[Paleopsych] Nature: Profile: Margaret Atwood
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Profile: Margaret Atwood
Published online: 31 January 2005; | doi:10.1038/nbt0205-163
Profile: Margaret Atwood
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
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
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