From a Pessimistic Pundit,
A Doomsday Scenario

Charles Platt reviews Jeremy Rifkin's new book
"The Biotech Century: Harnessing the Gene and Remaking the World"
(Tarcher/Putnam. 271 pp. $24.95)
Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company
May 11, 1998

Doomsayers have always been in plentiful supply. "Resources are scarcely adequate to us," wrote the Roman scholar Quintus Septimius Florens Tertullianus, "while already nature does not sustain us." This was around A.D. 200, when world population was under 300 million.

Tertullianus was wrong, Malthus was wrong and modern academics have been wrong -- most spectacularly when an MIT study team deduced from a massive computer simulation that all reserves of lead, tin, zinc and petroleum would be exhausted within 20 years. (This was back in 1972.) Still, the abysmal track record of pessimistic pundits has never impaired their popularity -- which explains Jeremy Rifkin's lucrative career as a gene-splicing alarmist, even though none of his horror scenarios has come close to reality, while research continues safely under severe restraints and promises huge benefits ranging from cancer cures to new crops that will fight Third World hunger.

Of course, recombinant DNA raises ethical issues and has frightening military applications. But in "The Biotech Century" Rifkin goes far beyond these specifics. With Old Testament hyperbole he warns of an impending "second genesis" threatening "a biological Tower of Babel spreading chaos throughout the biological world and, in the process, drowning out the ancient language of evolution."

In fact nature already is a chaotic system, and the "ancient language of evolution" is a risky process of random mutations. The AIDS virus emerged from one such mutation; likewise, numerous hereditary birth defects that cause untold misery. We'd be wise to learn how to inhibit these "natural" processes merely for our own self-defense.

Rifkin, though, warns that the power to cure defects can also be used to create superchildren. " 'Customized' babies could pave the way for the rise of a eugenic civilization in the twenty-first century," he says. Yet no one complains today if a woman chooses a husband for his intelligence or his good looks, hoping that her children will inherit those traits. Shouldn't individuals be allowed to control this process with less uncertainty?

In March 1996, UNESCO denied this right, claiming that "the human genome is the common heritage of humanity." Thus, women should be forbidden to modify their ova, or men their sperm, because germ plasm belongs to future generations of our species, not the person in whom it resides. Rifkin extends this dubious principle even further, opposing private ownership even of plant genes, especially by pharmaceutical companies that extract useful DNA sequences in Third World countries. He doesn't explain who will pay to turn these sequences into drugs, test them and market them if no one is allowed ownership rights. He simply rejects the idea. "Life patents," he writes, "strike at the core of our beliefs about the very nature of life."

His view of life, however, is somewhat inaccurate. He complains that gene splicing alters "our concept of nature and our relationship to it, reducing all of life to manipulatable chemical materials." But life cannot be reduced to chemistry; it is chemistry, as was proved almost a century ago when sea urchins were fertilized with inert chemicals in a famous experiment at the Woods Hole marine biological laboratory. Since then we've established that every cell contains its own DNA program, and currently we are learning how to modify that program with greater precision. To Jeremy Rifkin, this seems a threat and an insult, possibly for religious reasons, though he does not mention his own faith.

"The Biotech Century" purports to be an objective guide, but this is a deliberate deception. Rifkin makes no attempt at a fair or balanced assessment, and does not reveal to the reader his long record of anti-science activism. His "survey" of the next century is an endless catalogue of horrors, real or imagined, and he offers no suggestions for solutions.

If genetic research is impeded, millions of people will remain hungry or will die unnecessarily. If scare tactics by doomsayers encourage legislation that outlaws some activities (such as cloning), the work will move offshore to nations where fewer safeguards may exist, thus creating greater risk. Since "The Biotech Century" encourages these outcomes, it raises an intriguing question: Who is more dangerous, the scientist seeking to enhance our lives or the pundit who promotes unreasoning fear?

Rifkin would like tighter controls on risky research conducted by greedy pharmaceutical companies. By the same logic, he should favor restrictions on reckless doomsayers, who work without regulatory supervision and profit handsomely while accepting no responsibility for the social consequences of their scaremongering.

Charles Platt writes frequently about science and new technology for Wired magazine and other publications.

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