When public oversight of genetics research is bypassed: review of Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood
Author: Margaret Atwood
It’s not far-fetched or even very futuristic: genetics research is being privately funded by the mass sales of irresistibly appealing pharmaceuticals and therapeutic biotechnology–aphrodesiacs, youth-restoratives, designer offspring. Runaway competition among the top players in the genetic technology field had led to the construction of huge gated, guarded, and self-contained communities for the families of each lab’s staff and administation. The lab research runs on, devoid of oversight and regulation by any wider society.
The “wider society” is what lies outside the gates of these research communities. They are the so-called “pleeblands”–where the underprivileged plebes live, with their dreams of immortality and their governments that have become totally irrelevant to the forces of technology that define the future of life on the planet. And that future includes a vast array of new varieties and species of plants, animals, and microbes, most engineered with profit in mind. Think about chickens with breastmeat tumors and numerous wing and drumstick appendages for marketing to the fast-food chicken industries. Think about superviruses engineered to produce total homeland insecurity, should the need for it arise.
What looms large in award-winning author Margaret Atwood’s new novel, Oryx and Crake, is the power of top scientists to impose their own values and standards–and biases and whims–upon the future of planetary life. Her protagonists are realistically drawn with typical “baggage” left from childhood experience, the hidden motives that affect all human choices. She shows us a future that is already so present that it doesn’t strike us as particularly nightmarish. It’s believable and entirely possible, if the governments of the world neglect to legislate regulatory protocols that pertain to all research, both publicly and privately funded. Everyone currently engaged in genethics discussions and other genetics-and-religion conversations is already aware of such a possible future. This scenario is the reason to remain vigilant and proactively sceptical of the claims of “forge-ahead science” for limitless progress and therapeutic benefit for humanity.