Jeremy Rifkin: The Biotech Century

The Prophet of Prophecy

This is not a scientific book. It is not even popular-scientific. It has been written by an interested layman for interested laymen. It is, therefore, comparable to Bill Gates' "The Road Ahead". (Bill Gates is also little involved in computer science; he is good at discovering new business opportunities and organizing, though.) The only differences are: Rifkin does not claim to be visionary, and is critical. Moreover, the topic of course is not the data highway but the emerging biotechnology industry.

The Author

Rifkin studied economy and is president of the Foundation on Economic Trends in Washington, D.C. He has raised his voice about several new technologies - this is not his first publication on genetics and biotech, either - and initiated debates by pointing out potential dangers. This is his fourteenth book.


The industrial era is about to end. Raw materials like oil have become scarce. In the new century, biotechnology will become the new "big business". Rifkin defines seven strands that make up the operational matrix of the forthcoming Biotech Century: First, "the ability to isolate, identify, and recombine genes" will make the gene pool available as the "primary raw resource fur future economic activity". Second, patenting genes and genetically engineered organs gives the commercial incentive to exploit these resources. Third, globalization will make it possible to reseed the Earth with genetically engineered plants and animals - a "second Genesis". Fourth, selecting and altering the human genome might once lead to a new eugenic civilization. Fifth, scientific studies may in future favour nature over nurture based on knowledge about genes. Sixth, computer technology is necessary to manage the information needed for genetic engineering. Seventh, a new evolution theory is beginning to challenge neo-Darwinism.

Basically, each chapter deals with one of these strands in some way. Yet the first chapter is more of an introduction into the currently used applications of biotechnology. We learn about transgenic creatures into which genes from other species have been inserted using viruses as vectors. It has been possible to speed up the growth of mice by means of a human gene, for example. Bacteria that produce silk or antibiotics have been created, also coal could be produced in this way. Genes have been inserted into parasites that will kill their offspring - a time bomb, so to speak. Organs have been created by means of cloning. It is even considered to create headless human clones as warehouses for surrogate organs.

Also, the term "algeny" is introduced in this chapter: It is the movement to speed up evolution. As explained later in the book, some geneticists see their science as part of evolution - they are of the opinion it has been the wish of nature that once a creature gains the opportunity to improve genes, it is obliged to do so.

So far, not much criticism of the technology and the related industry has been expressed. It starts in the second chapter, about patents. Rifkin first tells us the interesting history of enclosure: First land became private, owned by particular persons, instead of the persons belonging to the land. Possession of land was measurable. Then labour became paid; it was measured by money in exchange for the work. Now genes are becoming something a private person can possess. In 1971 an Indian microbiologist, Ananda Chakrabarty, applied to the U.S. Patents and Trademark Office (PTO) for a patent on a genetically engineered micro-organism that had a particular function useful for economy. The PTO first rejected his request, stating that U.S. law forbade patenting life, and the few exceptions (concerning asexually reproducing plants) had taken legislative acts of Congress. The case was carried to court, and in the end the U.S. Surpreme Court ruled that Chakrabarty should be granted the patent. "The court's action laid the all-important legal groundwork for the privatization and commodification of the genetic commons", writes Rifkin. Meanwhile it is possible to patent any living organism, except human beings - however, it is legal to patent tissues and other human parts.

Rifkin points out that this does not match the general requirements of patents, that things that shall be patented must be "novel, non-obvious and useful". He poses the question if life is an invention. Apparently it is treated as such. But no biologist has ever created a gene, a tissue or an organ de novo.

The PTO has awarded some broad patents that make individual companies virtual monopolies over whole species. For example, the patent awarded to Philip Leder extends to any animal whose germ line is modified to contain cancer-causing genes. Another example: A company made efforts to patent certain processes using the neem tree. This tree originates from India and it has been used as a source of medicines and fuel for centuries. These methods were not at all invented by the company that wanted to patent them. This is what Rifkin calls "biopiracy".

Another famous example is Craig Venter and his company Celera. They have applied for more than 600 patents on human genes although they just deciphered and sequenced them; they do not know the functions of most of these genes, but they want to have the rights to decide on the commercial use of potentially useful genes before anybody else patents them.

Opposition to these practices also comes from various churches that claim that life is some god's invention.

Concerning the Second Genesis - this chapter mostly deals with agriculture -, Rifkin mainly criticises that genetically modified organisms may have dangerous side-effects. Once, a gene from Brazilian nuts was introduced to soybeans, which were then sold. Among (the rather few) people who reacted allergically to Brazilian nuts, this also caused allergic reactions against these genetically engineered soybeans. Like common insectizides, genes that produce substances to kill parasites might also result in the breeding of resistant super-parasites, unless they succeed in killing all parasites.

Rifkin is worried about the balance of the eco-system. He also fears that optimizing for a singular, industrial purpose will deplete the gene pool and eventually, useful genes will vanish, as their beneficial function has not been noticed by science.

Another topic mentioned in this chapter is the possibility of biological warfare. Ten nations are already developing germ warfare agents. Officially the U.S. Department of Defense claims to do research in this area for defensive purposes only, that is to engineer vaccinations and antidotes. But both offensive and defensive applications are based on the same technology. Scientists say they may be even able to clone selective toxins that can eliminate racial or ethnic groups whose genotypes predispose them to certain disease patterns.

Eugenics is the topic of the next chapter. Based on genes, it will in theory be possible to create a new eugenic society, one that does not discriminate between people based on their skin or eye colour, but on more precise details. Of course this is a hazardous prospect, because rights could be taken from certain genetic groups of people, including the right to reproduce or the right to live.

America had a eugenic past. President Theodore D. Roosevelt said that "the prime duty of the good citizen of the right type is to leave his or her blood behind him in the world" and he wished that "the wrong people could be prevented entirely from breeding". In fact many U.S. states passed and applied compulsory sterilization laws in the first half of the 20th century. Immigrants were selected based on their ethnic origin. Some even wanted to go further. For example William McDougall, chairman of the psychology department of Harvard University, suggested replacing democracy by a caste-system. In fact American "intellectuals" developed many theories which were later carried out by Nazi Germany.

The new eugenics is "user-friendly". Pre-natal tests already allow parents to know what diseases their children will be predisposed to and to choose between birth or abortion. Although the choice is theirs and not the authorities', it is possible that they will be reproached by other people for giving birth to a mentally handicapped child or a human being who will suffer from a severe illness for all his life.

But sooner or later it will be possible to avoid this without choosing abortion. Somatic therapy (modifying genes in particular cells of an already developed organism to prevent diseases) will become common soon, but the ultimate therapy is germ-line therapy. The genes will be modified in the fetus, so that all cells will have them, including the sex cells - future generations will also have the modified gene-set. In this way "genetic pollution" (as Dr. Burke Zimmerman calls it) caused by the survival and breeding of weak organisms due to somatic therapy will be prevented. The human race will become more perfect at first glance. But the problem of genetic depletion persists. In fact some genes have different functions. For instance, people with blood-type 0 are more likely to get cholera but less likely to get syphilis than those with other blood-types. What seems "defects" may provide protection against other viruses.

Anyhow, sooner or later it will be technically possible to create human beings with custom features.

Chapter 5, The Sociology of the Gene, is the logical continuation of this topic. It goes into more detail how knowledge about individual people's genes will affect society. For example, it may lead to discrimination by insurance companies. Already now you usually have to pay higher fees if you are at higher risk - for example if you smoke or if you are homosexual. By means of your genes it is easy to determine if you are likely to catch certain illnesses.

In general, psychology will, just like socio-biology, increasingly favour nature over nurture again, in contrast to Freud's psycho-analysis and other theories that dominated the second half of the 20th century. Scientists assume that homosexuality is 95.5% determined by your genes. Neuroticism is still regarded as caused mainly by the environment, but genes account for about 4% of the reasons for it. It has also been discovered that the absence of one X chromosome causes a lack of social skills. This not only applies to girls with Turner's syndrome, but in a less extent also to all boys, as they inherit an X chromosome from their mother and a Y chromosome from their father.

There have already been cases of workers being sacked because it has been found out that they have fatal genetic diseases. It is also feared that the fact that some genetic diseases are widespread among particular ethnic groups might lead to discrimination.

Some Ashkenazi Jewish groups in the U.S. test school-children for inherited Tay-Sachs and cystic fibrosis disease. The results are stored in a database. When matchmakers later consider a marriage between two people, they can call a hotline and quote the two numbers assigned to them. In this way they want to remove the diseases from their communities.

Rifkin also introduces Lee Silver's hypothesis that mankind might soon be divided into two species, the Gen Rich and the Naturals. This is because wealthy people can afford more improving of their genes.

The next chapter deals with the role the computer will play in the Biotech Century. Rifkin argues the "information age" many politicians proclaim is definitely changing communication, but it is not an end in itself. It is a revolution of communication just like Gutenberg's discovery of printing. Like the printed page made the industrial age possible with its new ways of exchanging long, in-depth scientific treatises and bookkeeping, computers are necessary for biotechnology as loads of data have to be stored and retrieved fast. Both communication revolutions also changed the general way of thinking. As the computer and telecommunication can be called an extension of the human nervous system to the world, the computer and the gene "create a powerful new mind/body dualism". Both computer science and biology apply to cybernetics, a theory popularized by Norbert Wiener that claims all processes can be understood as amplifications of information and feedback. Life is "self-programmed activity".

The DNA-based supercomputers, which may be available in several years for a relatively low price, will also lead to a powerful revolution caused by the combination of the two major new technologies.

Chapter 7 is about Reinventing Nature; Rifkin explains that Darwin's model of nature is similar to the industrial economy that started to emerge in his days. This is not a coincidence. On the contrary, his theory has been widely accepted because it justified the new economy, as it suggested that it was natural. Similarly, a new evolution theory is created to justify biotechnology. When one day everybody will believe in it, hardly anybody will doubt that the applications of these technologies are morally and ethically correct. The new theory is based on cybernetics: nature organizes information, the better informed survives. Genes are also pieces of information.

Finally, in a Personal Note, Rifkin concludes that he is not generally opposed to modern technology and science. But he prefers the ecological "soft path", a "more conservative approach" over the radical, hard one and wants to preserve genetic variety in order to sustain the eco-systems. He is not an adherent of a reductionist view, that is that creatures are little more than their genes. He wants to have nature as a whole taken care of.


It is definitely important to be informed about new technologies, science and economic trends from many different sources. It is worth dealing with any point of view, from over-enthusiasts as well as fierce opponents, and trying to find counter-arguments in order to establish an own opinion. This book shows some of the potential benefits and dangers of applied biotechnology, but it is not the best at conceiving fascination for the science. I would hence recommend reading a popular scientific book first to get introduced to the materia.

There is a lot of hype about genetics, there are populists who raise their voices for it as well as such who make propaganda against it, without decent knowledge of the actual technology. This book shows a slightly sceptic tendency towards biotechnology, but does not consist only of polemics. Enough facts are extensively presented to show that unlike many other critics, Rifkin has been interested enough in the materia to watch the industry closely.

Many questions remain unanswered. This stimulates thinking. Will the new technologies eventually change the concept of states? Will there be a more biologist, eugenic approach to the organization of mankind - will no longer individuals but the species count? How does this get on with the Human Rights? Will human beings preserve their position as special creatures at all, or will they sooner or later just be treated like any animal species? Will there really be a new Gen Rich mankind?

Genetic engineering, now that it has been noticed by a large public, will definitely also be a great inspiration for literature - astonishingly, pretty few novels on this wide range of topics have been released so far. In any case not only scientists will have to deal with this new technology.

One question worth pondering on is also: What are actually the values of science? Rifkin quotes a Nobel Laureate who wants to get rid of ethics and values that could be an obstacle to scientific freedom. This means he thinks science is objective, argues Rifkin, but this is not the case. Science also has values. What do scientists want to reach? Do they want to find out how and why exactly the world and life have been created? Or do they just want to make discoveries to increase the life-standard of mankind? Or is the creation of an übermensch their aim?

Perhaps there is a more prosaic explanation of some people's motive to venture into science: They just want to get famous and earn a lot of money to improve their position in human society. I would say, scientists have more responsibility than that. I personally find the first possibility of what the aim of science could be most tempting. Actually I think the most important thing is to sustain a stable political system in which scientists can work and think in order to eventually find out about our roots and destination. But I guess not every scientist shares this aim. Therefore, it is necessary that they define their philosophy.

All in all, this book was worth reading.

Adok/Hugi - 23 Aug 2000