The Frontal Cortex

Can Michael Crichton Be Forgiven?

Until he became a global warming skeptic and an environmental advisor to the Bush White House, I’d always been a fan of Michael Crichton. His scientific dystopias always made for excellent pool-side reading and, when he was good, he could be very good. Say what you will about his didactic dialogues, or penchant for cinematic scenes, or cardboard characters, but the man can conjure up one hell of a premise. He has figured out a way to translate our anxieties about scientific discovery into plots fit for Hollywood. Just look at Jurassic Park: those rampaging dinosaurs taught more people about the power of DNA than the typical high school biology class.

So I’m intrigued by his latest novel, Next. He subject is once again genetics, and the legal and ethical miasma that results when scientists are allowed to patent human tissue. I haven’t read it yet, but here’s a sketch of the plot:

In “Next,” a Southern California cancer survivor, Frank Burnet, discovers that cells he let a trusted doctor harvest from his body because of their cancer-fighting characteristics have become the property of UCLA, which licensed a private firm, BioGen, to do research on them. When the cells, said to be worth $3 billion, are contaminated — by agents of a predatory investor who wants the company to fail so that he can take it over — UCLA and BioGen claim the legal right to extract more cells from Burnet, by force if necessary, invoking the same power of eminent domain for the sake of the public good that the government uses to take private land for freeways.

Of course, that’s only the beginning. Crichton also invokes the usual horror-house of genetic engineering, including an orangutan that has human genes and a transgenic parrot. Now I know that some scientists will cry foul, and accuse Crichton of fearmongering. They will be absolutely right. Unfortunately, this criticism misses the point. Fearmongering is what Crichton does: he peddles worst case scenarios, weaving plots in which everything that could go wrong does go wrong. In his books, malicious motives, corrupt scientists and Machiavellian CEO’s govern the world.

So the real question isn’t whether or not Crichton is exaggerating the risk of recombinant DNA and genetic engineering. If he wasn’t, the novel would be boring. What I’m interested in is whether or not Crichton’s dystopia sheds any light on some of our genuine ethical conerns. And judging by the plot summary and the website of his fictious company, I’m afraid that it does. I’ve talked to many scientists who are genuinely concerned about the patenting of human DNA, and the corporatization of university research.

The truth of the matter is that our intellectual property laws and ethical guidelines lag several years behind the pace of scientific research. If Crichton’s pulp fiction manages to make people think for a few seconds about our brave new future, then I’m all for it. The key to managing scientific progress isn’t to pretend that all discovery is in the public interest, and that The Truth should trump any ethical concerns. We should be having a spirited debate about the patenting of the genetic code, and how our genetic information is used, and what ethical boundaries we are willing to cross in the interest of medical research. I hope that Next becomes a best-seller.

Comments

  1. #1 J-Dog
    November 30, 2006

    Interesting post – I just commented about Crichton on a reading recomendation post at PZ’s blog… I agree that his early work was pretty dammed good, but he has turned into such a public loon that I cannot recommend him anymore.

    However, I too would be interested in the opinions of his latest by some of the real scientists that comment here.

    Timeline was the last book that I liked written by Crichton. Movie not as good as the book IMO.

  2. #2 Mustafa Mond, FCD
    November 30, 2006

    I’ve never been a Crichton fan, based on litereary merit. I find his plots predictable and his characters wooden.

  3. #3 Mark
    November 30, 2006

    I used to like Crichton for a good, brainless read, which is something I look for in a book on an airplane. But when he crossed the wacko border with his take on global warming, I checked a little into his other wackiness. He believes in mental spoon bending. I’m sorry if I end up tossing out all his good ideas with the bad, but when the bad is sooo bad, I just don’t want to waste my time looking for any small bits of good.

  4. #4 jtdub
    November 30, 2006

    Crichton’s take on the wave/particle duality and wave interference in Timeline is laughable.

    If I remember correctly, in Timeline he has a foreword in which he describes the dispersion of photons in the double slit experiment (or it might be the single slit) by invoking alternate universes and alternate universe photon interference/interaction to account for the apparent randomness.

    This is his “plausible” basis for the alternate universes in that book.

  5. #5 Tulse
    November 30, 2006

    Crichton has alway been a contradiction to me — he writes about the horror and dehumanization of science faced by humanity, and yet the characters in his books are far less interesting than the whiz-bang technology. It’s like a preacher decrying sex by showing his congregation porn and saying, “Look how terrible this is!”

    In any case, I think it is quite revealing of Crichton’s politics that the summary suggests he is worried about government claiming legal rights on patented biologicals, and for the “public good”, rather than corporations claiming such rights purely for profit.

  6. #6 EANMDPHD
    December 1, 2006

    Monoclonal antibodies used to fight all sorts of diseases were developed from a diseased spleen which over-produced antibodies. The severely ill patient was grateful for the removal of his spleen in this life threatening situation. Later, he wanted compensation as his spleen cells (or knowledge from them) were producing all these ‘useful’ antibodies.

    Anyone remember what happened in this situation which I believe went to court?

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