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HOME > ON THE BOOKSHELF > May-June 2004 > Bookshelf Detail

BOOK REVIEW

BioHype

Stephen Hilgartner

BioEvolution: How Biotechnology Is Changing Our World.
Michael Fumento.
x + 510 pp. Encounter Books, 2003. $28.95.

Emerging technologies in the life sciences, information technology and nanotechnology offer contemporary societies unprecedented opportunities. To be sure, visionary scientists, venture capitalists and Silicon Valley entrepreneurs have often succumbed to the temptations of hype. But even after allowing for a liberal dose of overenthusiasm, careful observers now anticipate far-reaching social and technological changes. These opportunities to invent new futures raise significant challenges for democracies, which by definition must treat profound choices about the shape of society as matters for citizens to deliberate. How can we ascertain whether information about developments that have yet to materialize is credible? As we make decisions about what kind of world we want to live in, how can conflicting values be reconciled? In short, how can societies confronted with rapid change imagine new kinds of lives and choose among them wisely?

In BioEvolution: How Biotechnology Is Changing Our World, Michael Fumento sheds considerable light on these challenges, although often not in the way he apparently intended. Fumento, a senior research fellow at the conservative Hudson Institute and the author of several books, specializes in a hybrid genre that blends science writing with attack journalism. This time his target is opposition to biotechnology. Fumento's basic argument is familiar: He contends that biotech will revolutionize medicine, extend the human life span by many decades, defeat hunger and help clean up pollution, so long as opponents are not allowed to straitjacket the industry. He supports these claims with a sweeping survey of biotech research and development (R&D), organized in four parts: "Miracles in Medicine," "The Fountain of Youth," "More (and Better) Food for a Growing Population" and "Biotech Brooms—Letting Nature Clean up Man's Messes." His vision of these exciting areas of research is overwhelmingly positive.

Some biotechnology enthusiasts, weary of public criticism, might at first glance find many of Fumento's arguments appealing. He catalogs a wide range of applications, illustrating well the products and potential benefits of the field. He aggressively criticizes such biotech opponents as Jeremy Rifkin, landing some solid punches. Fumento uses hard-hitting language, crafting some compelling sound bites. But many readers—whatever their stance on biotechnology or any of its specific uses—will conclude that this polemic approach weakens his credibility. He downplays uncertainties about both benefits and risks. He frames the debate in black-and-white, pro- versus anti-biotech terms, without really acknowledging the existence of responsible critics. Failing to recognize the many sources of ambivalence about our new powers over life, he casts the debate as a struggle pitting science and private enterprise against ignorant "futurephobes" and "fearmongers." Most serious, although Fumento documents his account with quotations and factoids plucked from a diverse array of scientific journals, news accounts, press releases and company Web sites, his selection and reading of evidence seems heavily influenced by political ideology.

In presenting the benefits of biotech, Fumento strikes a resolutely promotional tone. The book is aimed at, among other audiences, investors, and it includes an appendix listing the Web addresses of more than 100 biotech firms mentioned in the book. Throughout BioEvolution, Fumento often repeats uncritically the claims that companies and researchers make about the promise of their R&D programs. Many of these claims may ultimately prove to be well-founded, but some hard-nosed, skeptical investigation would better serve readers, and perhaps especially investors, most of whom remember the dot-com hype and subsequent collapse. Predicting the future of fast-moving technical fields requires a good measure of hubris, but Fumento shows little appreciation of the uncertainties of evaluating the rate and direction of the development of particular emerging technologies. For example, the book begins with a fictional vignette from the year 2025 that merits quoting at length:

. . . Disease still exists, but the great infectious scourges such as malaria, tuberculosis, diarrhea, hepatitis and AIDS have been virtually eliminated. Residents of even the poorest countries now have life expectancies matching those of the industrialized world at the end of the twentieth century. . . . Alzheimer's is gone, cancer is rare and dying from cancer is almost unheard of. . . . The greatest athlete of all time has just retired at age 55, having come off his best professional year. He looks forward to spending the next 50 to 70 years with his wife, grandchildren and great grandchildren. . . . His wife will still be attractive, having had her skin rejuvenated every few years so that it's as soft and supple as a newborn's.

Such scenario writing is harmless enough so long as it is qualified with appropriate caveats. But Fumento downplays the limits of his predictive capacities, claiming that throughout the book, "Rarely do I mention a product or therapy that either isn't already available or has little chance of being so within about five years." He asserts that BioEvolution contains "very little speculation."

When considering the social and ethical dimensions of biotech, Fumento often fails to wrestle with complexity. In some cases—for example, when he discusses the insurance implications of predictive genetic testing—he successfully shows why most analysts have concluded that "there are no easy answers." But more subtle issues, such as the way genetic technologies may transform people's self-understanding or change perceptions of ethnic identity, escape his notice entirely. Similarly, his argument that biotech will feed the world largely neglects the role of socioeconomic factors in causing malnutrition, ignoring the diversity of agricultural systems in the developing world and the often-conflicting interests of landless agricultural workers, small landholders, large landholders and urban populations. Few informed observers—including most people working to design biotech crops to aid the poorest of the poor—believe that technology alone can end hunger. But Fumento does not address the social dimensions of that challenge.

Fumento's penchant for imagining technical solutions to social problems is perhaps best illustrated in his treatment of the controversy over using embryonic stem cells in medicine. Among the ethical issues that seem to trouble him most are embryo research and abortion. But he foresees a technical resolution to the debate, predicting that new, superior technology based on adult stem cells will render embryonic stem cells obsolete "only if politics stands down and lets adult stem cell researchers do their work." Indeed, in a chapter that departs from his otherwise uncritical stance toward biotech R&D, Fumento contends that scientists have become so desperate to obtain federal grants for embryo research that they are covering up the promise of adult stem cells. "With every breakthrough in nonembryonic research comes the need to turn up the volume of the disinformation," he writes. "Private money isn't fooled by any of this, but the government can make grants based on political fashion."

This a deeply flawed book, and ultimately the most interesting way to read it is as a negative example—of a kind of journalism that lowers the tone of the societal conversation about these issues. Finding ways to improve the quality of this conversation is an extremely important task being taken on by a growing number of scientists, social scientists, journalists and members of the public. BioEvolution shows one road not to take.—Stephen Hilgartner, Science and Technology Studies, Cornell University

 

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