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The Biotech Century

Harnessing the Gene and Remaking the World

Lecture Synopsis:

Mr. Rifkin is the author of The Biotech Century: Harnessing the Gene and Remaking the World. The book, an international bestseller, has been translated into more than twenty one languages and is the most widely read book on biotechnology in the world.

In his presentation, Mr. Rifkin will explore, in detail, the great shift into the biotech century. After more than forty years of running on parallel tracks, the information and life sciences are beginning to fuse into a single powerful technological and economic force that is laying the foundation for the Biotech Century. The computer is increasingly being used to decipher, manage and organize the vast genetic information that is the raw resource of the new global economy. Already, transnational corporations are creating giant life-science complexes from which to fashion a bio-industrial world.

Our way of life is likely to be more fundamentally transformed in the next few decades than in the previous 1,000 years. Food and fiber will likely be grown indoors in giant bacteria baths, partially eliminating the farmer and the soil for the first time in history. Animal and human cloning could be commonplace, with "replication" increasingly replacing "reproduction." Millions of people could obtain a detailed genetic readout of themselves, allowing them to gaze into their own biological future and predict and plan their lives in ways never before possible. Parents may choose to have their children conceived in test-tubes and gestated in artificial wombs outside the human body. Genetic changes could be made in human fetuses to correct deadly diseases and disorders and enhance mood, behavior, intelligence and physical traits.

The Biotech Century promises a cornucopia of genetically engineered plants and animals to feed a hungry world, genetically derived sources of energy and fiber to propel commerce and build a "renewable" society, wonder drugs and genetic therapies to produce healthier babies, eliminate human suffering, and extend the human life span. But, with every step we take into this "Brave New World," the nagging question, "At what cost?" will haunt us.

The new genetic commerce raises more troubling issues than any other economic revolution in history. Will the artificial creation of cloned, chimeric and transgenic animals mean the end of nature and the substitution of a "bio - industrial" world? Will the mass release of thousands of genetically engineered life forms into the environment cause catastrophic genetic pollution and irreversible damage to the biosphere? What are the consequences for the global economy and society of reducing the world's gene pool to patented intellectual property controlled exclusively by a handful of life-science corporations? What will it mean to live in a world where babies are genetically engineered and customized in the womb, and where people are increasingly identified, stereotyped, and discriminated against on the basis of their genotype? What are the risks we take in attempting to design more "perfect" human beings?

The biotech revolution will force each of us to put a mirror to our most deeply held values, making us ponder the ultimate question of the purpose and meaning of existence. This may turn out to be its most important contribution.




The Biotech Century

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Articles from Global Column


Financial Times, "Perils of unnatural science", June 20, 1998

The Washington Post, "Who Will Decide Between Defect and Perfect?", April 19, 1998

The Guardian, "Are you a man or a mouse?", March 15, 2005

The Guardian, "This is the age of biology", July 28, 2001

Los Angeles Times, "Think Twice Before Trying to Outwit Nature; EA worldwide moratorium should be declared on genetically engineered food crops", June 1, 1999


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