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Book Review : Taking Control of Biological Destiny

April 14, 1987|LEE DEMBART | Times Staff Writer

To Govern Evolution: Further Adventures of the Political Animal by Walter Truett Anderson (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich: $22.95)

The political system in this country was invented at just about the time that Adam Smith was inventing laissez-faire economics, so it is no accident that democracy and capitalism have much in common. In a sense, democracy is laissez-faire politics. Let all ideas compete unfettered in the political marketplace, it says, and the truth will out.

This leads to an interesting quirk in contemporary politics. Conservatives, who tend to oppose restrictions on the "invisible hand" of the economic market, tend to support restrictions on the marketplace of ideas, such as censorship.

Liberals, on the other hand, who oppose First Amendment restrictions, support limitations on the economic marketplace in the furtherance of various social goals.

Another Similarity

Democracy is like capitalism in another important way. Both systems are based on the premise that if everyone acts in his own self-interest, the common good will be served. In fact, they both define the common good as the sum of all of the private goods. What else should it be? As a practical political matter, whatever makes the most people happiest is likely to be done, which is fine--most of the time.

But people frequently do not take their long-range interests into account when deciding what makes them happy. Short-term interests are sometimes different from long-term interests, and many of us want our short-term interests satisfied.

The trouble is that short-term interests can be inimical to long-term interests, and democracy does not handle that situation well. For example, cutting taxes is popular, as is large government spending. The people's representatives like to vote for such things. But the combination of the two leads to enormous deficits.

A less well-publicized but tremendously important example of this dilemma is the growing control that human beings exercise over biology and, ultimately, on the future of all life, which stems from this control. New technology is constantly being developed, decisions are being made and actions are being taken every day that will profoundly impact our basic biological being.

What's more, even if the political mechanism for controling these actions were at hand, which it isn't, no single nation can expect to do so alone. The effects are global, and so are the causes.

Controversial Techniques

Genetic engineering is the best known and most controversial of humanity's techniques for controlling evolution, but it is hardly the only one. There are many areas in which humans are taking control of biology. Others include genetic screening, artificial birth technologies (including in vitro fertilization and surrogate motherhood), deforestation and soil loss, water shortages, water and air pollution (including pollution of the oceans) and increasing species extinction.

These and a host of other issues and side issues are examined by Walter Truett Anderson in "To Govern Evolution," a book that draws together information and speculation about a very important topic but, alas, doesn't tell us what we can do about it.

Anderson, an author specializing in political science who lives in the Bay Area, explores the panoply of social, ethical and legal decisions that will have to be made, some of them, he says, very soon. His is a moderate voice. He doesn't wring his hands and proclaim, "Oh, the horror of it all!" He is no Jeremy Rifkin, the scourge of biotechnology, whom he criticizes.

But Anderson's concern is clear, as is his commitment to the idea that humanity should give careful thought to exercising its new-found power over biology. This is not something to be done willy-nilly, he says, which is pretty much the way it has been going.

A Call to Action

Not that Anderson's discussion is all that new or even all that eloquent. But he does pull together and synthesize the many strands of biological change that are occurring and being made to occur at an ever-increasing rate. His book is a manifesto for action.

But--and here comes the big but--his description of the problem is better than any solution that he offers. Finally, a few pages from the end, he admits what a reader has been coming to suspect all along:

"We don't know how to slow the general rate of change, apply the brakes to history, nip the Biological Revolution in the bud," Anderson writes. "It is the combined product of many lines of activity and the result of thousands of years of evolution, and no institution of governance has the power to halt forces of that magnitude."

In short, the quest for the short-term benefits of new technologies and other methods of controlling biology obscures the long-term dangers. Or, even if the long-term dangers are not obscured, there is scant political constituency for them. This may be one more of those cases in which the structure of democracy stands in the way of a solution.

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