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August 14, 1987 - Image 48

Resource type:
The Detroit Jewish News, 1987-08-14

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Lab Wars

Continued from Preceding Page

talists. lb a remarkable extent, Rifkin
seems oblivious to his supporters and op-
ponents. Although he approaches science
as a highly political way, his ramblings
seem almost innocent of political over-
tones, as if only the ideas mattered.


Dachau and DNA

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48- FRIDAY, , ADC: -14, , 1987,

- J. ,

Rifkin is easily carried away by the sub-
jects that interest him, a category that
seems to include the bulk of Western
Civilization. His mind is to ideas what a
steep hill is to a truck with faulty brakes.
Even when his analog watch tells him it's
time to move on, he seems physically
unable to staunch the flow of words.
In an age of tight intellectual focus,
Rifkin is not afraid of sweeping visions. As
modern science bores into the very nucleus
of the cell, Rifkin is moving the other way,
toward the kind of broad intellectual syn-
thesis that seems a little blurry around the
He traces the origin of his interest in
genetic engineering to a visit to the
Dachau concentration camp in 1967 when
he was 24 years old. "That was a very
powerful moment for me," he said. "I
couldn't understand how something like
this could have happened. But I knew then
that this would have a very powerful effect
on my life."
The Nazi nightmare, he says, stemmed
from a culture steeped in many elements
that comprise science's world-view. "Nazis
saw the Final Solution as scientifically
motivated," he said. "They were obsessed
with efficiency and utilitarianism and a
bizarre mutation of the idea of scientific
Rifkin sees a connection between what
he calls the "new eugenics" of DNA
technology and the old eugenics of the
Third Reich. Hitler's minions, influenced
by the "scientific" eugenics movement
popular in the 1920s and 1930s, attempted
to mold civilization by mass murder. lb-
day's more benign-seeming science of
genetic engineering seeks to alter gene _ tic
pools by manipulating the essence of liv-
ing matter in the laboratory.
Although the Nazis represent the
ultimate perversion of the scientific
method, Rifkin sees some of the same
forces at work in today's front lines of
science, especially the burgeoning area of
Rifkin attacks the science of genetic
engineering from two directions. Like
many, he worries about the physical
dangers that may result from wholesale
testing of a technology that is only partial-
ly understood. In his 1985 book, Declara-
tion of a Heretic, he laid out frightening
scenarios that included the release of dead-
ly, uncontrollable organisms into the en-
vironment, the loss of genetic diversity
through tampering with natural selection,
and the development of deadly biological
agents for military use.

"As a tool of mass destruction," he wrote,
"[biological weaponry] rivals nuclear
weaponry, and it can be developed at a frac-
tion of the cost. These two factors alone
make genetic technology an ideal weapon
of the future."
But an even larger factor in Rifkin's vi-
sion are the moral implications of this
scientific revolution. "It reduces life to an
exploitable property," he said. "It gives us
the ability to manipulate the essence of life,
without a corresponding moral base on
which to make decisions about how we
want this life to be."
The consequences of this world-view, he
said, will be morally and environmentally
Jews, especially, should be especially sen-
sitive to the dangers of any kind of eu-
genics movement, he said. "But they don't
see this coming," he said. "The irony is that
the people who will lead the protests
against the new eugenics will be the young
people of Germany, where the most mili-
tant opposition to genetic engineering is
taking place."
American Jews, said Rifkin, respect
science, but oppose the "know-nothingism"
of the kinds of social and religious
movements that go to court to block the
teaching of evolution in schools.
"Jews are caught in something of a bind,"
Rifkin said. "On one hand, they're very
concerned about man's inhumanity to
man, and about the evil that man is
capable of doing, in the light of the
"On the other hand, Jewish intellectuals
closely identify with the modem, scientific
world view. Jewish intellectuals have not
critically evaluated how this same world
view was, in many ways, responsible for the
The "new eugenics," he said, differs from
the social eugenics of the Hitler era. "No
one's calling for the blond, blue-eyed Aryan
race to rule the world. We're working for
healthier babies, more efficient plants and
animals. It's a commercial eugenics. For a
better way of life, we're committing
ourselves to programming genes, mapping
genes, adding and subtracting genetic
traits. There's no evil intent here.
"But regardless of the intent of the peo-
ple pursuing this technology, you have to
look at its inherent logic. Remember, no
technology is neutral. If you're engineer-
ing a gene, every decision you make is a
value decision: What are the good genes?
What are the bad genes? What criteria do
we use? Who makes these decisions? How
is it consistent with the basic human
values of our Judeo-Christian heritage?"

The Arrogance of Science

In one of his books, Rifkin documents
the controversy in California over the
spraying of strawberry fields with an
engineered organism intended to reduce
the probability of frost damage. Scientists

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