Science's opponents want a return to the Dark Ages by Ron Kagan (UCLA Daily Bruin, Aug. 19
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
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-
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.
E-Mail Fredric L. Rice / The Skeptic Tank