[This review appeared in the Journal of Social, Political and Economic Studies, Fall 1998, pp. 355-358, and later in The St. Croix Review, October 1999, pp. 62-64.]

The Biotech Century

Jeremy Rifkin

Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam, New York, 1998


            Jeremy Rifkin continues to write some of the most thoughtful, and at the same time intensely engaging, discussion of the emerging trends in the on-going scientific and technological revolution. His book The End of Work (1995) is, in this reviewer's opinion, the most comprehensive and penetrating analysis of the coming interplay between utopian promise and economic displacement. Now, with The Biotech Century, he opens our eyes to a vast new set of issues that will, without exaggeration, make the world stand on its head.

            Even though we are just at the beginning of the biotechnological revolution, much has been done already, as each day's newspaper attests. Rifkin tells how much of the cotton grown in Alabama is already genetically engineered to kill insects. In 1996, a type of predator mite was let loose in Florida to devour other mites that destroy strawberry and other crops. Scientists are creating bacteria that can make plastics, and the first plastic-producing plant is expected in 2003. In 1997, the first mammal (Dolly, the sheep) was cloned. Genetically engineered human insulin is being produced. Work is going forward to render mosquitoes incapable of spreading disease. Human skin, ears, noses, heart valves, lungs, livers, pancreases, and bladders are being made in the laboratory; and Rifkin cites the prediction that by 2020 95% of human body parts "will be replaceable with laboratory-grown organs." An anti-freeze protein gene is taken from flounders and spliced into tomatoes' genetic code so that the tomatoes will be frost resistant. Likewise, chicken genes are put into potatoes. The first "DNA computer" (using DNA instead of silicon) has been built, and holds out the prospect of computers that will be one million times faster than the best computers today.

            Research is rapidly eclipsing even these developments. The Human Genome Project, begun in 1988, is going forward vigorously. Other genome projects are mapping the genes of plants, animals and microorganisms. The Human Genome Diversity Project at Stanford University is taking blood samples from each of the world's 5,000 "linguistically distinct populations" so that those populations' genetic makeup can be studied. Work is being done to identify the genes behind 4,000 genetically-based diseases. In 1997, a headless frog was produced, and this points toward "organ farms" based on each person's own DNA. All this...and much more.

            The Biotech Century is accordingly fascinating for the detail it provides. Its greater importance lies, however, in its invitation to the world to engage in a robust discussion of just what sort of science we want. Rifkin doesn't reject all of these marvelous developments out of hand, but he does point to many dangers that should receive the most thoughtful attention. Among other things, he points to the fact that there is no predictive risk-assessment science that can make possible a clear knowledge of the trade-offs - negatives as well as positives - that can come from intervening radically in the world's gene pool. Make no mistake about it, there are profound dangers. We should notice that, unfortunately, the debate between ecology and technology in recent years has been so wrapped up in ideology, and indeed in an abuse of science, that it's hard to tell how these dangers can possibly be assessed in today's world. In any case, there is wisdom in Rifkin's admonition to follow the old medical dictum of "first, do no harm." (Going slow is easier said than done, however. There is enormous human market demand for the products that biotechnology can provide.)

            An important distinction that Rifkin emphasizes, as we attempt to go slow, is between somatic gene therapy (which corrects a genetic problem within a given individual) and "germ line intervention" (which changes the inheritable traits for all successive generations and thus involves a permanent alteration of the gene pool). Here's a summary of what Rifkin thinks wise: "One could make a solid case for genetic screening - with the appropriate safeguards in place - to better predict the onslaught of disabling diseases, especially those that can be prevented with early treatment. The new gene-splicing technologies also open the door to a new generation of life-saving pharmaceutical products. On the other hand, the use of gene therapy to make corrective changes in the human germ line, affecting the options of future generations, is far more problematic, as is the effort to release large numbers of transgenic organisms into the Earth's biosphere."

            Radical choice will be forced upon us, whether we want it or not. Before much longer, parents may face legal liability to their children for a failure to have genetic screening done, followed up by such genetic therapy as seems indicated, before a baby is born. But exactly what gene therapy will be "indicated"? Somatic therapy to remove genetic diseases is one thing; intervention to change a potential human being's height, shape of nose, hair color, body type, ethnic characteristics, intelligence, behavior, etc., will call upon the parents to "play God"; and even a refusal to act will itself be a form of radical choice. And the issues go from there: are such matters to be left to parents? How much should a government, the law or a given culture determine the choices? Who is to decide? There is even the possibility, very real, that two or more different species of human beings may come into being, with those who have received genetic planning becoming vastly superior to those who have not. The implications that that would have in society and politics would be staggering.

            Everything we have cited so far lies in the realm of "prudential" pros and cons. They are matters that even the most secular and humanistic among us will want to consider. Such utilitarian concerns are not, however, all there is to it. Fundamental issues of values and of sense of life are at issue, and these most often involve theology and metaphysics. Rifkin, for example, wants us to oppose the "desacralization" of life-forms as they now exist. This leads to a vast area that he doesn't enter upon: what is the basis for a "sacramental" outlook; and what, if any, are its limitations? Sacramental views are not all alike. Just as with religion in general, they can range (as Augustinianism did) from an other-worldliness that denies all role to human beings as acting agents of change, to a secularized acceptance of much, if not all, that a non-sacramental view would allow. The revolution in biotechnology is ushering in questions of a complexity far greater than the abortion issue that has bedeviled the American body politic since Roe v. Wade. Indeed, the choices will be so radical that all of humanity may soon be engaged in a vast renewal of the religious wars that were so horrible in Europe a few centuries ago. Are we ready? When Rifkin calls for "robust discussion," he had better add to it a plea for "civilized, empathetic, tolerant discussion." Discussion per se will hardly be avoidable. Maybe if we start the discussion "early" (if we can still consider ourselves at that point), some civility can be mustered - and then maintained. Rifkin's voice is civilized, and so his book is a good place to start.

                                                                                Dwight D. Murphey