How Biotechnology Is Changing Our World
by Michael Fumento
Encounter, 486 pp., $28.95
WHAT WE HAVE NEEDED for a long time is a biotechnology advocate to write a book promoting the virtues of the emerging science, without falling into the trap of demonizing biotech-critics and skeptics as so many latter day Luddites who would return us to the bad old days of forty-five-year life expectancies.
In “BioEvolution,” Michael Fumento generally accomplishes this task. More than a cockeyed optimist, he is a true believer, prophesying that the biotech revolution will usher in a near-utopian age. By 2025, the author predicts, the most devastating diseases of our times—AIDS, cancer, malaria, tuberculosis—will be “virtually eliminated.” Because of biotech, the author claims as a “science fact,” the “famines that have ravaged [underdeveloped] nations for centuries” will become “just a bad memory.” Malnutrition and infant mortality will all but disappear—more people will be fed on less farmland and the crops “will require less pesticide and fertilizer.” The rainforests of South America will be expanding, not shrinking. Toxic waste, including radioactive material, will cease to be of significant concern.
That’s a tall order. But Fumento is convinced biotechnology will bring us to this temporal Nirvana—and here he almost falls into the usual trap—if only “fearmongers” and “professional futurephobes” don’t interfere. After all, he claims, techno-naysayers of the past opposed pasteurization of milk, and the smallpox vaccine caused outright fear. (Apparently it still does, considering the resistance to President Bush’s plan to vaccinate health care workers against smallpox in case of a biological terrorist attack.) The answer to such irrational resistance to progress, he claims, is “education” and the “success of the [biotech] products themselves.”
As for the substantial moral issues raised by biotechnology, Fumento believes they can be simply skirted, for example by using adult stem cells rather than embryonic sources or human cloning in regenerative medicine. That would be swell, but the notion of self-restraint seems thus far not to have occurred to the National Academy of Sciences or the Biotechnology Industry Organization.
Still, compared with most books of this type, Fumento’s advocacy rarely bashes those with whom he disagrees. Indeed, much of his time—sometimes too much of his time—is spent describing the astonishing range of biotechnological research performed by thousands of entrepreneurial bio-research enterprises. What’s more, “BioEvolution” demonstrates that for all of the Sturm und Drang over issues such as human cloning, the vast amount of biotechnological enterprise does not pose a threat to human dignity, although it may offend environmental purists. For example, biotech companies are seeking to find vaccines for cancer and developing “plantibodies,” in which fruits and vegetables are genetically modified so that they can treat medical conditions such as hypertension or prevent many disease scourges. In early human trials, eating genetically modified potatoes led to a pronounced increase in resistance to the potentially deadly E. coli bacteria.
BECAUSE FUMENTO is so eager to impress us with the vast, energetic enterprise that biotech has become, he often doesn’t linger long enough on the research being conducted to give us a complete view. For example, at one point he describes how “transgenic” goats have been developed that contain genes from spiders so that ewes produce silk protein in their milk. This technique may allow us to harvest spider’s silk in industrial amounts potentially leading to the development of a product so strong that “a woven cable as thick as your thumb can bear the weight of a Boeing 747 airliner.”
This is interesting, but it produces a flood of questions: How many transgenic goats would be needed, and what would the harvesting process be like? What obstacles do the researchers face in achieving their goal? Would there be a danger of mixing these goats with “natural” herds? How would the product potentially change industry? What might it cost, say, in comparison with producing steel? But other than illustrating how it would improve body armor for soldiers and police officers, Fumento doesn’t say. After spending a handful of paragraphs drawing the reader into the project, in a frustrating act of interruptus, like a honeybee in a field of flowers, he buzzes off to the next example of amazing research, and the next, and the next.
On the question of genetic modification in food, however, he does spend the time to develop the material. Genetically modified foods are controversial among environmentalists. I am agnostic myself and bemused that those who seem the most upset about it—Jeremy Rifkin excepted—often express scant concern about making such alterations in human beings. Fumento makes reasoned points about how some opposition to genetically altered crops actually produces profoundly antihuman consequences. While famine threatened Zambia in 2002, for example, environmentalists, declaring modified food to be “poison,” persuaded the government to refuse to distribute 17,000 tons of donated corn because about 30 percent of it was transgenic. People were starving, but that mattered little to those who put saving human lives beneath “saving the planet” from abuse. “They can play games with Europeans who have full stomachs,” said a disgusted Andrew Natsios, the U.S.A.I.D. administrator, “but it is revolting and despicable to see them do so when the lives of Africans are at stake.”
Many of the biotech research activities reported by Fumento could help clean up the planet. There is a bacterial enzyme that converts the poisonous metal mercury into its least toxic form, for instance. I was also struck by how so many of the hoped-for biotechnological advances require the humane use of animals—either as living sources of potentially potent medicine or to determine whether experimental procedures are safe. This is not the point of “BioEvolution,” but it effectively dismantles the PETA propaganda that doing away with the use of animals in research would advance human welfare.
Michael Fumento is far too gullible about the potential for biotechnology to banish most human suffering. And he skirts the moral controversies surrounding human cloning and embryonic stem-cell research, which are at the heart of the debates swirling around biotechnology.
Nonetheless, his research shows the vast scope of contemporary biotechnological research. Fumento’s “BioEvolution” is as good as the case for biotech gets.
Wesley J. Smith is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute and author of “Forced Exit: The Slippery Slope from Assisted Suicide to Legalized Murder.”