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August 14, 1987 - Image 49

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

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have learned to alter a bacteria that occurs
naturally in temperate regions. In its
natural state, the bacteria facilitates the
formation of frost. In its altered form, the
genetic instructions in the bacteria cells
are changed to eliminate that property.
Scientists are excited by the potential for
limiting crop damage by widespread spray-
ing of this new organism.
Rifkin is not excited about the prospect
of frost-free strawberries. Instead, he frets
about the social genies that may be let out
of the bottle when we begin to think in
terms of "perfecting" life? Will we be able
to stop with strawberries? Or, will the pro-
cess move on to corn and cows — and,
maybe, people?
What happens to our moral foundation,
Rifkin seems to be asking, when we
assume powers that were previously
limited to God? Is this science? Or is it
moral arrogance?
"If," he said, "you develop a technology
based on engineering design principles —
and that's what genetic engineering is
about — the final playout of those prin-
ciples is perfection. No engineer wants to

Rifkin covets new ideas
the way some people
covet new cars.

make his machine only 30 percent perfect.
Or 40 percent perfect. Every engineer is
concerned with making his machine
perfect. If you apply these standards to
life, you shouldn't be surprised if you end
up with a society defined by those stand-
Rifkin is offended by the notion of pa-
tenting life forms, a procedure his group
has been fighting in the courts. "By allow-
ing the patenting of life forms," he said,
"the U.S. Patent Office has reduced all
animals to the lowly status of commod-
ities, indistinguishable from electric
How, Rifkin asked, is this scientific
reductionism different from the inhumani-
ty of a Hitler, who treated millions of
human beings as subhuman, and whose ul-
timate objective was a genetically pure,
"improved" race of people?
lb Rifkin, science and society's ongoing
conflict is in a transitional phase. "On one
side," he said, "you have a growing respect
for life — all life. On the other, you have a
final fulfillment of the world view of the
Enlightenment — which reduces all life to
utilitarianism, expediency, and efficiency
by actually engineering those features in-
to the genetic code."
lb a considerable extent, Rifkin's moral
stance makes him attractive to constituen-
cies that would not normally be caught
dead on the same side of an issue. Funda-
mentalist Christians and "evolutionists,"

religious Jews, devotees of various back-to-
the-land philosophies and environmen-
talists all find something attractive in
Rifkin's opposition to tampering with the
genetic code.
Rifkin understands that his popularity
with some evangelical Christians taints his
crusade in the eyes of others, especially in-
tellectuals and Jews. He defends this by
citing the considerable theological diversi-
ty within the Christian community.
"You get what you expect out of people,"
he said. "If you expect a whole constituen-
cy to act and think in a certain way, and
give them no opportunity to exercise their
theology in any other way than the way
you've granted them, they will eventually
turn inward and do what you expect:'
But Rifkin has difficulty addressing
fundamentalists' tendency to oppose all
knowledge that conflicts with their
theology. Although he pointed to several
"progressive" groups of evangelicals, he
conceded they may not represent most
Rifkin's battle to redefine science is
curiously divided. On one hand, he fights
biotechnology with lawsuits and media-
wise actions that have made him such a
nuisance to the corporate and scientific
world. At the same time, his books and
speech are filled with an endless theoriz-
ing that sometimes veers into hyperbole.
Ask him a question, for example, about
what should be done about surrogate
mothers who want to keep their children,
and you get a breathless lecture on the
evolution of the idea of life as a commodi-
Rifkin's analysis is based more on
history and politics than on science. If a
new technology has the potential to be
misused, it will, he suggested, be misused.
Like many of his fundamentalist admirers,
he seems to deeply distrust human nature
and is quite certain that science will not
provide our redemption.
With some prodding, Rifkin revealed
that he doesn't expect an abrupt overturn
of science's world-view. "What I hope to
do," he said, "is slow down the pace at
which we accept these things. People -just
need to have some of the moral implica-
tions of these new ideas pointed out to
them. We don't have time to ask these
questions because we're bombarded by so
much new information, and things move at
such a fast clip.
"We need to create a responsible,
courageous way of critiquing this world
view. We need to critique it in a way that
allows us to exercise new options for the
mind. We might be able to develop a whole
different type of consciousness in which
there is no place for split atoms and spliced
genes. There might be whole different
realities out there that we haven't
discovered because we were busy splitting
atoms and splicing genes. We won't know
unless we try."


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