The Deconstruction of Death

Article excerpt

The Coming Politics of Biotechnology

SINCE THE eighteenth century, a succession of technological revolutions has transformed the human condition and the course of history. First, the steam engine took center stage. By the end of the nineteenth century, the multifaceted applications of electricity had begun to change the world. During the second half of the last century, computer technology transformed scientific research, economic activity, military forces and nearly every aspect of human affairs. Now the mapping of the genome [1] signals that a new wave of technology-driven change is coming.

The genome project highlights the recent progress in genetics and the other life sciences, which in turn inspires and sustains continuing advances in biotechnology. By promising to satisfy the most elemental human yearnings--the desire for good health and for the postponement of death--biotechnology attracts the kind of deep-rooted political support and strong financial backing that few other fields of science enjoy. It can therefore maintain a momentum capable of generating a stream of scientific-technological developments that governments and international organizations will find hard to control. And there is now little doubt about where this is leading: to human intervention in the process of evolution itself.

Some of these developments, it can be safely predicted, will pose new and fundamental challenges to prevailing religious doctrines and teachings. Longevity, combined with good health, is a goal that democratic governments cannot oppose. Who would want to block the path to possible eradication of hereditary sickle cell anemia, or to medications that promise a cure to Parkinson's and Alzheimer's diseases? But when such universally acceptable goals have been reached, science will not come to a full stop, even if religious organizations, ethics advocates or politicians should want to draw a line beyond which human nature must not be altered.

The good and the bad that the era of the genome promises to bring will often be inseparable. Consider this simple example: experts predict confidently that progress in biotechnology will make it possible, probably well before the end of this century, to extend people's active life span by twenty years or more. This, most people would agree, will be a good thing. But if this prediction comes true, one consequence will be that entrenched dictators will live longer, thus postponing the leadership successions that until now have so often offered the sole means of relief from tyrannical regimes. Stalin, for one, comes to mind as a fellow who would not have volunteered to retire had his doctors been able to keep him active and fit to the age of, say, 120. If he could have benefited from the medical technology that seems likely to be available a few decades hence, he would have ruled his evil empire until just about now, and his unfortunate subjects would have suffered many more campaigns of terror. And if biotechn ology could have offered Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping the same extended life span, Deng would still be waiting in the wings for an opportunity to implement his reforms.

The Genome and Globalization

GLOBALIZATION can only hasten the era of the genome. The Internet is facilitating the spread of the latest scientific discoveries in genetics and biotechnology, while the pressures for free trade are breaking down the barriers that Luddite movements erect to keep out products derived from these discoveries. When legislators in one country pass a law to prohibit an application of biotechnology that they judge to be politically incorrect, they will have to contend with the virtual certainty that other countries will happily exploit the new application. For instance, should the U.S. Congress decide to prohibit implants for human patients of organs derived from cloned sheep or pigs, Britain and Japan might allow the production and use of these "lifesaving" implants. …