The Paula Gordon Show
Messing With Mother Nature

Jeremy Rifkin

. . . is President and Founder of the Foundation on Economic Trends in Washington, D.C. He regularly shares his ideas with Congress, industry and the American people. He has a degree in economics from the Wharton School and another in international affairs from Tufts. The author of 14 books on economic trends and matters relating to science, technology and culture, his latest is The Biotech Century.

Excerpts3 min:22 secs

Harnessing fire made civilization possible. Now we've harnessed the gene and can shape life itself. Jeremy Rifkin believes we're already in the midst of a shift as fundamental as that from medieval agriculture to the industrial age. He's spent thirty years making people aware of challenges which technology, science and economics pose. He now foresees "The Biotech Century."

What happened? A convergence of the revolutions in information (computer hardware and software) and biotechnology (gene splicing.) We now have the technology to take genes from totally unrelated species and directly influence the evolution of all life forms, change the evolutionary destiny of our species and all others. And we want many of the changes which this new ability offers, from health to the marketplace. But the question is: How do we chose to apply our new technology? Rifkin urges we think about the consequences of our actions -- from constructing plants that include animal genes to eliminating recessive human genes from future generations of humans -- before we let this astonishingly powerful genie further out of the bottle.

This is no abstraction. Living matter is at the heart of our civilization as well as being the bulk of our economic activity. Genetic engineering can be applied to everything that involves life -- our food and drink, all of agriculture, medicine and pharmaceuticals, fibers and building materials -- everything that has a living origin.

Public policy implications are enormous. For starters, we must begin to challenge the authority of the marketplace which this revolution will dramatically impact, worldwide. What happens when our children become "the ultimate shopping experience"? What happens when we come to think of life as intellectual property now that all of the genes of the human body are being patented? How can we protect genetic privacy and genetic rights?

Rifkin does not call us to "say no" to science. Instead, he urges we be very careful of the technologies we use to apply to what we are learning. Always pick the technology that's the more prudent, the more conservative, the less radical. Ask fundamental questions. Challenge authority. Our traditional intellectual habit is to dominate nature by brute force from a position of detachment, isolation, power and control from a distance. Instead, encourage those scientists looking for connections, relationships, working to understand the context and webs of life so we can better understand how things relate to each other. Both paths are available. Only one will eventually prevail.

Both optimism and pessimism are inappropriate, according to Rifkin. Instead, act to steward future generations. Be ombudsmen for other creatures who are not here -- human beings, other animals, all the life forms with which we travel. Life itself depends on us fulfilling this mission.

Conversation 1

Jeremy Rifkin poses the dimensions of the shift he sees humanity making from the industrial age to the biotech century to Paula Gordon and Bill Russell. He shows how the "fire" revolution culminated in the industrial age and nuclear power. He asserts that we are now on the verge of an equally powerful, second technological revolution, where genes are the raw resource of a new economic epoch. He explains how two defining technologies (computer hardware and software and gene splicing) are fusing together into a single technology revolution which is remaking global commerce.

Conversation 2

The question, according to Mr. Rifkin, is not whether one favors science and technology, but rather, what kind of science and technology do we want for ourselves? He believes genetic science has embarked us on the most radical and daring experiment in history. He describes the intimate ways biotechnology will affect our everyday lives as well as our overall society. He points out the inevitable risks of a new technology which directly affects the whole future of evolution, posing questions he believes we must ask while we still can. At stake is everything that involves life -- the bulk of our economic activity as a civilization. Rifkin uses the print press as an analogy of the breadth of change we face. We can still choose either "soft" or "hard" approaches, he believes, but only one of them will eventually dominate.

Conversation 3

Rifkin asks about the sensibilities and values of this generation. He reminds us that biotechnology is not fated, not inevitable. "Eugenics" are discussed. Rifkin explains why biotech products' very desirability may tempt us to barter away our humanity, fritter away the rest of evolutionary history in return for short term gains in the market. Human growth hormone is one example Rifkin uses for why he is concerned that programming our children could become the ultimate shopping experience. He questions the wisdom of a libertarian streak he sees moving across every economy in the world, suggesting we must stand up to the threats posed by heady social issues. As architects of the blueprint of the genetic code of evolution, Rifkin sees the number one issue of this generation being how we deal with this technology.

Conversation 4

Our challenges, according to Rifkin, are daunting but attainable. He describes the new operating matrix he sees coming together. "Nature versus nurture" arguments take on a new twist and directly affect large issues of public policy which he describes. Rifkin tells why he is confident that issues of genetic privacy will loom as great civil liberties and human rights challenges over the next decade. He shows the impact of our current ability to take genes from totally unrelated species and cross them into the genetic codes of others. He shows the value of always picking the more prudent, conservative and less radical technology. Nature will always exact it's toll, he believes, especially because the technology we have is now so primitive, our understanding so limited. He tells why "heirlooms" are vital.

Conversation 5

The biggest contribution of this technology revolution could be, according to Rifkin, that it forces the human family to ask all basic question again, starting with: "What is life? What is the meaning of existence?" He explains how it is that genes (human and otherwise) are now becoming patented inventions. He recalls the worldwide uproar over bovine growth hormone. People, he reminds us, make history. He calls us to be steadfast and to ask questions, question authority and seek good solutions to complicated problems.

Conversation 6

Rifkin believes the old "Baconian" approach to science brought benefits but at the expense of isolating us from the rest of the world. He takes heart that there is a new generation of scientists which is looking for connections, relationships, context, and webs. He explains why he thinks this is the more elegant and appropriate approach. Rifkin explains why we must be neither pessimist nor optimist. He urges us to take as our mission to be activists -- stewards for future generations of people and the other live forms with whom we travel.


The Biotech Century is published by Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc., New York, a Pearson Company.

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