The Magazine

Biotech Loses Its Innocence

War and peacee in the brave new world.

Jun 24, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 40 • By ERIC COHEN
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IN A RECENT REPORT for investors in the biotech industry, the relationship between biotechnology and terrorism is described as follows: "Ugly as bioterrorism is, bringing biotech back into the headlines in the capacity of a savior has done much to stimulate the sector since its mid-September 2001 lows on Wall Street."

In other words, terrorism is useful for the reputation and prospects of the biotech industry. Biotechnology is necessary for survival in war--since biological weapons require biological remedies. And biotechnology is a "savior," a redeemer from the troubles of the world.

How this savior operates--what it promises and what it endangers, why we need it and why we might want to resist it--is a difficult moral and political question. It requires thinking clearly about the limitations and waywardness of American civilization, and the much greater catastrophes that might be inflicted on us by those who hate life and worship death, and are aided in carrying out this fundamentalist-nihilist program by (our own) modern technology.

George Poste, a leading figure in the biotechnology industry and chairman of the Pentagon's Task Force on Bioterrorism, described this dilemma in a speech last October: "Biotechnology is about to lose its innocence. We are going to be playing in a very different world. We will have to seriously contemplate that some of our discoveries will, in fact, be classified. It is this dilemma, which has always been the dilemma of advanced technology throughout history, of dual use application."

Such realism about biotechnology is much needed after September 11. But it is only part of the story. For the fact is, biotechnology has never really been "innocent"--not in its origins, and not recently. In Francis Bacon's "New Atlantis," the creation story of the modern biological republic, the scientists meet to decide which of their inventions to make public and which to keep secret. The purpose of this discretion is in part to protect society from the dark side of science, and in part to protect science from the dogmatic or skeptical backlash of society. Even as they saw themselves as man's benefactors, the first modern scientists had no illusions that all their inventions would be beneficial, or that the beneficiaries would always be enlightened enough to embrace them.

Moreover, the reason for bringing this "new" society into existence was precisely man's lack of innocence. Biological science was conceived as an answer to war, suffering, death, and religious violence. It sought to moderate man's passions by making men more comfortable. It may have always been (or may have become) utopian, but it was not, and still is not, innocent.

The last 18 months of debate over human cloning and embryonic stem cells make this lack of innocence quite clear. Most contemporary biologists might believe, in their heart of hearts, that they are not "political animals." They believe they are scientists. They trade in scientific truths, not political ideology; in facts, not metaphysical speculation or subjective values.

But the political skill of biology in protecting its interests--including (but not exclusively) its vision of the good life for scientists and citizen-patients alike--has been impressive. Not facts but pragmatism has been the order of the day. And so we are told that science should not be judged on moral or social grounds, but according to scientific criteria alone. Then we are told that science is a moral crusade to improve the human condition. We are told by the biotech lobby that the biological powers we desire (stem cell therapies) are imminent. Then we are told that the biological powers we fear (cloning and eugenics) are so far away that we need not worry about them. We are told that placing moral limits on science would infringe on the separation of church and state. But then we are told that it is God's will that we should use our intelligence to heal the sick. We are told that opponents of research cloning are scientifically ignorant of the facts that only the microscope can reveal. But then advocates of research cloning make moralistic claims such as "an embryo is simply the size of the period at the end of this sentence" and therefore not worth protecting. Of course, it is precisely the microscope that reveals how little size has to do with the worth, beauty, and power of living things. (Not to mention, it is these tiny entities--human embryos--for which scientists claim extravagant healing properties; and it is the emerging area of nanotechnology that scientists see as leading to the next great revolution in the life sciences.)