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Keith Rankin: Learning To Live With The Gene Genie

Learning To Live With The Gene Genie

Keith Rankin, 23 August 2001

Genetic manipulation is a new technology, which, like most new technologies makes a large proportion of us uncomfortable. And, as with other new technologies, we tend to see the issues in pure black and white terms. The pros unquestioningly embrace the genie. The antis demand that the genie be put back into the lamp. Unassuming scientists, most of them with a strong commitment to public values, are cast as either heroes or villains.

As I see it, for those whose inclination is to be opposed to genetic manipulation, there are three distinct issues. First, should scientists or anyone else be allowed to research in areas that might conceivably bring some major form of social harm? Second, how can we manage the technology so as to ensure that the least risky scenario is the one that prevails? Third, how do we make sure that the public both receives an appropriate share of any profits that arise from the technology and that the private beneficiaries of the technology also bear an appropriate share of the costs?

I prefer the term "genetically manipulated organisms" over " genetically modified organisms" (GMOs). Genetic modification happens all the time in nature. It's called mutation, and is the driving force of evolution. Microbiologists - who study the likes of bacteria and viruses - know that natural genetic modification happens rather quickly. When a new habitat opens up, mutant bacteria will fill it. For example antibiotic-resistant bacteria just love hospitals.

I'm not convinced that gene-splicing technology is going to significantly increase the rate at which biological nasties will evolve. The 1960s' cultural attitude that we could afford to indulge in risky behaviours because medical technology (especially antibiotics) would always cure us has probably got more potential to harm humans than gene manipulation ever will.

On balance I'm a technological optimist. We can consider a number of macroinventions that have had an irreversible impact on the lives of homo sapiens sapiens: the railway, the automobile, nuclear technology, antibiotics, the computer. History clearly shows that all of these have had an upside and a downside.

Huge numbers of people died in the construction of railways. Many people died in railway accidents, including maritime explorer Dumont d'Urville (after whom D'Urville Island was named) whose life was prematurely ended in a train crash near Versailles circa 1840. Railways precipitated the ethnic cleansing of the Plains Indians in America. Yet today, railways are seen as benign, indeed green. This is because the car, made possible with the invention of the internal combustion engine, has modified human society much more. The car has killed many more people, and will possibly prove to be the principal agent of climate change this century. Despite all this, it is not clear to me that humankind is worse off as a result of either the railway or the automobile. Cities like London were much more unpleasant 200 years ago, with all that horse pollution and mouldy food. It was only modern transport that brought fresh foods to city dwellers.

Even nuclear technology has its upside. It has a number of important applications in medicine. And it has revolutionised the art of historical dating. The idea that pure research about the nucleus of the atom should have been banned because it might have uncovered a dangerous new military technology would totally compromise the intellectual freedom that is central to my conception of what a good life is. It is better to risk being a dead cat, than to be a cat devoid of any opportunity to be curious.

Did the invention of the computer bring a downside? Of course. A large part of that downside is actually the reduction of productivity growth in the final quarter of the 21st century. Yet it obviously has a huge upside, not least the ability to mobilise opposition to other new technologies, such as our ability to manipulate the genes of any creature or plant.

We cannot put the gene genie back in the bottle. And I am not convinced that we should if we could.

What we can do - but probably will not do - is to ensure an appropriate balance between private and public benefits and downside risks. The biggest threat that we face from science is its privatisation. This has taken place in a world in which the public foundations upon which capitalism rests have been substantially undermined.

We are doing the best to create new national economies based on the privatisation of knowledge for profit. The genomics revolution is particularly worrying because it is so amenable to that privatisation process. The genetic blueprint of us and our fellow species is inherently public information, in the same sense that all of the statistics in Statistics New Zealand's INFOS database is inherently public. (Despite this, I may have to pay megabucks to get Statistics New Zealand to perform the service of providing me access to much of this public information.)

Once as much as one letter in a DNA sequence is artificially altered, that piece of DNA becomes a manufactured product; something private. The private owner is free to profit, despite the huge amounts of public intellectual capital without which that 'private product' could never have been made.

It turns out that the GMO issue is just one of many that makes it urgent for us to assert and enforce public property rights. Once we come to understand taxes as a royalty for the use of public property, and come to distribute the proceeds of taxes in a transparent way that we can all appreciate, then most of us will be able to see that our present and future living standards depend on the returns that we get from the many forms of property that is in the public domain. Two of those forms of public property are the natural environment, and the databank of scientific and other knowledge that has been complied and added to over the centuries.

Private corporations should pay taxes to us - the public - according to a formula that reflects our public stake in their businesses. And corporations need to be required to pay insurance premiums to us whenever they dabble in technologies that impose significant downside risks upon the public. As economists say - the marginal social cost should equal the marginal social benefit. In this case, where there are unknown though probable social costs, we are dealing with 'externalities' that can only be guestimated as 'expected values'. If the premium is high enough, the rate in which a potentially dangerous new technology is exploited will be slow. It seems to me that that is the way the anti-GMO lobby should be arguing; to slow down rather than to impose an absolute ban on genetic manipulation.

For perhaps 90% of us, our public interests outweigh our private interests. It's just that most of us don't realise the extent of our public interests, so we impose little pressure on our governments to enforce our public interests. Hence too many of the 90% are seduced by the low tax messages coming from the other 10% whose living standards derive in the main from their private interests.

It is the global cutting of tax rates since the 1980s that has been creating an environment of public poverty. We see that public poverty everywhere: in the commuter gridlocks that dominate the world's major cities, in the crises that our healthcare and education systems face, and in the privatisation of science.

The capitalist global economy depends critically on its public foundations. Yet the nationalistic model that virtually all our policymakers follow reinforces the growth of private incomes at the expense of public incomes. This is because any country that unilaterally raises taxes is seen to be reducing its "competitiveness". So we cut taxes to raise national competitiveness. In so doing, each of us depends more than ever on our private income sources, creating further demands to cut taxes. The pressure to use public resources to generate private profit becomes ever greater. To that end, genomics - genetic manipulation and patenting - represents the modern equivalent of the 19th century gold rushes.

The genie is out. Let's manage it, publicly. Private profiteering continues unabated while activists put all their energy into a futile attempt to put the gene genie back into Aladdin's lamp.

© 2001 Keith Rankin

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