Monday, November 26, 2007


Recently I finished reading Michael Crichton's Next, another book on my list of novels for research. Like his previous book, State of Fear, this one takes on an emerging and increasingly political scientific problem, that of genetic engineering. Like State of Fear, this one has a significant bibliography of intriguing books in the back, as well as the author's conclusions as to what should be done about some of the problems raised in the book.

The first is that we stop patenting genes, which seems to me to have been a harebrained notion from the start. As Crichton points out, a gene is a fact of nature, not something someone invented. It's like patenting a disease or turtles. Or, noses, the examples he gives. If noses were to be patented then everything to do with noses would require a license from the patent holder -- glasses, cosmetics, breathe-right strips, medications, etc.

I didn't like this one quite as well as State of Fear, because it was much more focused on its technical subject and the potential consequences than the characters. And while I found the subject fascinating, there were a lot of characters -- at least fourteen viewpoint characters that I can recall off the top of my head. And in the end I rooted most for the transgenic chimpanzee and parrot. I especially enjoyed the parrot, Gerard, who could do math. He was very cool.

I made notes as I read, some directly applicable to Black Box, some just for personal interest. Like,

"Persistent hype lends unwarranted credulity to the wildest claims. For example, stem cell research is being touted as the coming miracle. Because of all the hype, people believe miraculous cures are just around the corner... and so do scientist." (Who are people, too, after all, and just as subject to hype as the next person; maybe even more subject to it if it happens to coincide with their own hopes and dreams of finding those cures)

"Scientific institutions love hype -- it brings grants. Yale, Stanford and Johns-Hopkins promote hype as much as Exxon or Ford. So do individual researchers at those institutions."

"Science is as corruptible a human activity as any other. Its practitioners aren't saints; they're human beings and they do what human beings do -- lie, cheat, steal from one another, sue, hide data, fake data, overstate their own importance and denigrate opposing views unfairly."

This latter makes me think of American Gangster, which ended with a note at the end to say that when Richie Roberts finally brought Frank Lucas to justice, Lucas agreed to help him root out the corruption in the New York Police force at the time -- in exchange for a lighter sentence, naturally. It turned out that they indicted something like two-thirds of the drug enforcement section of the police department. Of all people, you expect police -- and military personnel -- to be upright and have integrity. And I suppose you would expect it from doctors and pastors. And since scientists are allegedly on a quest to discover the truth about how things work, you would think they would be especially scrupulous about objectivity and honesty. But that's only if you forget that they, like all the rest of us, have sin natures and are vulnerable to greed, pressure, intimidation, and the prospect of becoming fabulously successful. Also arrogance, stubbornness, bias, subjectivity, blindness and delusion.

It was interesting to see Crichton mention this. Especially in light of the book I'm reading now, Intuition, also about science, and taking all this to a new and intriguing level. But more on that later.