Report: Biotechnology convergence

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  The third industiral revolution. Life as a product.

Many years ago, the German philosopher Günther Anders already described the historical situation in which the homo creator and homo materia coincide as the "third industrial revolution". Anders, who spent many years exiled in the USA after fleeing from the Nazis, made issue of the ambivalence of modern science and technology as early as in the 1950s, and many of the concerns which today form part of the debates around the implications of computer technology are already polemically discussed in his work.

The "third industrial revolution" is characterized by men becoming the "raw material" of their own industries. Product and producer, production and consumption, technology and nature are no longer meaningful pairs of opposites. The third is also the last revolution, as it is difficult to think of further revolutions when the distinction between subject and object becomes blurred. The world is becoming a Bestand and the human body and mind are no protected zones. They are something like the last safety zone of human being which is now itself becoming a basis for technological innovation. When the subject is weakened by its technical environment, the use of technical crooks for body and mind becomes an obvious "solution", even if the technically strengthened subject is strengthened at the cost of no longer being a "subject" in the traditional, metaphysical sense. Biological processes are dissected and subjected to technical control. This technical control is technical in two senses: it is not only control through technology but by ttechnology itsself, since it is not carried out by unaided human minds, but increasingly by intelligent machines.

The point where this Andersian third industrial revolution reaches an unprecedented logic seems to lie within the realm of genetic engeneering. This example shows that the dissection of humanness - the decoding of genetic information - is tantamount to commodification. The purpose of the commercial genetic research projects is the use of genetic information as a resource for the development of new products, e.g. in pharmaceutics. Genetic products carry the promise of offering a solution to so-far uncurable diseases such as cancer, Alzeheimer, heart disorders, schizophrenia, and others, but they also open up the possibility of "breaking the chains of evolution", of actively manipulating the genetic structure of human beings and of "designing" healthy, long-living, beautiful, hard-working etc. beings. Here, the homo creator and the homo materia finally become indistinguishable and we are being to merge with our products in such a way that it "we" loses the remains of its meaning.

Since 1990 research on human genetics is organised in the Human Genome Project where universities from various countries cooperate in transcribing the entire genetic information of the predecessor of the homo sapiens , composed of 80,000 genes and more than 3 billion DNA sequences. The objective of the project is to complet the transcription process by the year 2003. One of the rationales of organising Genome research in an international fashion has been its extremely high cost, and also an ethical consideration, according to which human genetic information must not be a private property, which would be the case when genetic information becomes patentised.

But exactly this patentising is of paramount importance in the emerging "post-industrial" society where knowledge becomes the most important resource. A patent is nothing else than a property title to a piece of "know-how", and an necessary consequence commodification. When life no longer simply a natural creation but a product, it, too, will be patented and becomes a commodity.

Against the idea of the human genome as a public good, or an "open source", there is a growing competion on the part of private industry. Companies such as Celera deloped deciphering technologies which may allow an earlier completion of the project. In the case that human genetic information actually becomes patentised, then the technical possibility of interfering in human evolution would at leasst be partly in the hands of private business. What has been called a "quintessentially public resource" Iceland. In this nordic country, the government decided to allow the American genetics company DeCode to access and commercially exploit the anonymised genetic information of the entire population of Iceland. The Icelandic population provides a particularly good "sample" for research, because there has been almost no immigration since the times of the Vikings, and therefore genetic variations can be more easily detected than in populations with a more diverse genome. Also, Iceland possesses a wealth of genealogical information - many families are able to trace their origins back to the 12th century. Here modern science has found optimal laboratory conditions. Perhaps, had European history taken a different course in the 1930s and 40s, the frontier of commercial gentetic research would have found optimal conditions in an "ethnically clean" centre of Euorpe? The requirement of "purity", of "eliminating" difference prior to constructing knowledge, inscribed in the modern science since its beginnings, also applies to genome research. Except that in this kind of research humankind itself needs to fulfill laboratory standards of cleanliness, and that the biological transcription of humanness, the biological "nucleus" of the species, becomes the object of research, much like the nucleus of matter, the atom, in the 1940s and 50s.

But the commodification of life is not limited ot the human species. Genetically altered animals and plants are also suffering the same fate, and in most industrialised nations it is now possible to patent genetically engeneered species and crops. The promises of the "Green Revolution" of the 1960s are now repeated in the genetic revolution. Genetic engeneering, so it is argued, will be able to breed animals and plants which resist disease and yield more "food" and will therfore help to tackle problems of undernutrition and starvation. Companies such as Monsanto are at the forefront of developing genetically altered ("enhanced") food crops and promise to solve not only the problem of world hunger, but to improve the safety and even the taste of food. Convinced of the opposite of such high-flown promises, Vandana Shiva from the Indian Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology emphasises the relationship between post-colonial style exploitation of so-called "third world" countries. She also stresses the adverse ecological impact of biotechnology: "Today, the world is on the brink of a biological diversity crisis. The constantly diminishing store of biodiversity on our planet poses an enormous environmental threat", 22 February 1999, 9 February 2000

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