Jeremy Rifkin, author of BIOSPHERE POLITICS (1991) and THE END OF WORK (1994) as well as coauthor of WHO SHOULD PLAY GOD? (1977), warns that once biotechnological processes are set in motion, it may be much more difficult to control them than it has been to control other technologies. Just as Thomas Malthus some two centuries ago predicted that the population of the world would in the foreseeable future outstrip the planet’s ability to feed that population, so does Rifkin’s clarion call predict gravely what might happen as biotechnology, with all its ethical and economic implications, creates whole new universes of human possibilities and dilemmas.

The modern convergence of computer technology and genetic engineering has, in Rifkin’s mind, provided the means of revolutionizing such fields as medicine and agriculture but has, simultaneously, raised the specter of an enticing and potentially treacherous commercialization of the new biotechnology that could have far-reaching consequences for life upon the planet.

The dangers of lost identity, curtailed civil rights, diminished privacy, and forms of mind control that might make the chilling predictions of George Orwell and Aldous Huxley pale by comparison, will almost certainly alter the course of human existence in startling and increasingly intrusive ways. Rifkin fears that once biotechnical processes are loosed, they may prove irreversible.

THE BIOTECH CENTURY: HARNESSING THE GENE AND REMAKING THE WORLD, a clear, well-written book, with a comprehensive bibliography and a useful index, is an essential volume. Even if time proves many of Rifkin’s conclusions, like those of Malthus, to be incorrect, it is necessary that thinking people consider the possibilities that he adroitly outlines in this engaging study.

Sources for Further Study

Business Week. April 13, 1998, p. 14.

JAMA: Journal of the American Medical Association. CCLXXX, August 12, 1998, p. 575.

The Nation. CCLXVI, April 13, 1998, p. 11.

The National Catholic Reporter. April 24, 1998, p. 16.

Nature. CCCXCIII, May 7, 1998, p. 31.

The New York Review of Books. XLV, April 23, 1998, p. 14.

The New York Times Book Review. CIII, March 22, 1998, p. 34.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLV, February 16, 1998, p. 195.

The Progressive. LXII, May, 1998, p. 43.

Sierra. LXXXIII, September, 1998, p. 80.

The Biotech Century

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Since the mid-twentieth century, computer technology and the life sciences have developed side by side at breakneck speed. By the end of the century, they converged into an inconceivably omnipotent force with broad social, economic, and philosophical implications.

Humankind, often unwittingly, has been drawn into a biotechnical age that will likely define not only the first half of the twenty- first century but will also have a lasting impact on all subsequent centuries and human activities, much as the Industrial Revolution of the nineteenth century affected not only its own time but all subsequent history. Despite the problems and hazards brought about by the industrialization of the world, twentieth century humans would fare badly if they were magically catapulted into the preindustrial age. The conveniences the Industrial Revolution made available have created for the masses a life considerably easier than life before it. Humankind, nevertheless, has been forced to cope with the problems that went together with industrialization and urbanization.

Jeremy Rifkin, founder and president of the Foundation on Economic Trends in Washington, D.C., has discussed such problems in a number of his earlier books, most notably Who Should Play God? (1977) and Entropy (1989), both collaborations with Ted Howard, and in Biosphere Politics: A Cultural Odyssey from the Middle Ages to the New Age (1991), Beyond Beef: The Rise and Fall of the Cattle Industry (1992), and Voting Green (1992), a collaboration with Carol Grunewald. Many scientists consider Rifkin an alarmist whose views are too extreme to be credible.

When Who Should Play God? was published in 1977, its predictions of the creation of transgenic species, cloning of vertebrates, test-tube babies, the renting of surrogate wombs, the fabrication of human organs, and human gene surgery struck molecular scientists, politicians, scientific writers, and others concerned with biotechnology as unrealistic, as events surely that would not occur within the next century. Within twenty years, these predictions had all been realized.

Rifkin is not a lopsided environmentalist. He is quick to applaud much of what genetic research has accomplished, particularly genetic screening and genetic surgery that can, for example, detect and correct many genetic anomalies in fetuses. He acknowledges that agriculture, and by extension the whole human race, has benefited from biotechnology. His concern is that humankind does not yet realize what the long-term effects of biotechnical meddling may be.

Part of his thesis is that the paradigm of nature espoused by Francis Bacon in the late sixteenth century has been the compelling paradigm of science ever since. Bacon is considered the founder of modern science, but, as Rifkin points out, he “urged future generations to squeeze,’ mould,’ and shape’ nature, in order to enlarge the bounds of human empire to the effecting of all things possible.’” Humans, for Bacon, were the center of all nature, a commonly held view during the Enlightenment. Scientists have accepted this philosophy as a guiding principle and have employed it, tacitly or overtly, to justify much of their activity. When science moves out of the laboratory and into the marketplace, the commercial possibilities of scientific advances are staggering. Rifkin questions, with seeming justification, the ethics of those whose interest in science is largely commercial.

In support of his skepticism, Rifkin notes that in 1974 eleven leading molecular biologists published an open letter to their fellow molecular biologists urging a moratorium on recombinant deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) experiments that posed a considerable risk. The following year, when 140 biologists from around the world met to consider this proposal, most indicated in an informal poll that they wanted to get on with their work unimpeded by the safeguards the document proposed. On the third day of the conference, when several attorneys outlined the legal responsibilities of scientists who create biohazards, the scientists began to have second thoughts. Their reservations, however, were based on fears of legal liability rather than on concerns about the long-term effects of their scientific experiments. Clearly, the economic interests of most of those who attended the conference were far more persuasive than the scientific interests. The specter that Harold Green of George Washington University Law School presented of the possibility of multimillion-dollar lawsuits resulting from biohazardous experiments turned the tide. The biologists finally voted overwhelmingly in favor of a two-point safety program. In Rifkin’s...

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