Taking On The Gene Tinkerers


Harnessing the Gene and Remaking the World

By Jeremy Rifkin

Tarcher/Putnam 271pp $24.95

For more than two decades, Washington activist Jeremy Rifkin has been practicing vigilantism in pursuit of biotechnology. As the industry has sped ahead at lightning pace, ostensibly for the public good, Rifkin has lurked around every bend, ready to challenge and spread fear and uncertainty about virtually any research on the manipulation of human genes. He has filed many lawsuits. He has enlisted some of the country's most prominent religious leaders to oppose patents on genes used to make drugs. And he has written a slew of books, such as Declaration of a Heretic and Who Should Play God?, attacking biotechnologists as greedy, arrogant Dr. Frankensteins. Rifkin argues that they are mortgaging public safety, our humanity, and the natural order for short-term profits.

I can sympathize with executives who turn crimson at the mention of Rifkin's name, but I've interviewed him enough to respect his intelligence and his sensitivity to notions that really freak people out--a sensitivity often much greater than exists in the industry. Give the guy credit: He knows how to get people's attention. When food companies paraded out experts to argue that gene-spliced foods were safe, for example, Rifkin matched them with a group of famous chefs who said: "Hey, we've got plenty of good, safe food now. Why even take a small risk?"

Rifkin's new book, The Biotech Century, was likely inspired by the recent fuss over Dolly, the cloned sheep. Indeed, he cribbed the book's title from a BUSINESS WEEK cover story also marking Dolly's arrival and the attendant opportunities, challenges, and ethical issues. "The new genetic technologies grant us a godlike power to select the biological futures and features of the many beings who come after us--the greatest shopping experience of all time," Rifkin proclaims. True enough. And he fully explores his thesis that biotechnology and information science are converging, aiding the practice of what he dubs the "algenic" arts, or the "improvement" of living organisms. Genetic engineers are increasingly treating human DNA as they would a piece of software code, Rifkin notes, and society will confront unprecedented dilemmas. Just one: Fixing the genetic profiles of unborn children. Will insurance companies some day step in and mandate that parents take steps such as repairing the genes of potentially retarded children in order to save health-care dollars?

As usual, Rifkin asks important, provocative questions, but he muddies the discussion with a lot of scattershot industry-bashing. His anti-genetic-engineering rhetoric has mellowed a bit, but what Rifkin offers as alternatives to our current course of pretty much taking these issues as they come constitutes little more than a tower of unproductive bio-babble. The Biotech Century is ultimately a hand-wringing exercise that calls for "a rich and robust conversation" in society at large about a complex, technical, and, frankly, unstoppable field of inquiry.

To give Rifkin his due, he covers many serious issues that biotech raises and that the industry typically ducks. Among them: Who gets "authority to decide what is a good gene that should be added to the gene pool and what is a bad gene that should be eliminated?" It has been less than 100 years since respected American academics and politicians called for a ban on procreation by "inferior" people. Thus, it is troubling to contemplate what society might do as researchers expand their ability to find and correct gene-based "defects." Everyone has some bad genetic baggage, Rifkin says, so we could "come to see ourselves as miswired from the get-go, riddled with errors in our code."

While there certainly are risks in monkeying around with genetics, much of that research is aimed at such goals as ending suffering, saving dying kids, and stopping infectious disease. In The Biotech Century, Rifkin is careful not to directly attack specific medical research projects, saving most of his fire for agricultural applications that he claims could unleash environmental havoc. He clearly recognizes that if he casts the debate in such a way that patient-advocacy groups or even the parents of a single suffering child take him on, he loses.

But Rifkin sees all corporations as profiteers and treats most of their experimentation with suspicion, attacking, for example, their alleged exploitation of Third World genetic resources, such as the "biopiracy" of medically beneficial genes from plants or animals. He weakly admits that many genetic-engineering projects could be beneficial but says we should explore other options first, such as studying environmental causes of illnesses. Does this mean we should shut down cutting-edge medical research until we know? That's unthinkable. And if not companies, who will develop new therapies?

With all new technologies, we need to consider the big picture and contemplate long-term consequences. But we can't slam every new development just because it goes against the natural order: So do antibiotics. So does bypass surgery. So do irrigation projects. So do airplanes.

Wail away, Jeremy, but if you or someone close to you ever gets sick and needs one of these gene-spliced drugs--or worse, suffers an untreatable illness--you may find yourself eating your words. In the end, one of biotechnology's most compelling aspects is its appeal to an awesome natural force: hope.

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