Top critical review
No substantive arguments here
on August 7, 2001
This book, a collection of articles pretty much against biotechnology, is a mixture of rationality and hype. There are some good arguments in some of the articles, and the book inadvertently introduces the reader to a lot of the activity and research currently being done in biotechnology and genetic engineering. In that respect the book was extremely helpful, but in terms of rational argumentation against genetic engineering, the book is lacking in general. There is a lot of anger and fear in the articles, and so it is difficult sometimes to sift through this to get at the essential points the authors are attempting to make. The authors speak of the threat of "corporate globalism" and "horrific" designs for our future. Genetic engineering, says one author, threatens to perpetuate a never-ending cycle of famine and hopelessness. No evidence, either empirical or from a modeling perspective, is given for this claim though. It is also asserted that organic agriculture has proved ("time and time again") to be the better technique for growing more food, but again, no evidence is cited for this belief. In addition, the authors always emphasize the negative "inadvertent" consequences of genetic engineering, and do not mention any positive "inadvertent" ones. Can they not think of one instance where genetic engineering will have positive unintended consequences?
In arguing that the Monsanto Roundup Ready soybeans will not do completely away with other herbicides or with ploughing, one of the authors emphasizes that nature is adaptable, and will find a way to circumvent a system based on a single strategy. Could it not be argued then that nature would find a way then of circumventing any negative consequences of genetic engineering? Is it purely an argument of time scales that the author is making, i.e. that a sudden introduction in nature of genetically engineered crops makes nature go wild and immediately fight this invasion? What makes nature so predisposed to treat genetically modified crops differently than those that are not?
The reader is warned in the book that genetic engineering often has unexpected results, and that introducing bioengineered plants into the food supply could cause any number of possible health and environmental consequences. But is this not true of anything in the real world? Does not the introduction of "pure" organic foods have unseen consequences for health?
In addition, the authors in the book are fond of pointing out the fact that biotechnology companies have invested hundreds of billions of dollars into genetically modified plants and foods. The use of the word "billions" is supposedly meant to frighten the reader into believing that biotech has evolved into a business scale of gargantuan proportions. But does not the organic food industry invest billions of dollars into the development and marketing of organic foods? Should we be threatened by their attempts to "control" the food supply?
University researchers have also taken on a bad name in this book, due to the millions of dollars that are now invested by biotech firms in various universities around the United States. But researchers have worked on projects financed by other corporations as well, and will continue to do so. There have been conflicts of interest in these collaborations and there no doubt will be some with biotech companies. This by itself does not justify the book's anti-biotech stance. It merely says that researchers have funding sources outside the government sector, and this, in my view, is something to be applauded and not condemned. University researchers should be proud of their work and accomplishments, and even more so if a useful product is a result of their endeavors.
Human cloning is condemned in the book as being irresponsible and threatening, with the "designer babies" scenario created to mesh with the distorted view propagated by science fiction. The novel "Brave New World" is the canonical reference in the book. Parents, it is argued, should not want to have the choice of reproductive freedom, especially cloning, since this route is beset with enormous difficulties. This is an odd argument, since if cloning does turn into a viable technique for asexual reproduction, genetic risks would stand more of a chance of being alleviated, rather than aggravated, as claimed in the book. (The authors do have reason to rejoice however, since last week (July 31, 2001), the US House of Representatives voted to ban human cloning, unfortunately. ). Worries about selling clones are misplaced; human clones should have the same rights as any other human being when it comes to what is to be done with their internal organs. The authors in the book should spend more time on focusing their energies on securing these rights legally, rather than engaging in irrational and irresponsible scare tactics. The same could be said of their discussion on eugenics.
The right to secure a patent on an invention is thought of as more of a crime in this book rather than a way of securing a right to one's creativity and labor. But owning a patent on a gene is no different than owning one on any other object of discovery; if the authors feel threatened by this, a rational suggestion would be to enter the arena of discovery, come up with new ideas and innovations, and secure these patents for themselves.
The authors do correctly argue against genetic determinism and against irresponsible behavior towards the environment. But never do they suggest positive solutions to environmental problems, but instead rely on vituperative dialog to get their point across.
The last part of the book ends with a summary of the "world-wide" resistance to genetic engineering. One could argue that the authors are right: there seems to be a great reluctance on the part of many people to accept genetically modified foods and human cloning. But this will pass; people in this century are educated and smart enough to make decisions for themselves once the evidence is forthcoming on the enormous benefits of genetic engineering. The ramifications are awesome.