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Dark Prophet of Biogenetics ex Scientific American Aug 97

Jeremy Rifkin, author of The Biotech Century, considers the temptation to design human beings and make copies of these engineered works will persist. The ability of gentics to re-engineer each generation, he argues, could undermine the sense of self, the notion that one's identity is in part, an endowment ofthe natural world. "We're creating multiple personas. We're creating a thespian sense of personality where we see ourselves as a work of art, and we see everything in the environment as a prop. as a set, as a stage as a backdrop for filling ourselves in. We don't see ourselves as ever completed. We are in-formation.

Rifkin and his Foundation on Economic Trends succeeded in getting 180 leaders from 80 different religious groups to sign a letter calling for a ban on patenting of genetically engineered animals and human organs, cells and genes. The announcement became the lead story in the New York Times and it struck fear into biotechnology and paharmaceutical industry executives, who defend the need for patents to commercializ new products. Ted Peters in Playing God revealed his position by saying "How did it happen that so many otherwise thoughtful theologians and leaders of different religious traditions got hoodwinked?".

Rifkin is prominent for his campaigns on genetic patenting, the release of genetically-engineered organisms into the environment, bovine growth hormone to human cloning. David Baltimore calls Rifkin a biological fundamentalist, and Time magazine "The Most Hated man in Science". "One can't say enough negative things about a guy like this said Henry Miller, former head of the US Food and Drug Administrations Office of Biotechnology.

Apr 98 Mosaics Test-Patent Jeremy Rifkin and Stuart Newman a cell-biologist at the new York Medical college who helped to set up the Council for Responsible Genetics have applied for a patent to make human animal chimeras to test the limits of patent law and where constitutional rights begin to kick in. Aminals carrying human genes already exist and a part sheep part goat was made several years ago. "We felt we had to go right to the end of the line" said Rifkin.

Life in our hands

The Biotech Century by Jeremy Rifkin, Gollancz

New Sci 31 Oct 98 56

IT IS probably best to make clear straight away that this book is not, or not just, an attack on genetic engineering. Jeremy Rifkin is struck by the change that the whole process and its prospects represent in our attitude to nature-and consequently in the way we conceive of ourselves. His discussion of that change is central to The Biotech Century and may well be its most important part. Although he has long campaigned for more control over the development of genetic engineering, Rifkin is certainly not trying to put a stop to it. He scrupulously lists its potential benefits such as nitrogen-fixing crops and cures for genetic diseases. He lists potential hazards, including much that readers will disagree with. What still alarms him, however, is the speed of this development and the huge amount of money that is propelling that rush. He thinks that this pressure may well lead to disaster, and that it does not allow time for proper consideration of social and economic priorities. He is most animated, though, when he discusses the challenge which genetic engineering poses to our ideas of ourselves, and thence possibly to our priorities themselves. He sums up this change as "algeny", defined by analogy with alchemy He's revisiting a topic he first explored in his 1983 book of the same name. The alchemists believed that there were no barriers between chemical elements, each element being always transformable into others. Biologists today increasingly regard barriers between species as essentially movable. So species become mere sections of a continuum, along which organisms can, in principle, always be moved and made to exchange characteristics. Rifkin explains it thus: "Algeny means to change the essence of a living thing. The algenic arts are dedicated to the improvement of existing organisms and the design of wholly new ones with the intent of perfecting their performance. But algeny is much more. It is humanity's attempt to give metaphysical meaning to its emerging technological relationship with nature. Algeny is a way of thinking about nature, and it is this new way of thinking that sets the course for the next great epoch in history." The choice of name may suggest a hostile attitude to the new approach. The alchemists, after all, got it wrong. But the coinage actually came from Joshua Lederberg, an enthusiastic supporter of the view that biologists have now got it right-and winner of the 1958 Nobel Prize for Medicine, for research on genetic recombination and DNA exchange in bacteria. In fact, the parallel is, as Rifkin points out, striking. It extends far beyond the mutability of elements or species, to a teleological view in which they are seen as fulfilling their purposes in a designed Universe. The alchen-dsts thought that there was a constant movement along the continuum of nature towards the final goal of all transformations. All metals were in the process of becoming gold, and this physical process was a deep symbol of the spiritual transformation that would remedy human imperfection. The modem version need not imply any such purposive movement. But, in practice, the eupho ric view of transformational possibilities often is linked with an exalted notion of human destiny. It often does imply such a teleological view of evolution, and its exponents often use that tele ology to justify their political decision to embark on the business of wholesale transformation. Thus Robert Sinsheimer, a molecular biologist who initiated the human genome project, writes: "The old dreams of the cultural perfection of man were always sharply constrained by his inherited imperfections and limitations ... The horizons of the new eugenics are, in principle, boundless. For the first time in all time, a living creature understands its origin and can undertake to design its future..." So, says Rifkin, this new cosmology, like its predecessors, "serves to justify the new way human beings are organising their world by suggesting that nature itself is organised along similar lines". He is surely right that our thinking about this puzzling technology is often confused by self-exalting fantasies which we badly need to understand. On so thorny a subject Rifkin will, of course, provoke some disagreement, but on the whole this is a shrewd, helpful and far-sighted book. r-1

Mary Midgeley is a philosopher