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Braman, Sandra (Ed.). Biotechnology and Communication.

Braman, Sandra (Ed.). Biotechnology and Communication. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers, 2004. Pp. vii, 297. ISBN 0-8958-4304-3. (hbk.) $69.95. Special prepaid price $32.50.

If the contemporary German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk is correct, advances in biotechnology have rendered moot the great metaphysical problems of Western philosophy. Sloterdijk believes biotechnology has engendered the "post-metaphysical" era--where intractable dichotomies such as those between subject and object or spirit and thing have melded into a hybridity of genetic "information."

Broadly defined, biotechnology is the infusion of information technologies into the organic world. For Sloterdijk, the profundity of the metaphysical transformation created by the infusion of thought or reflection into matter--where it dwells awaiting rediscovery and further cultivation--is "nothing short of a reconceptualization of reality."

Readers who are intrigued by such lines of inquiry will find Biotechnology and Communication somewhat tangential. This is not the type of book that entwines, say, behavioral genetics with communication theory. Rather, policy issues predominate. This is not to say Biotechnology and Communication lacks merit or utility. The editor, Sandra Braman, should be commended for recognizing the significance of biotechnology early on and encouraging these preliminary steps. The better entries summarize developments in the field and chart the emergence of radical changes in the ethos governing scientific research.

The most disturbing change is the bottling of the free exchange of scientific information. Today, biotechnological research is monopolized by a new breed of scientist, the "faculty entrepreneur." Unlike his or her counterpart of old, this new creature is tied to private industry and seeks to patent and profit from discovery. In "Biotechnology, Intellectual Property, and the Prospects for Scientific Communication," Leah Lievrouw notes that the Bayh-Dole Act of 1980 gave universities the right to patent (and profit from) the fruits of federally funded research.

This changed the ethos of university scientists:
 More often, faculty entered into individual relationships
 with private firms. Their roles ranged
 from service as paid members of scientific advisory
 boards or consultants, to equity positions in
 companies (in some cases large enough to be
 reported in a firm's prospectus), to employment
 in management positions, to seats on a firm's
 board of directors. (p. 156)

Furthermore, the new faculty entrepreneur, according to Le Monde Diplomatique, "uses his academic affiliation as a launching pad for lucrative ventures," pocketing profits while "socializing" expenses through the free use of student labor and university resources (p. 157).

This profit-orientation has created a climate of secrecy and suspicion. Patents and profits trump prestige. Corporate-funded researchers tend to eschew peer review; findings are withheld from scholarly publications, from competitors' eyes. Rather, publication is entrusted to the mass media, often in similar form to those hyped corporate announcements designed to drive up share prices.

In reporting that biotechnology firms have already patented one-fifth of the recently decoded human genome (24,000 genes in all), a recent Reader's Digest article (August, 2006) put human flesh on the social and ethical implications framed in Biotechnology and Communication. A UCLA geneticist conducting clinical tests on Connexin 26, a gene linked to deafness, received a letter from Athena Diagnostics, a Massachusetts firm, informing him they owned the patent for Connexin 26. He would no longer be permitted to continue his quest to help deaf children.
 Instead, he would have to pay thousands of dollars
 up-front and send future gene samples to
 Athena for testing. He had no choice. "I had to
 stop," [Wayne] Grody says. "The cost was out of
 sight." ... A company can actually "own"
 human genes. That's the brave new world of
 gene patents, where big biotech firms are claiming
 rights to our genetic blueprints and guarding
 them with teams of lawyers. And the result, say
 scientists like Grody, is stalling vital medical
 research, perhaps even delaying lifesaving cures.
 (Crowley, p. 41)

How has something so preposterous, so patently wrong, come to pass? At the risk of oversimplifying a multitude of factors, one short answer is that the aggressive scattershot patenting strategy employed by biotech firms has been facilitated by an adjudicated "technicality." The 1998 EU Biotechnology Patent Directive articulates the rationale accepted by courts and patent offices on both sides of the Atlantic:
 5.2 An element isolated from the human body or
 otherwise produced by means of a technical
 process, including the sequence or partial
 sequence of a gene, may constitute a patentable
 invention, even if the structure of that element is
 identical to that of a natural element. (p. 134,
 author's italics)

Through this "technicality"--isolation from the human body--living matter is defined as "information," and thus becomes patentable. Critics might see this as sophistry or linguistic sleight-of-hand.

Indeed, in "Information as Metaphor: Biology and Communication," David Ritchie cautions against the conflation of the literal and the metaphoric in employing the concept "information" to explain DNA. A sincere and industrious writer, Ritchie's essay is provocative, particularly his analysis of how metaphoric interpretations of Shannon's information theory have been misapplied. He astutely remarks that one of Shannon's formulas "has come to serve, especially in the field of Communication Studies, as a powerful icon that seems to guarantee prestige and scientific status to any text in which it appears" (p. 42). However, when Ritchie applies his analytical template to DNA, I don't find his argument as convincing or essential. He uses Susan Oyama as a torch, or even a machete. But why take this path? Who today subscribes to the crude biological determinism, the "dualisms," Oyama rails against? However, to be fair, Ritchie does not accept her pronouncements uncritically.
 When Ritchie is surefooted, he's very good:

 Like the probability metaphor, there seems to be
 nothing intrinsically wrong with the information
 metaphor as long as we recognize that we really
 have no way to apply mathematical information
 to the task of measuring epistemological information.
 Yet the two concepts are easy to conflate--and
 indeed it is difficult to avoid conflating
 them--precisely because of an underlying
 literal relationship. (p. 59)

The primary criticism I have with Biotechnology and Communication is that too often the treatment of biotechnology reads like an afterthought tagged onto an alien research interest. Perhaps this observation is too harsh given the difficulty of the cross-disciplinary terrain the contributors explore. But consider, as one example, "Conditional Expectations: Communication and the Impact of Biotechnolgy." The author, Steven S. Wildman, yokes Zahavi's work (on ostentatious display in the animal world) to Spence's seminal economic tract, "Job Market Signaling." However, to postulate these findings as the basis for the following inquiry, "Can biotechnology change the nature of human communication?" is rather a stretch. The essay concludes: "If by the nature of communication, we mean the fundamental logic governing the development of communication processes in selectionist systems, I believe the answer has to be no" (p. 91).

Because the essay doesn't truly engage biotechnology--at least to my mind--what are the grounds for such a facile, definitive answer? Shoe-horning an interesting treatment of office status games into the biotech theme box takes the luster off of a perfectly good contribution to organizational communication.

Even if one disagrees with some of the conclusions and positions in Biotechnology and Communication, doing so forces one to meditate upon such a vast, interlocking heterogeneous expanse that thinking becomes adventure. For the communication scholar, the essays offer numerous points of intersection. In addition, one of the rewards of Biotechnology and Communication, which can be hard slogging, is stumbling across a clever turn of expression. For example, if DNA is conceived along the lines of a software program, species extinction may be called "an irreversible loss of information" (p. 10).

The book contains references (pp. 261-79), an author index (pp. 281-87), and a subject index (pp. 289-97). In addition, it's prefaced with an Introduction (pp. ix-xiii) and Acknowledgments (pp. xv-xvi).

Tony Osborne

Gonzaga University
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Author:Osborne, Tony
Publication:Communication Research Trends
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 1, 2006
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