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.