The Biotech Century

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 337

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...

(The entire section contains 2270 words.)

Unlock This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this The Biotech Century study guide. You'll get access to all of the The Biotech Century content, as well as access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

  • Analysis
Start your 48-Hour Free Trial

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

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1933

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 view, however, they did so for questionable reasons.

Rifkin addresses the matter of objectivity in the scientific community. Clearly, most scientists aim for objectivity in conducting experiments and in reporting their results. Rifkin warns, however, that despite their strenuous attempts to be unbiased, objective, and value free, what molecular biologists and other scientists see “ultimately depends upon what [they are] looking for. The search is always preconditioned by the biases of the researchers.” Certainly the Baconian paradigm is firmly fixed in the minds of many eminent scientists, whose training has been strongly influenced by it. The conquest of nature is more important and justifiable in their eyes than are attempts to achieve the integrative, systemic approach to nature that ecological study promotes and pursues. Rifkin’s fear is that molecular biologists are loosing forces that may eventually elude their control and that, taken to the extreme, could threaten all life on Earth, the great biosphere whose natural balance has already been severely compromised by the relentless inroads made upon it by industrial and scientific development.

The splitting of the atom and the unraveling of the DNA double helix, according to Rifkin, represent “the two premier scientific accomplishments of the twentieth century, the first a tour de force of physics, the second of biology.” He cautions, however, that the splitting of the atom led to forces so difficult to control, so frightening that only two atom bombs have ever been used against human populations and that the growth of nuclear energy, once thought to offer the solution to the world’s energy problems, is being severely reined in because of the hazards of disposing of nuclear wastes and because of the danger of nuclear meltdowns.

The biotechnical revolution may create situations even more resistant to controls than those the nuclear revolution has created. Biological warfare can effectively obliterate an enemy. A shift in air currents, however, may annihilate those on the offensive rather than those they seek to destroy, to say nothing of hundreds of thousands of innocent people caught in the crosswinds, whose environment might suddenly become fatally poisoned. If genetic testing and tampering can ascertain and alter the characteristics of fetuses, extreme population imbalances are predictable. What Chinese family, for example, would opt for a female offspring if genetic manipulation could guarantee a male? Would fetuses found to have irreparable genetic defects be permitted to grow to term? Would homosexual fetuses be routinely aborted or genetically altered to eliminate their sexual propensities?

Rifkin has organized his book around seven biotechnical and social forces that underlie the biotechnical revolution he foresees in the twenty-first century. First, he focuses on the ability of molecular biologists to create a new resource base through identifying, isolating, and recombining genes in animals, including humans. Second, a thriving and highly profitable enterprise has already arisen in patenting genes, cell lines, tissue from bioengineering, organs, organisms, and the procedures for altering them. Rifkin foresees further the growth of global industries focusing on artificial biotechnical products and processes which, already fast developing in agriculture and medicine, will spread to other fields and will have global economic implications. Next, the Human Genome Project, already under way, will, within a short time, map all of the human genome, making possible the control of characteristics in sperm and egg cells and in embryos that will result in the sort of eugenic civilization darkly predicted by George Orwell and Aldous Huxley in the mid-twentieth century.

These developments will coincide with a proliferation of scientific studies biased in favor of a Baconian-inspired biotechnology that the overall public will be brain-washed into accepting. Along with this, the increasing sophistication of computers will result in their ability to handle all the complex genetic information required for the effective implementation of genetic engineering. Finally, Rifkin predicts that Darwinian interpretations of evolution will be replaced by concepts that organisms are not permanent forms but are constantly changing. This argument will provide justification for the reorganization of the political, economic, and social lives of everyone living in the brave new world of the biotech century.

Rifkin’s greatest concern is that the enormous economic profits to be reaped from biotechnology will completely blind the greedy to the long-term consequences of their actions. The world has no shortage of opportunists who will grab what they can for themselves, giving no thought to the welfare of generations yet unborn. Another fear, certainly, involves the possibility that political or religious fanatics will manufacture and use materials that could very well annihilate life on the planet. Such people are obsessed by the righteousness of their causes and can, in the name of that righteousness, justify in their own consciences any destructive act, even one that might lead to worldwide destruction.

A receptive, uncritical public may be the greatest danger to humankind as the biotech century proceeds. A generation born under certain circumstances soon adjusts to those circumstances, and regardless of how abnormal they are when measured by previous standards, they soon come to seem normal to those who have known little else throughout their lifetimes. Rifkin contends that consumers create markets as much as markets create consumers. A public that wants genetic screening or the cloning of humans will eventually have its way, and herein lies a considerable long-term danger to humankind.

One might question, for example, why the public or any major segment of it would support the cloning of human beings. Those who do not wish to marry but want to continue their family lines may find appealing the notion of being able to create a human essentially identical to themselves physically and, to an extent, mentally. Also, a clone in some future never-never land might be created for the sole purpose of providing spare parts for the original donor of the genetic material from which the clone has been created. The religious, ethical, and social implications of using clones for spare parts are chilling, but they must certainly be considered, because the very real possibility exists that this is a use to which clones might be put.

People who dismiss such speculation as something that cannot happen in the foreseeable future should reflect on the reaction to the prognostications of Rifkin and Ted Howard, his collaborator, in Who Should Play God? They might do well to remember that the notion of the Earth as heliocentric was considered heretical during the first millennium and half of the common era and that the thought of humans being able to fly was part of the science fiction of earlier times. What reasonable person in 1950 would have considered it possible to send a vehicle to the moon, place a human on that distant outpost, and return him or her safely to Earth? Humans are still sufficiently imbedded in the past to think quite frequently of the future as distant and virtually unrealizable. However, civilization is moving at a great speed. The future in biotechnical terms is tomorrow or, if one has been napping, may even be yesterday.

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.

Illustration of PDF document

Download The Biotech Century Study Guide

Subscribe Now