Splicing Genetic Information

Is The New World Of Gene-Splicing Really A Given?

By Gregory McNamee

The Biotech Century: Harnessing the Gene and Remaking the World, by Jeremy Rifkin (Tarcher/Putnam). Cloth, $24.95.

JEREMY RIFKIN, THE professional alarmist, prophesies a future conditioned by genetic engineering and biotechnology, in which whole species--ours included--have been eugenically remade for maximum commercial potential thanks to "an artificially produced bioindustrial nature designed to replace nature's own evolutionary scheme."

Books He has a point. After all, "gene prospecting" and biotech start-ups remain hot growth prospects for venture capitalists; and, inasmuch as Western Europeans and Americans spend billions on mood- and physique-enhancing substances and procedures, there's no reason to think they wouldn't pump money into, say, using "genetic therapies to enhance their unborn children," à la The Boys from Brazil. Rifkin is no doubt correct in worrying, too, about the effects of genetically modified organisms, which may host killer viruses and yield unforeseen plagues.

But Rifkin views this brave new world as imminent and as given, when in fact the future is unwritten. He does not account, for instance, for the recent widespread public outcry against human-cloning experiments, which has led several heads of state, including President Clinton, to propose bans on such mad-science tinkering.

Even more of a problem is Rifkin's willful refusal to make his argument cogently; ever the Jeremiah, he darts about from one set of rhetorical questions to the next, answering them to his own satisfaction with a flurry of data that are not always to the point.

The book reads, as a result, more like a stack of debater's three-by-five cards than a coherent narrative. All this does nothing to further Rifkin's argument--which, in simplest terms, can be reduced to Joyce Kilmer's observation "only God can make a tree."

Readers willing to brave his messy exposition will find food for thought in Rifkin's book, but getting to it requires much time and work. TW

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