[Paleopsych] Nature: Profile: Margaret Atwood

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Profile: Margaret Atwood

    Nature Biotechnology
    Published online: 31 January 2005; | doi:10.1038/nbt0205-163

Profile: Margaret Atwood

    Sabine Louët

    Imagine a world in which biotech could satiate every human desire and
    correct every human imperfection. Margaret Atwood's latest novel
    paints a picture and it's not all that rosy.

    "It is not biotech that's dangerous," claims Margaret Atwood, her
    sparkly blue eyes betraying the intensity of her conviction. "It is
    people's fears and desires." Her latest book, Oryx and Crake, paints a
    grim picture of the future in which a genetically engineered virus has
    devastated the world, leaving behind a nightmarish wasteland where
    insects proliferate and chimeric animals run amok.
    Atwood, a Canadian author with more than 30 books of fiction, short
    stories, poetry and literary critiques to her credit, has created a
    chilling vision. Even the precatastrophic world in Oryx and Crake is
    bleak--fixated on physical perfection and longevity, with economic and
    intellectual disparities reminiscent of our own. Biotech is the tool
    of the elite, who live in tightly protected compounds. Everyone else
    remains on the outside.
    Despite the negative tone of her book, Atwood stresses she is not
    antibiotech. "Biotech is not dangerous," [it is] neutral," she says.
    Only its uses "can be evil," she adds, especially once business
    interests kick in. By writing the book--part of a long dystopian
    tradition in fiction, including Huxley's Brave New World and Orwell's
    1984--Atwood wants to warn her readers by presenting "a blueprint of
    what you don't want to happen."
    According to John Durant, professor of public understanding of science
    at Imperial College, London, similar to other popular media, Atwood's
    book provides "a thermometer...showing what's going on in public
    opinion." At the same time, he adds, it shapes and reinforces the
    public's opinion about biotech. Indeed, Atwood hopes her readers "may
    at least become aware of the problems facing them" in a society that
    has come to rely heavily on biotech and that "they may then give some
    thought to what they are going to do about those kinds of problems."
     "It is not biotech that's dangerous," claims Margaret Atwood, "It is
    people's fears and desires."
    One of the key themes of the novel is the corrupting influence of
    commerce on science. When business interests dominate "you enter a
    skewed universe where science can no longer operate as science,"
    Atwood says. The book takes this to extremes. For example, biotech
    company HelthWyzer puts "hostile bioforms" into vitamin pills while at
    the same time marketing antidotes. "The best diseases, from a business
    point of view," the author writes with irony, "would be those that
    cause a lingering illness."
    Some see Atwood's book as a bellwether for public concerns about the
    impact of biotech on society. According to Evelyn Fox Keller,
    professor of history and philosophy of science at the Massachusetts
    Institute of Technology in Cambridge, many of these fears result from
    the tendency of scientists to hype the importance of genes in
    determining who we are. "If the public has been persuaded that this is
    the case, no wonder they are alarmed." It does not matter whether that
    anxiety is misplaced.
    Atwood grew up among biologists; the "boys at the lab" mentioned in
    the novel's acknowledgments are the students and postdocs who worked
    with her father at a forest-insect research station in Northern
    Quebec. What's more, her brother, Harold, is a professor of physiology
    and zoology at the University of Toronto. The genesis of Oryx and
    Crake comes from her lifelong observance of, and interest, in science.
    Several of the ideas in the book are drawn directly from her childhood
    in Canada and later stays in the United States, Europe and elsewhere.
    During her time in Australia, for example, she became acquainted with
    the ecological havoc wrought by colonial introduction of nonindigenous
    species, such as pigs. In Oryx and Crake, Australian pigs translate
    into transgenic oddities called 'pigoons'--animals engineered to
    provide transplant organs, rather like those that have come from
    Cambridge, UK-based biotech company Immutran, now part of Novartis in
    Basel. These pigoons run wild after escaping the highly secluded
    laboratories where they were created. They have not only humanized
    organs but also human neocortex tissue, enabling them to compete with
    wild relatives and with humans in the struggle for survival following
    the pandemic.
     According to Atwood, when business interests dominate "you enter a
    skewed universe where science can no longer operate as science."
    When pressed for present-day concerns in science ethics that prompted
    her book, Atwood says she feels particularly strongly about the loss
    of independence of scientists, citing the suppression of negative data
    by corporate sponsors. "If you get results that are contrary to what
    you want to market, the temptation to suppress those results is very
    strong," she says. Such competing interests are becoming increasingly
    common as governments across the world encourage more and more
    scientists to become involved in commercial enterprises.
    Atwood describes her book as speculative, rather than science,
    fiction. Joan Leach, editor of the academic journal Social
    Epistemology and a lecturer in science communication at the University
    of Queensland, in Brisbane, Australia, agrees. "It's a kind of
    cultural critique," she explains. How far should society allow biotech
    to be exploited on the basis of commercial imperatives? And what are
    the moral and ethical responsibilities to limit the application of
    biotech? In her book, Atwood describes the 'ChickieNob,' a type of
    genetically enhanced chicken with a dozen wings on two legs. With such
    creations, the book's hero wonders "has [some line] been crossed, some
    boundary transgressed? How much is too much, how far is too far?"
    The lack of oversight for biotech applications is a key problem for
    biotech today, according to Atwood. She believes an independent
    watchdog is needed to provide guidance. It would be somewhat like a
    "restaurant reviewer," she says, forcing scientists to "tell the
    truth" and rejecting biotech applications that might be ethically
    dubious or morally distasteful. She also suggests that new legislation
    should be introduced to protect whistleblowers who wish to come
    forward and reveal corruption or conflicts in corporate-sponsored
    Biotechnology "is the biggest toy box in the world that we've now
    opened," Atwood says. The question is should those toys come with more
    health warnings?

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