The Biotech Century: Human Life as Intellectual Property

By Rifkin, Jeremy | The Nation, April 13, 1998 | Go to article overview

The Biotech Century: Human Life as Intellectual Property


Rifkin, Jeremy, The Nation


In little more than a generation, our definition of life and the meaning of existence is likely to be radically altered. Long-held assumptions about nature, including our own human nature, are likely to be rethought. Many age-old practices regarding sexuality, reproduction, birth and parenthood could be partially abandoned. Ideas about equality and democracy are also likely to be redefined, as well as our vision of what is meant by terms such as "free will" and "progress." Our very sense of self and society will likely change during what I call the emerging Biotech Century, as it did when the early Renaissance spirit swept over medieval Europe more than 600 years ago.

Although Dolly the sheep and talk of cloning have gathered sensational headlines and captured the public imagination, many forces are quietly converging to create this powerful new social current. At the epicenter is a technology revolution unmatched in all of history in its power to remake ourselves, our institutions and our world: Scientists are beginning to reorganize life at the genetic level. The new biotechnologies are already reshaping a wide range of fields, including forestry, agriculture, animal husbandry, mining, energy, bioremediation, packaging and construction materials, pharmaceuticals, medicine, and food and drink. Before our eyes lies an uncharted new landscape whose contours are being shaped in thousands of biotechnology laboratories around the world.

Global life-science companies like Novartis, Glaxo Wellcome, SmithKline Beecham, Du Pont, Eli Lilly, Rohm and Haas, Upjohn, Merck and Dow Chemical, in turn, are quickly maneuvering to exert their influence and control over the new genetic commerce. Typical of the trend is the bold decision by the Monsanto Corporation, long a world leader in chemical products, to sell off its entire chemical division in 1997 and anchor its research, development and marketing in biotech-based technologies and products. The consolidation of the life-science industry by global commercial enterprises rivals the consolidations, mergers and acquisitions going on in the other great technology arenas of the twenty-first century--computer telecommunications, entertainment and information services--although much less attention has been focused on it in the media and public policy.

Great economic changes in history occur when a number of technological and social forces come together to create a new "operating matrix." I see seven strands composing the operating matrix of the Biotech Century. Together, they create a framework for a new economic era:

[sections] First, the ability to isolate, identify and recombine genes is making the gene pool available, for the first time, as the primary raw resource for future economic activity. Recombinant DNA techniques and other biotechnologies allow scientists and biotech companies to locate, manipulate and exploit genetic resources for specific economic ends.

[sections] Second, the awarding of patents on genes, cell lines, genetically engineered tissue, organs and organisms, as well as the processes used to alter them, is giving the marketplace the commercial incentive to exploit the new resources.

[sections] Third, the globalization of commerce and trade make possible the wholesale reseeding of the Earth's biosphere with a laboratory-conceived Second Genesis, an artificially produced bioindustrial nature designed to replace nature's own evolutionary scheme. A global life-science industry is already beginning to wield unprecedented power over the vast biological resources of the planet. Life-science fields ranging from agriculture to medicine are being consolidated under the umbrella of giant "life" companies in the emerging biotech marketplace.

[sections] Fourth, the mapping of the approximately 100,000 genes that make up the human genome and new breakthroughs in genetic screening, including DNA chips, somatic gene therapy and the imminent prospect of genetic engineering of human eggs, sperm and embryonic cells, are paving the way for the wholesale alteration of the human species and the birth of a commercially driven eugenics civilization. …

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