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EPW Book Review
April 27, 2002

Science for Humanity or for Profit?

The Biotech Century: Harnessing the Gene and Remaking the World by Jeremy Rifkin; Tarcher/Putnam Publishers, 1998; pp 272, $ 24.95.

Sreeram Sundar Chaulia

Revolutionary scientific advances in biotechnology are redefining the meaning of life, liberty and equality as the world metamorphoses from the century of physics and chemistry into the ‘biotech century’. The tremendous growth in capacities of the ‘scientific establishment’ and bioengineering MNCs like Dupont, Novartis, Monsanto, Pfizer, Eli Lilly and Dow Chemical to isolate and recombine genes of plants, animals and humans and ‘play god’, is being accompanied by a “new supporting sociology”, a “eugenics civilisation” and a “new cosmological narrative” (p 10). The essence of these sweeping economic and social forces is a new outlook towards humans, a commodification where “the working unit is no longer the organism, but rather the gene” (p 14) and respect and dignity shift from the individual to strands of manipulable chromosomal information. “Cell by cell, tissue by tissue, organ by organ, we may willingly surrender our personhood in the marketplace” (p 173) Ergo, when politicians, scientists and corporate leaders in the developed world sing paeans to the marvels of the biotech century, “they are being disingenuous in their public pronouncements” (p 36). Jeremy Rifkin’s path-breaking book, although purporting to present data and leave to the reader the choice of deciding which side one is on, is effectively an expose of the falsity and inequity of most marvels prophesied by the promoters of unrestricted bioengineering.


The disingenuity of the possessors of biotech weapons is starkest when it comes to stealing and patenting life and eco- systems from the third world. “A battle of historic proportions has emerged between the high-technology nations of the north and the poor developing nations of the south over the ownership of the planet’s genetic treasures” (p 37). Biologically rich tropical countries of the southern hemisphere, particularly from African and Asian equatorial rainforest regions, are arguing that their biodiversity is a national heritage available in the ‘commons pool’ and cannot be privatised, monopolised and patented as an ‘invention’. But the exploiters are using casuistry and pro-OECD legal instruments like TRIPS to smother these claims. The Rosy Periwinkle plant of Madagascar enriched the expropriating Eli Lilly company due to its cancer curing traits, but left the impoverished people and cultivators of the variety in Africa as poor as always, and in fact worse off because the patent now requires farmers to pay for using this plant for natural therapy. Another example is the Thaumatin plant in west Africa, which is now denied to villagers, thanks to a patent bagged by the University of California. Indian neem, turmeric, amla and karela have also been expropriated and several more strains are in the process of custodial transfer from the man on the street to the ‘inventers’ in western laboratories.

Enclosures were the primary means by which late medieval western Europe bounded common grazing areas and converted shared community land into private property. Plant-hunters in colonised Africa, Latin America and Asia also robbed native resources in the garb of ‘exploration’. These historical phenomena are being repeated by “enclosing the last frontier”, gene pools, and by proffering specious justifications that do not stand sound scrutiny. In the words of Vandana Shiva, it is nothing short of ‘biopiracy’ and ‘bio-colonialism’ to deny prior art and traditional knowledge forms of the south and to convert discoveries into ‘inventions’ and exclusively owned private property. Centuries of indigenous research, domestication and preservation of commons are in the process of being hijacked by the US PTO and TRIPS, the former being so ethnocentric as to derecognise prior art if the product or gene strain were in use outside US territorial boundaries. To put it bluntly, American knowledge forms should be off-limits but the third world’s can be looted without compunction.

In this central clash of the biotech century that, in many ways, will determine the sharing of the global economy, some southern countries appear satisfied if royalties or other compensatory payments were made to them in return for the bio-pharmacy patents, while many others, especially NGOs, are calling for a “third position that the gene pool ought not be for sale, at any price” (p 55) and should remain in the open commons. Compensations are a farce because it is next to impossible trying to valorise and quantify traditional knowledge in monetary terms. Besides, if governments of African, Asian and Latin American countries are given the royalties, there is no guarantee that it will reach the intended recipients. When species have been shared from millennia, how can one entity be designated as a legitimate recipient?

Daylight Robbery

Regions of the south with first-nation people, that is, large ethnic and tribal groups, are especially vulnerable in the biotech century, because of the developments in the human genome and cell-line patenting and its attendant eugenic overtones. “India, with its diverse cultures and inbred populations, is considered to be an ideal setting for gene prospecting” (p 58). Mutations and genetic disorders that are resistant to climatic and pathological adversity can also be found in tribes all over Africa and several researchers are approaching governments with applications for ‘field studies’ among indigenous populations, as if they were guinea pigs. The objective of ‘genomic’ firms and life-science corporations is to extract blood samples and DNA specimen from them and then utilise them for curing diseases of those who can afford expensive treatment. Providing cures to diseases like AIDS that are consuming indigenous and poorer people all over the south, not as charity but as just payment for poaching upon their living fluid, is never a bother as long as anti-foot and mouth, mad cow and anthrax viruses are being ‘invented’.

The biotech century is also vitiating the planet with ‘genetic pollution’, “destroying habitats, destabilising ecosystems and diminishing the remaining reservoirs of biological diversity” (p 70). Although industry spokespersons vehemently deny it, the perils posed by new radical biological technologies on the earth’s environment are being highlighted by NGOs. Transferring genes across all natural species barriers can pose greater long-term risks to the biosphere than petrochemicals and CFCs. Each new synthetic introduction into new habitat “is tantamount to playing ecological roulette” (p 73). Genetically engineered animals could contribute to deforestation more than human fires. Transgenic ‘super fish’ could deplete natural ocean zones of all fauna and flora and ‘super mice’ could spread bubonic plague at will. Genetically engineered ‘ice-resistant bacteria’ could ruin condensation cycles and harm rainfall and climate patterns far more deleteriously than industrial effluents. Increased use of herbicide-resistant transgenic plants will end up damaging soil fertility and water quality, not to mention the most appalling entry of non-human hormonal traits into human tissue if the resultant crops are consumed. HIV, for instance, is believed to have entered the human genome from apes in West Africa. The design of ‘germ warfare agents’ and their employment for biological terrorism and a ‘biological arms race’ are other spectres. Expectedly, none of the agro-biotech giants are spending enough on risk assessment and ‘multiplier effects’ of their products.

Eugenics and Racial Hierarchies

“Genetic engineering techniques are, by nature, eugenics tools” (p 116) and, in the words of Theodore Roosevelt, can be harnessed to weeding out “citizens of the wrong type”. Intolerance for ‘feeble-minded persons’, ‘biologically inferior types’ and the poor, corollaries of the first wave of eugenics in the early part of the 20th century show signs of recrudescence in the biotech century. Immigration restrictions on races with “socially inadequate qualities” (non-Nordics), implemented diligently in interwar America, are reappearing as reception of the western world to refugees has taken a downward trajectory. Attribution of genetic disorders to whole communities of ethnic minorities is also taking place, leaving the latter vulnerable to stigmatisation. Further, “what is to preclude a society from deciding that a certain skin colour is a disorder?” (p 140). Would not Africans and other non-whites be the real sufferers of the eugenics civilisation? Definitions of terms such as ‘defective’ and ‘abnormal’ is highly controversial and if some categories of people are typecast with such tags, racial hierarchies and intolerance for diversity of humankind are bound to proliferate.

The biotech century could also usher in a phase of governmental inaction and conservativeness if the idea that all social and economic problems originate from the genetic make-up of individuals and groups reigns. Instead of aiding and helping develop the least developed countries and their peoples, the rich nations could sit back and express helplessness in the face of ‘genetic disorders’ that have led to African wretchedness. Genetic sociology thus has the potential of legitimising the north-south divide as natural and foreordained by genes. The shift from ‘nurture’ to ‘nature’ as the explanatory force for inequalities of income and status has serious portents for the future of internal and international socio-economic relations. In America, a new group of dispossessed workers, and throughout the world, a new group of dispossessed and inferior countries will be engendered by ‘genetic discrimination; and voices calling for a reordering and restructuring will be cowed down by reams of scientific ‘evidence’. “Once a new cosmology is widely accepted, the chances of generating a thoughtful debate over the way the economy and society have been reorganised are slim” (p 198). The genetics-driven immutable ‘law of nature’ will become insurmountable for activists preaching reform and change in existing divisions of labour across the world. Darwinism suited the rise of industrial capitalism in 19th century England and neo-Darwinian genetic cosmology could likewise be the perfect fit for globalisation today.

The dependence of the biotech century on computer programming and storage has lessons for international relations too. In an era signified by growing information inequalities between rich and poor and developed and underdeveloped parts of the world, “survival of the best informed” is crystallising (p 215). The marriage of computers and biotechnology (bioinformatics) is working to the benefit of Bill Gates and avant-garde Wall Street insiders, who can offer their software reservoir to bioprospectors as a bank and clearing house of the gargantuan bits of information that are emerging from dissecting plant and human genes. Already, the technology for translating DNA units into binary 0’s and 1’s is under way. But when almost all of Africa has no clean drinking water, what to talk of computer access, the biotech century is becoming a vehicle for increasing the fissures between haves and have-nots by driving a wedge between ‘netizen’ and citizen. Like Edward Said’s Orientalists, who had the power of knowledge to sit in judgment over native societies, Microsoft Corporation and other monopolistic firms have the opportunity as collaborative partners of the ‘scientific establishment’ to build upon their riches and boss over the under-informed and illiterate parts of the world. Should they be allowed to ‘play god’?

Should the gene be allowed to become a “cultural icon, a symbol, almost a magical force” (p 225)? Should Baconian and Newtonian thinking on limitless science aiding man’s unceasing conquest of nature be perpetuated? The biggest question on the cusp of the biotech century is not whether one is opposed to science and technology per se but rather to what kind of science and technology, one that abets injustice or one that benefits mankind and the ecosystem in every corner of the globe. For these reasons, “every human being has a direct and immediate stake in the direction biotechnology will take in the coming century” (p 236). This seminal best-selling work, by an author whose ideas have been influential in shaping public policy in the US, is a must-read for every concerned citizen of the world.



Macroeconomic Indicators (27 April 2002)

National Interest rates: Commercial Banks’ Lending Rates


A Life in Political Economy

Science for Humanity or for Profit?

Retelling History



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