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The Biotech Century

Das biotechnische Zeitalter. By Jeremy Rifkin.

Jeremy Rifkin: The Biotech Century, Jeremy P. Tarcher / Putnam
New York 1998

In German: Das biotechnische Zeitalter. C. Bertelsmann Verlag, München (1998), ISBN 3-570-00266-7

02.01.1999 · Reviewed by Markus Vorbeck

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When you look at the bright side of things, you have to consider the dark shadows as well. This is how Jeremy Rifkin tackles the potential of genetics and biotechnology. No doubt, he says, the perspective is promising. There is, for example, reason enough to think that in the future many diseases will be better understood, managed and healed by knowing what happens at the genetic level. But at the same time, Rifkin argues genetics and biotechnology raise more serious questions than any previous technological breakthrough. His book is conceived as a tour de force through major concerns. In his view, the most radical experiment that humanity has ever performed on nature is now underway. There is no turning back since humanity has already entered the stage of transition into the Biotech Age which, above all, comes as a new economic era. To present his way of reasoning, Rifkin has opted for a structure that is easy to follow. Seven elements are at the core of the Biotech Age:

I. The ability to isolate, identify and recombine genes is making the gene pool available, for the first time, as the primary raw resource for future economic activity.

II. Patents on genetically engineered organisms and the methods involved stir the commercial exploitation of the new resource.

III. Global life science companies are forging a market for biotechnology that ranges from agriculture to pharmaceuticals. These new global powers involved will control most of Planet Earth's gene pools; they will be able to change the origin of life and create a laboratory-conceived second Genesis.

IV. The mapping of the human genome and new technologies (DNA chips, human germline engineering) will contribute to shape a new human civilization.

V. Deeper knowledge about our genetic roots will unleash a new wave of scientific research into the genetic basis of human behaviour. Genetic determinism will gain broad acceptance as a new belief system.

VI. Researchers would not be able to pore through mountains of raw genetic data without the help of computers whose information processing capacity has grown rapidly. The convergence of computer science and biotechnology will merge into one of the 21st century's most dominant technological forces.

VII. The theories of evolution based upon Darwin are at stake. Since humanity will be able to alter the natural world at its most fundamental level, life in its entirety will become subject to human authorship.This is the dawn of a new concept of evolution.

Rifkin achieves to elaborate all these elements in a thoughtful way. As an inspiring source for further reflection the seventh element/chapter is particularly interesting. There he lays out that concepts of nature and evolution have always interacted with concepts of technology and society by describing, for example, how Darwin's theory of the survival of the fittest could serve as the ideal companion of the Age of Industry. As we step into the biotech century, we say farewell to 'Natural Selection' and 'The Origin of Species' and are now heading for a new concept of life. Computer science and genetics tell us that all life is about information processing. A bird is not simply a bird, it is bits of information. Rifkin sharply argues that this might be the reason why humanity will feel at ease with unscrambling the codes of life and reinventing mother nature's designs over the years to come.
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