michael crichton's next: The Horror show of capitalism in biotechnology
By Satrio Pangarso Wisanggeni 120222415477
We've reached the point where we can stick it to Big Pharma-and we will. Those massive, bloated companies need us and they know it. They need genes, they need technology. They're the past. We're the future. We're where the money is! (Crichton, 2006:12)
That sentence is uttered by John B. Watson. He is a fictional character from Michael Crichton's novel titled Next. In the novel, Watson was standing in front of the audience of 2006 BioChange Conference in Las Vegas and, as a successful businessman, was talking about the prospect of investing and working in biotechnology industry.
As you can see, Watson was trying to promote biotechnology industry as today's first choice in investment by using promises of big and certain profit in the future. He was trying to gain trust from his future investors and employee.
Money, trust and modal investment. You could confidently and rightly conclude how they are related to each other (Burner, 2009). Capitalism.
Capitalism has been in our society for a long time, 250 years ago, since the beginning of the industrial revolution in the Great Britain. The industrial revolution put feudalism down the throne and crowned capitalism as the new king. Capitalism is an economic system in which trade, industry and the means of production are controlled by private owners with the goal of making profits in a market economy. Profit is the goal. There is no other goal, such as sustaining environment or biological diversity.
However, up to now, capitalism has given us a lot of many things that other economic system cannot give. Capitalism is desired to generate profit, wealth, efficiently and quickly. In a capitalistic atmosphere too, you will find innovation and intellectual rights.
Let's put on halt our talk about capitalism, and move on to biotechnology. Based on the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity, Article 2, biotechnology is the use of living systems and organisms to develop or make useful products, or, any technological application that uses biological systems, living organisms or derivatives thereof, to make or modify products or processes for specific use. If you take a look on biotechnology deeper, biotechnology is not a new thing in science and technology. For thousands of years, humankind has used biotechnology in agriculture, food production, and medicine. The products of biotechnology are not unusual, too. You can categorize the beer you drink and the tofu you ate this morning as examples of it.
Today's biotechnology is not dealing with the traditional way anymore. Since twenty years ago, biotechnology has expanded to include new and diverse sciences, such as genomics, recombinant gene technologies, applied immunology and development of pharmaceutical therapies and diagnostic tests. In short, biotechnology, just like Watson has said, has been growing rapidly, with new things discovered every day.
Biotechnology, however the good things it brings, does come along us with its controversies, too. The rapid progress of biotechnology has made a number of controversies, especially surrounding cloning and embryonic stem cells. The ethical dilemma over cloning is whether or not therapeutic cloning is morally defensible if it technically enables the possibility of human reproductive cloning. On the other hand, the moral ambiguity surrounding embryonic stem cells is not about the creation of human life but the destruction of it-that is, whether or not embryonic stem cells constitute a human life. Opponents of embryonic stem cell research argue that it is inherently immoral to destroy the cells for scientific research since they have the potential to develop into human beings.
In addition to the complex and problematic ethical questions about cloning and embryonic stem cells, there is the law and regulation issue. Modern biotechnology started to grow twenty years ago and has since been filled with a lot of discoveries and law simply could not cope with this growth. Legal problem in biotechnology has given new perspective in legal world . There are law practices around clients with theories as opposed to products and another in which involves fighting in the trial for the legitimacy of a product that exists only on paper and in the imaginations of its scientist. A trial on biotechnological legal problem needs attorneys with wide arrays of experience (Kramer: 1998). Furthermore, biotechnology's complexity needs better law that focuses on regulating biotechnological products. The regular law of possession and rights do not translate well into the technical language of biotechnology, besides of the slightly different concepts, as the products are mostly theories, not physical goods.
Capitalism is not free from controversial topics, too. Instead, the pros and cons about capitalism has led into several war, with massive numbers of fatality. Vietnam and Korea are examples of wars between capitalism and its enemy, communism. The classic opposition arguments against capitalism is that capitalism leading to uneven wealth distribution, as the rich got richer and the poor get poorer. Capitalists, with their goal of profit, has since ignored the natural environments and exploited for too much.
Nowadays, capitalism are very dependent on the regulations and law made by the government. Market is the soul of capitalism and not made by natural interaction of buyer and seller. The market is a set of behaviours that is structured by rules, and many of the most important rules have been developed and enforced by government. Without these rules, our prized free-market economy would be a stunted and weak version of what we see today (Amy, 2007). The rules are governing a lot of issues; limited liability laws, property rights, law and order, bankruptcy protection, a stable money supply, patents and copyrights, banking regulation and insurance, corporate charters, commercial transaction laws, international trade law, and ultimately the enforcement of laws above.
By knowing the controversies and issues about biotechnology and capitalism, we would understand that biotechnology industry and capitalism are strong yet fragile entities. They seem to be strong and firm. One of them is powered by ambition of discovering new things and the other is motorised by the desire of profit, yet they need law at its best to keep their survival.
And a question appeared in my mind. How will the world be, if these two controversial subjects are melted into one as Jack Watson wanted? The answer was given a life to become a story by Michael Crichton and it was a horror show.
Next is a novel by Michael Crichton, published in 2006. This novel is the last to be published during his lifetime. Using intertwining narrative style, this novel follows many characters in many plots which their interrelation will be seen in the end of the story.
Next focuses on issues regarding genetic research, corporate greed and legal interventions that happen in the world of modern-day biotechnology. Thus, this novel contains 'scary prediction' of what will happen next if we are still this unaware of what biotechnology is capable of.
The first nightmare about biotechnology industry is its conflict with law. Frank Burnet contracted an aggressive form of leukaemia and underwent intensive treatment and four years of semi-annual check-ups. He later learned that the check-ups were a pretext for researching the genetic basis of Frank's unusually successful response to treatment, and that the physician's university had sold the rights to Frank's cells to BioGen, a biotechnology start-up company. As the book opens Frank is suing the university for unauthorized misuse of his cells, but the trial judge rules that the cells were "waste" that the university could dispose of as it wished. Frank's lawyers advise that the university, as a tax-funded organization, can still claim the rights to the cells under the doctrine of eminent domain. As you can see, the fact of a living cells of a man can be considered as waste and you have no control of it, is how law could not cope with the technical words and concepts of biotechnology.
Next, there is a conspiracy made by Jack Watson to steal or simply sabotage BioGen's cultures of Frank Burnet's cells. By knowing that Brad Gordon, Watson's nephew, has gene that implies high attraction to teenage girls, Jack Watson's company frames him for aggravated rape of a minor. Watson's price for providing a defence lawyer is that Brad must contaminate BioGen's cultures. Brad's lawyer plans to claim in defence that Brad has a gene for recklessness, and instructs him to engage in various high-risk activities. In this part of the story, Michael Crichton was showing his concern about gene-related issues. He emphasized that genetic information will soon be used in trials.
The next conflict is how the law is so limited against biotechnological issues. The conflict start after the sabotage of BioGen's Burnet cells. After Brad's sabotage, BioGen consults lawyers, who advise that under United States law they have the rights to all of Frank's cell line and thus the right to extract replacement cells, by force if necessary, from Frank or any of his descendants. When Frank goes on the run, BioGen hires bounty hunter Vasco Borden to obtain such cells irrespective of whether the donors consent. Vasco plans to snatch Frank's grandson Jamie from his school, but is blocked by Jamie's mother Alex, whom he tries to seize instead. After escaping, Alex and Jamie also go on the run.
Definitely, there is some ethical issues in this novel. The first one is about transgenic chimpanzee. Chimpanzee, as we know, is genetically similar to human. The similarity is about ninety-nine per cent. This ethical conflict follows the story of a researcher. Henry Kendall, a researcher at another biotech company, finds that his illegal introduction of human genes into a chimpanzee a few years ago while working at the NIH primate research facility unexpectedly produced a transgenic chimp, who can talk and whose behaviour is generally childlike but reverts to chimp patterns under stress. The agency intends to destroy the chimp-boy Dave in order to cover up the unauthorized experiment but Henry sneaks him out of the lab. Henry's wife Lynn strongly opposes bringing Dave into their home, but their son, also called Jamie, becomes close friends with him. Lynn becomes Dave's most determined defender, uploads reports of a fictitious genetic disease and creates an article about it on Wikipedia to explain Dave's odd appearance, and grooms him as a senior female would groom a very young chimp in the wild. Dave is sent to the same school as Jamie and gets into trouble after biting the leader of a gang of bullies who attack Jamie. The chimp-boy becomes increasingly isolated at school; academically, he is backward in some areas such as writing, while in sports, his classmates regard him as unfair competition.
Another ethical issues about transgenic animals is about the same with the story of Henry and Dave. This one is about an African grey parrot, named Gerard, which was injected human genes and Gail Bond, an animal behaviour researcher. Gerard has been helping her son to produce near-perfect homework. While she is testing Gerard's abilities, the bird becomes bored and mimics the voices and other sounds of her husband having sex in their home with another woman. After a quarrel, Gail's husband, an investment banker, gives Gerard as a present to an influential and lecherous client. The client finds Gerard an embarrassment and passes him on to another owner, and so on. Eventually Gerard ends up in the hands of Stan Milgram, who loses patience with Gerard's loquacity while delivering the parrot to yet another owner three days' drive away, and leaves the bird by the roadside. Fortunately for Gerard the series of transfers has made his wings overdue for clipping, and he flies out of danger and off in search of more pleasant surroundings. This story criticizes the possibility of altering the way the world has been to us since its creation.
The big story comes to an end, as I said before, which (some) characters are brought together, united the intertwining plots. Alex and Jamie go for the home of her childhood friend Lynn. Vasco anticipates this move and tries to grab Dave - but abducts Lynn's son Jamie instead. Dave saves Lynn's Jamie, severely damaging both Vasco and the ambulance in which Vasco planned to extract the tissue samples. However Vasco's friend, Dolly, snatches Alex' son while everyone is celebrating the rescue of Lynn's. While the hunt was going on, Biogen's lawyers applied for an arrest warrant against Alex on the grounds that she had stolen the company's property, namely hers and her son's cells. She has to go straight from the fight to the courtroom, where her lawyer outplays Biogen's and the judge adjourns to check details of the relevant laws and precedents overnight. Alex and Henry discover that Alex' son is being moved to a private clinic where the tissue samples are to be taken. As they move in to retrieve him, Gerard, now a resident of the clinic's gardens, reminds Jamie to shout for his mother, who rescues him. Vasco gives up after Dave attacks him and Alex threatens him with a shotgun. The next day the judge rules in Alex' favor and rejects the precedents as attempts to abolish normal human feelings by decree, a violation of the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which forbids slavery, and likely to hamper research in the long run as patients will sell their tissues rather than donate them for research.
The ending suggests that the law system in United States needs a breaking-free decision in order to resolve biotechnology conflicts. It is not enough to use the regular governing regulation. The novel shows that the judge uses a law about slavery to stops the problem of possession of the cells, kind of exceeding the expectations.
In the epilogue, Gerard is welcomed into Lynn's home, however after he mimics telephone dial tones Lynn contacts Gail, and he is reunited with her. Press commentators praise the household as a trend-setting inter-species transgenic family, and Henry is honored by some scientific organisations, while religious and social conservatives condemn the family.
Biotechnology and capitalism is inseparable unity in the near-future (or even now) industry. Legal world needs to improve itself, as the ethics will remain be a problem in the industry. If we do not prepare ourselves, what will happen next seems to be a series of a horror show, I would say once again.
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