The gene genie

Jeremy Rifkin's new book, "The Biotech Century," warns of a genetic-bazaar future.


Jeffrey Obser
May 5, 1998 11:00PM (UTC)

To the still-unfolding Atomic Age, Space Age, Information Age and American Century, we can now add the Biotech Century. For those of us still clinging desperately to the Age of Aquarius, it's hard to trust proclamations of new epochs -- especially with so many people on the city streets seemingly stuck in the Middle Ages. Any writer who uses such terms seriously is bound to get caught in hyperbole.

But if it's the title of a book, look out.

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As a longtime activist and author of 14 books on the impacts of science and technology on society, real or speculative, Rifkin's reputation as the great naysayer of genetics greatly precedes him. Recently he made headlines with a bid to patent a human-animal hybrid -- in order to prevent one from ever being created. His skill at firing a meme across the mediascape is indisputable. But the market for Frankenstein monsters is still looking pretty soft, news reports of headless human organ factories notwithstanding.

In "The Biotech Century," Rifkin sets out to combine all the most troublesome aspects of the genetics revolution into a cohesive analysis of their impact on our assumptions about nature and life itself. His historical backgrounds and social commentaries are often lucid and thought-provoking. But he too often parlays isolated, incremental laboratory successes -- such as the cloning of Dolly or the genetic engineering of frost-free plants -- into soaring proclamations of a portentous future.

This saps the reader's trust almost all the way through an otherwise well-conceived book. Rifkin does confront his reputation head-on in the last chapter, and acknowledges the more noble and beneficial aspects of genetic science and the biotechnology business. But it's unfortunate that he isn't more evenhanded from the beginning, because the more troublesome genetics issues definitely warrant the kind of public awareness and discussion he urges.

Human genetic material is being "prospected" from blood samples of indigenous groups in rainforest regions who receive no compensation for what amounts to a natural resource and have objected to the practice on religious grounds. A cancer patient in California sought royalties on pharmaceutical products derived from his spleen tissue, patented by his surgeon and licensed to the Sandoz Corporation; a court ruled against him in 1990.

"Transgenic" plants and animals, engineered with genes from other species to create pest-resistant crops, disease-prone research mice and microbes that clean up oil spills, may be going into production with only cursory studies of their ecological impacts, Rifkin reports. (If a mouse that's twice as big as it's supposed to be ever scurries under your sofa, perhaps its forefathers escaped from a lab that bred rodents with a human growth hormone gene.)

Genetic engineering of human embryos may be decades away (or maybe not). But Rifkin notes that dubious notions of human perfection have already produced an episode of government-sanctioned "treatment" of short children with human growth hormone in 1992 -- even though shortness has no bearing on health. The power to insert or remove genetic traits in the womb, he argues, promises an insidious slide toward a new eugenics, consecrated on the altar of consumer choice.

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Rifkin sets out his chapters as "strands in an operational matrix for the Biotech Century." They're actually just competent compilations of reasons to worry about where genetics is taking us. The facts by themselves are compelling enough, but Rifkin smothers them with an incessant chime of throwaway alarm bells.

"Vanilla is the most popular flavor in America," he warns at one point while dramatizing the danger of genetically manipulating vanilla-bean crops. We're given repeated roundups of biotech companies' net worths but little word on their actual profits -- which in many cases, as for Internet start-ups, are nonexistent. "How can any living thing be deemed sacred when it is just a pattern of information?" he asks -- though later in the book he compares his role in the bioethics debate to that of a heretic challenging the Vatican at the dawn of the modern era.

Only in the penultimate chapter, "Reinventing Nature," does Rifkin's gift for intriguing social commentary shine through. In an economy increasingly driven by biotechnology and information science, he writes, survival of the fittest is giving way to "survival of the best informed" -- with genes the biological equivalent of computer processors, their worth (and ours) judged by the quality of their programming and life itself increasingly viewed as an ever-morphing message, a work in progress: art.

This new paradigm, he argues chillingly, will suit the masters of the new economy as snugly as Darwin's theories did those of Victorian Britain's: "Now that we can begin reengineering ourselves, we mistakenly think of the new technological manipulation as a creative act, when in reality it is merely a set of choices purchased in the marketplace."

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We'd all like to believe that lofty goals of progress and human advancement will guide our expanding power to tamper with nature's blueprints. Rifkin, though, warns that the irreparable changes we make to nature and our own species may instead be presented to us as "the greatest shopping experience of all time."


Jeffrey Obser

Jeffrey Obser is a freelance journalist who has also written about genetics issues for Newsday.

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