Science's opponents want a return to the Dark Ages by Ron Kagan (UCLA Daily Bruin, Aug. 19

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Science's opponents want a return to the Dark Ages by Ron Kagan (UCLA Daily Bruin, Aug. 19, 1991; uploaded by author) In 1953 James Watson and Francis Crick discovered the struc- ture of DNA, the molecule that encodes the genetic information of all living organisms. Today we are beginning to reap the fruits of a new technology spawned by this discovery. At the heart of this technology is the ability to manipulate the genetic blueprint encoded in the DNA of all living things. These kinds of manipulations have the power to provide answers to fundamental questions about the nature of living things: why does one cell develop into a liver cell, and another cell into, say, a muscle cell? Why do cells die? Medical applications of genetic engineering promise to eradi- cate many human genetic diseases. It is now possible to clone defective human genes such as the gene that causes muscular dys- trophy, and it may soon be possible to repair the defect. A similar "gene therapy" may be able to cure many forms of cancer. In spite of genetic engineering's potential for furthering human welfare, it is coming under attack from the environmental movement. This may seem odd, given the potential uses of geneti- cally engineered organisms to clean up oil spills and toxic wastes. However, it should not come as a surprise when viewed in the context of the environmental movement's long-time hostility to many other life-enhancing technologies such as agricultural pesti- cides and nuclear power. What is the source of this hostility? In his 1989 environ- mental work, The End of Nature, Bill McKibben wrote that "It is the simple act of creating new forms of life that... puts us forever in the deity business." In other words, we should abandon the attempt to shape nature to fit our needs and passively accept it as it is. The last epoch in which this view dominated was known as The Dark Ages. In Green Rage, another popular environmental work, Christopher Manes also gives voice to this Medieval fear of sci- ence and technology. Referring to the use of Frostban, a geneti- cally engineered microbe, he states: "The entire landscape of the Northern Hemisphere may be altered as a result of this one compa- ny's marketing scheme." The most vociferous of the environmental opponents of bio- technology is Jeremy Rifkin. He has singled out biotechnology because he can easily capitalize on the public's widespread igno- rance of science. He conjures up fantasies such as a society based on "biological caste systems" ruled by those who have been programmed to have "superior genetic traits." He then offers up these fantasies to the public as real possibilities. Like many leading environmentalists, Rifkin is opposed to science and technology as such and to the Western civilization which gave rise to science and technology. He bemoans the fact that "we inform inquiring young minds that there is only one objective reality that can be understood solely by the rational mind" and he thinks that "the evil, if there is any, is the human compulsion for a better way of life." He advocates that instead of using our technology to "inflate ourselves beyond our natural biological limits" we should devote our efforts "to join with, to become one with all of the rest of creation". Well, the men of the Dark Ages were not "inflated beyond their natural biological limits". The dead [sic] have joined with and "become one with all of the rest of creation," and they have no "compulsion for a better way of life." His onslaught of legal attacks and political maneuvering are aimed at destroying the biotechnology industry. A case in point is Rifkin's campaign to ban the use of bovine somatotropin (BST), a genetically engineered hormone which can increase milk produc- tion in cows by as much as 15%. A review in the journal Science summarizing 120 research papers concluded that BST is biologically inactive in humans and that it does not effect the nutritional quality of milk. Yet John Stauber, a spokesman for Rifkin's Foundation for Economic Trends, adamantly asserted that BST is harmful to human health: "We view these studies as weapons to be used by the companies in a propa- ganda war promoting BST" he stated. No amount of scientific evidence will convince Rifkin that genetically engineered products are safe. Debating the safety of biotechnology with him is rather like debating the scientific merits of Galileo's telescope with the Inquisition. Rifkin op- poses genetic engineering on philosophic grounds and his claims that it is unsafe are aimed at misleading the public. Although its opponents have not yet succeeded in dismantling the American biotechnology industry, it is not too difficult to see a bleak future for the industry and for today's life science students if ideas like McKibben's, Manes' and Rifkin's continue to gain acceptance. I find the widespread support of environmentalism among my fellow graduate students and colleagues to be quite ironic for they are selling the rope that will be used to hang them. In Germany, for example, biotechnology firms have virtually stopped recruiting molecular biology graduates because the German environ- mental party, The Greens, succeeded in enacting crippling, anti- biotechnology measures. Rifkin is correct to assert that "the battle between bioengineering and ecology is a battle of values." The environ- mental movement upholds "making ourselves more vulnerable so that the rest of existence can become more secure." Biotechnology upholds the goal of science and technology to better human life. Its future rests on the willingness of researchers to speak out in its defense, for all that Rifkin and his ilk require to win is our silence.


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