The Biotech Century

Article excerpt

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). …