Algeny, written in 1983 by Jeremy Rifkin, is a more esoteric incarnation of his later, more accessible work on genetic technologies, The Biotech Century (1998). Algeny sweeps broadly from the beginning of biological history to 1983, and foretells the years beyond, some of which, by now, have already passed.
Algeny, the species transforming use of biotech, derives from alchemy, the long-standing effort to convert metals into their chemically teleological state of perfection, gold. Rifkin predicts some will attempt to use biotech in an attempt to perfect humans and their environment. In 1983, Rifkin seemed to hold little doubt that biotech would be far more efficacious than its low-yield metallurgical antecedent. He discussed the much touted recombinant DNA successes of the early 1980s as if they heralded an imminent and unbroken string of genetic engineering developments. Advances since that time have not been as rapid or extensive as suggested.
This book is all about cosmology. Rifkin observes that societies have often constructed views of nature and social destiny based on prevailing social and economic conditions. Thus, rather than explaining why things are as they are, cosmologies merely serve to legitimize the status quo. He uses the example of St. Thomas Aquinas, whose everything-has-an-immutable-role model of nature arose out of, and was used to justify feudalism.
Rifkin spends much of the book discussing Darwinism and natural selection. He observes that Darwin’s dog-eat-dog view of nature arose from Darwin’s study of the writings of Adam Smith, Malthus, Francis Galton (the father of Eugenics) and Henri Milne-Edwards and Darwin’s immersion in the fossil fuel-fired manufacturing economy of nineteenth century England. By advancing the notion that the “survival of the fittest” was in natural order, Darwin served as a convincing apologist for the emerging wealthier class.
Rifkin spends considerable time debunking Darwinism. He observes that, although for years, skeptics of Darwin have been dismissed as insane or incompetent, numerous flaws should have prevented critical thinkers from accepting Darwinism in the first place. For example, he notes that the purportedly authoritative fossil record on which Darwinism is based is, upon even slightly closer inspection, far from complete. With regard to many species, no missing links have been found, despite over a century and a half of intensive searching. Moreover, he notes many species are “overdesigned” for their environments, or have traits that developed in advance of need. Humans, for example, have had brains far more capable than they needed to be live through the past many centuries. Similarly, as even Darwin recognized, the complexity of the eye defies the gradual development explanation intrinsic to natural selection. Rifkin also noted that the boundaries between species have always been fixed. While some traits can be influenced by breeding efforts, species transformation simply does not occur.
Moreover, Rifkin takes aim at the process of biogenesis the undergirds Darwinism. The notion that earthly organisms emerged from the lightning-driven fusion of basic elements is barred by basic properties of chemistry. In order to prove that life evolved from non-life, one must assume the existence of a reducing (as opposed to oxidizing) atmosphere, because an oxygen-rich atmosphere would destroy the chemicals of life before they could be combined into organic compounds by losing electrons through oxidization. Yet, it’s a Catch-22; without oxygen, there would be no ozone layer that life needs to survive. And life could not have emerged under water because the necessary energy of sunlight and water could not have reached there.
Additionally, Rifkin points out that evolutionary arguments based on the purported existence of vestigial anatomy are wrong. The appendix is now believed to boost immune function. A human tailbone does not reflect the prior existence of a tail but, rather, serves important physiological functions. Further, mathematical models have shown that it is far beyond the realm of statistical reason to conclude that chemicals could have spontaneously arranged themselves into even simple organisms, much less complex ones. How unlikely, he notes, that beings bent only on survival would develop the capability of choosing love over hate, justice over injustice, composing poetry like Dante’s, music like Mozart’s and drawings like DaVinci’s.
Despite this, Rifkin noted, Darwinism still holds considerable sway for at least two reasons. First, it’s been repeated so often that it has— as do other Big Lies— taken on the ring of truth. Second for many years there was no other “theory of everything” to take its place and we all abhor the uncertainty posed by a cosmological vacuum.
Rifkin maintained that a modified, “temporal” cosmology was emerging. In this view, species were stable for long periods before changing rapidly in response to environmental cataclysmal. Whether or not temporalism and punctuated equilibrium turn out to be true, it serves, as did the cosmologies before it, to justify an approach toward nature, society, and economy.
And whether or not temporalism is the basis for the pursuit of biotech, it seems likely that, for more basic reasons that Rifkin offers, that society will actively experiment with biotech. Principally, as Rifkin points out, humans are afraid to die and have come to view themselves as machines. (I would add that they like to make money products, and they suspect biotech will yield bankable products.) Rifkin also observes that a fundamental tenet of temporalism is that life will increasingly be viewed as packages of information. The confluence of genomics and computers will enable the this information to be analyzed to the point that living things and their consciousnesses can be not only “improved”, but stored, and even shipped, like so much data.
Rifkin emphasizes that as life becomes more of a commodity, we will lose a sense of its sacredness and respect for it. Rifkin observes that this desacralization will leave us without the companionship of the natural world that we have always had. (Before that happens, I suppose biotech could also fail in a more directly observable way, if scientists could do a bad job and inadvertently cause bio-catastrophes). But Rifkin laments that people will be so enticed by the ostensible benefits of this work that they won’t be able to avoid the Promethean journey.