Magazine article UNESCO Courier

Jeremy Rifkin: Fears of a Brave New World

Magazine article UNESCO Courier

Jeremy Rifkin: Fears of a Brave New World

Article excerpt

Will wars be fought for the control of genes in the 21st century? Jeremy Rifkin fears the worst and explains why

* What is the Biotech Century?

Our futurists have too narrowly defined the twenty-first century as the information age. In fact, a far more profound shift is taking place in the global economy. Computers and genes are beginning to fuse into a single powerful technological and economic force that is laying the foundation for the biotech century. Computers are increasingly being used to decipher, manage and organize the vast genetic information that is the raw resource of the new global economy. Already multinational corporations are creating giant life-science complexes from which to fashion a bio-industrial world.

There are tremendous short-term benefits - new plants and animals, new pharmaceuticals and energy sources. But it is naive to believe that these benefits come with no costs. The environmental, social and ethical implications of this science are chilling. Will the creation of cloned, chimeric and transgenic species mean the end of nature? Will the mass release of genetically engineered organisms into our biosphere mean genetic pollution and irreversible damage to the biosphere in the twenty-first century? What are the risks of making a "perfect" baby?

* But how does this differ from our longstanding struggle to redesign nature?

It is true that we have been engineering nature since the dawn of the Neolithic revolution in agriculture, but the new genesplicing technologies are qualitatively different. In classical breeding, it is only possible to cross close relatives in the biological kingdom. Today, however, we are no longer constrained by these biological boundaries. For example, scientists have taken the gene that emits light in a firefly and injected it into the genetic code of a tobacco plant, which when fully grown, glows twenty-four hours a day. We have not seen that in evolution. Genetically engineered plants, micro-organisms and animals bring greater risks.

* In discussions surrounding the use of gene therapy to cure or prevent human disease, you raise the question as to who should decide what is a "good" or "bad" gene. Are we heading into a new age of eugenics?

Yes, but it doesn't bear any resemblance to what we saw in Nazi Germany. The new eugenics is not social eugenics. It is banal and friendly. It is commercial and market-driven. Soon, prospective parents will be able to programme the biological future of their unborn children. They will feel pressure to rid their children of "undesirable traits". If you knew you were going to pass on a gene for leukemia, wouldn't you like to eliminate that from the sperm or the egg? And what about obesity or near-sightedness? Once we begin this journey, there is really no place to stop. Chilling eugenics issues will arise as we begin to see our children as the ultimate shopping experience.

We already see this happening. In the 1980s, the Genetech and Eli Lilly companies were awarded patents to market a new genetically engineered growth hormone to the few thousand children suffering from dwarfism in the United States. By 1991, the hormone had become one of the best selling pharmaceutical drugs in the country. Clearly, doctors were prescribing the drug to children who were just shorter than their peers. The companies are now pushing doctors to redefine normal shortness as an "illness".

* Some critics have branded you as an alarmist - they consider your views to be anti-science. These critics go too far, but at some level, do you feel that we should restrain this new genetic science?

I believe that genetic science is invaluable; the question is not the science but the technological application of that science. We must choose between a hard path and a soft path to the twenty-first century. In the case of agriculture, for example, the hard path would lead to genetically engineered plants, environmental risks and health problems. …

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