Liberation Biology by Ronald Bailey (2005) – Book Review

This 2005 book is, shown in its own title, an enthusiastic case for the biotech revolution. It is best to read this book without any political prejudice, looking purely at the trends in technology addressed by Ronald Bailey. In six chapters, Bailey addresses six distinct arenas in biotechnology progress. These arenas are, in order: life-extension; medical applications of genetic research; the stem cell controversy; the cloning controversy; “designer babies”; GMOs; neuropharmaceuticals. There is also an excellent introduction and conclusion section that make for strong rhetorical parts of the book.

Bailey’s criticisms of the ostensibly progressive anti-biotech crowd are well-informed and persuasive, and there is much in Bailey’s case that is to be agreed with in spirit, no matter what political angle you come from. Recognizing that biotechnology really has the chance to improve the lot of the world’s poor, it is foolish and prejudicial to try to omit it from one’s vision of social progress. This should be the case for anyone, whether they consider themselves to be on the right or the left of politics. Bailey is in favor of a better life for the worst-off sections of the world’s population, and considers a free and unregulated approach to biotechnology as a key part of the answer. Although coming from a radically different theoretical approach, I also believe that a maximally “free” market approach to the world is the key to empower disadvantaged players in the world economy. Although my reasoning for this is not libertarian like Bailey, and is in fact based on progressive-slanted sociology, it happens to lead me to almost exactly the same conclusions as Bailey on the subject of biotechnology.

The one point of disagreement I have with Bailey’s approach is about patenting. At p. 192, Bailey states that biotechnology has the potential to be exercised by farmers (use the broader term of local producers, in case this discussion also includes non-agricultural “industrial” biotech) themselves. At p. 22, he also states that “delaying technologies can kill people”. However, he insists on p. 219 that intellectual property is highly important and necessary for the sakes of investments in biotechnology and incentives for scientists to do their work. While the point about investment is a good one, the idea that scientists need the incentive of money gained from intellectual property is dubious and seems to rest on weak ideological grounds. The corporations are the owners of the intellectual property in question, not scientists. The scientists can be hired and fired on a whim by corporations, which retain ownership of all their inventions. Corporations themselves lack any “intellect”, so their claim to be entitled to “intellectual property” is not justifiable and rests entirely on dishonesty and exploitation. Almost anyone would protest a scientist having his patents violated and I would be the first person do so, but there is an almost universal lack of sympathy for corporations having their patents violated, because corporations are neither people nor inventors and have no intellect contained within them. However, I shall grant the point about investment in biotechnologies, and concede that corporations may need to retain the monopolies allowed by their intellectual property rights for their efforts to continue. Enter the inexorable problems of unfeasibility and moral quagmires in enforcing intellectual property laws globally, to deny people in the Third World the right to have the technologies that can save them from starvation. Could the same person who writes “delaying technologies can kill people” then be on the side of intellectual property laws?

My own theoretical interpretation currently places patents alongside protectionism and conservative impulses to contain and restrict the historical development of biotechnology industries. The biotechnology industries should be allowed to develop according to their own life and their own dynamic (shaped by the nature of the technologies themselves, as internet-based industries are shaped by the internet), and not in accord with any ideological prejudices about who is entitled to what. Perhaps with maximal competition as a result of the rapid breaking of monopolies, the biotechnology industries would develop a lot faster and more democratically across the world. Even with the degree of monopoly limited, there would always still be enough profit involved for hungry corporations to be willing to play the game. The question of whether corporations are needed at all is legitimate, when we consider that there are already small “bio-hacking” teams and consultancies owned by no giant corporations and they certainly seem to have enough of an incentive to work generously for making biotech available and user-friendly at a grassroots level everywhere. There are many ways that experts can profit from an industry, without working for some kind of exclusive supplier. In time, synthetic biologists may decide there is more money and recognition to be gained in being a lone consultant or specialist to a grassroots industry than the lackey of a corporation.

Politically, Bailey stands at the other side of the political arena of transhumanism from James Hughes (Citizen Cyborg, 2004), and this is clear from the lack of political concerns addressed in Baileys’ libertarian-leaning book. On the whole, I find the lack of politics in Bailey’s book refreshing and it makes Bailey’s case easier to appreciate as one that celebrates technology and the social and economic benefits of it rather than heaping up politics and the authoritarian case to control everything potentially dangerous for security reasons. My own case, Catalyst, could be described as more “extreme” than Bailey because it celebrates the internet as a popular technology, and promotes the idea of popular technologies empowering everyone as equals, and jettisons any concern for intellectual property in favor of simply addressing the world’s most terrible disparities.

At p. 222, Bailey quotes Per Pinstrup-Andersen, who said, “Let’s make the choices available to the people who have to take the consequences”. How can we deny an invention in biotechnology reaching the world’s poor? Denying biotechnology helping the world’s poor is exactly as immoral as denying women’s reproductive rights, as it ignores the wills of the people whose bodies are literally under threat if we deny them the world-altering technologies of the future. In the conclusion at p. 246, Bailey states that the risks of the future need to be tolerated because the potential benefits awaiting us are so incredible. With this, I am in absolute agreement.

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