BioEvolution: How Biotechnology Is Changing Our World.
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
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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