Blogs > Cliopatria > Patenting Life

Jun 12, 2007 10:47 pm

Patenting Life

Here’s an issue that I wish was debated in the primaries. The J. Craig Venter Institute has applied for a patent for a synthetic life form.

The author of the Wired article linked above calls this response from ETC (Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration) “alarmist," and indeed the rhetoric is a bit over the top. However, they make interesting points. Here is one:

"Venter and his colleagues have breached a societal boundary, and the public hasn't even had a chance to debate the far-reaching social, ethical and environmental implications of synthetic life."

At one level this is not true. There has been considerable public discussion. This is a 1996 posting on the patenting issue. Here is a 2005 article at MSNBC on advances in creating new life forms. While I am not always fond of the way Michael Crichton mixes fact and fiction, his new recent novel, Next and his op-ed approach to publicity have brought the issue to the attention of many more people.

However, at another level, the ETC statement is correct. This debate is public but it is far from popular. Most people when they here about this either don't understand at all or are not interested. I suspect their attitudes are much like the populace’s attitude toward Global Warming twenty years ago: It's just one more damned thing after another and not something worth worrying about in particular.

It does not help that pharmaceutical companies are very happy about the ability to patent life, and the pharmaceutical lobby is a remarkably important source of campaign contributions. This does not make it impossible for politicians to address the issue. I am sure a few have. But it does make it uninviting for a presidential candidate to spend either paid political advertising or free debate time on the issue.

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