Will maniacal parents soon be plucking up the best genes money can buy to add to Junior's pre-K regimen of French class, ERB tutor and Ritalin? Are sparkling blue eyes and a ravishing smile one step away from becoming the next direct-mail must-have, overnight delivery available for an extra $10,000?
Matt Ridley is the man to ask. His Genome: The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters (HarperCollins), is a highly accessible account of what may well be the most important scientific achievement--and most stupendous can of ethical worms--we will have to process in our lifetimes: the complete genetic map of the human animal.
"There's a bit of an evangelical fervor about all of this," Ridley observes from a midtown Manhattan hotel room exhibiting some symptoms of the frenetic Boston to D.C. publicity tour. Near the unmade bed, on chairs recently cleared of yesterday's and tomorrow's coat-and-tie ensembles, we settle down for a chat about agents, editors and chimp-human hybrids. "The knowledge of genes and genomes is something that's going to touch all our lives, and I think that it's terribly important it doesn't remain the preserve of experts. It's terrifying the way molecular biology has become more and more jargon ridden. But I strongly believe that my book can be read by the intelligent layman. I want everyone who bought a copy of A Brief History of Time to buy a copy of Genome."
It might happen.
Science writing, like biotech stock buying, has been a solid growth opportunity throughout the '90s, and Ridley has already hit pay dirt with The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature and The Origins of Virtue: Human Instincts and the Evolution of Cooperation (both available in Penguin paperback editions). As for Genome, independent agent Felicity Bryan stormed the U.S. auction market with a 5,000-word proposal in June of '96 and the result was Ridley's first six-figure advance, a check made out for $165,000.
"It was great," the angular Englishman recalls with a goofy grin. "It enabled me to buy a few things I hadn't bought before. And it made me feel that I had to take my writing very seriously, that I could defend my writing time much more vigorously from other demands on it."
In fact, Matt Ridley never planned on being a writer.
"I started out wanting to be a naturalist. My obsession in my youth was with bird-watching. I collected things, I spent a lot of time outdoors. I only vaguely realized that science was a little more than natural history, but by then I was hooked." Ridley's youthful addiction led to a fascination with the books of Gerald Durrell, Richard Dawkins and Stephen Jay Gould, and a Ph.D. in zoology from Oxford. He smiles while recalling his thesis on polygamy among pheasants ("turns out birds like pheasants aren't birds at all. They're mammals"), and he chuckles at the memory of what at the time must have been quite a sobering realization--that he wasn't cut out for science. "I didn't have sufficient patience for detail. I liked big pictures rather than small details, and unlike my colleagues I enjoyed the process of writing up my thesis. I actually liked the writing, so I thought maybe journalism was the thing for me. I thought journalism would enable me to be a mile wide and an inch deep."
Ridley the nascent bio-freelancer industriously packed off piles of unsolicited manuscripts and soon one of his pieces was featured as the cover story of New Scientist. "Then I heard that the Economist science editor had died, and I thought maybe they were looking for new people on their science side, so I rang them up, and because I had a sheaf of clippings they gave me a three-month trial, at the end of which they offered me a job."
Ridley's nine-year tenure at the Economist included a stint as its Washington bureau chief and the opportunity to cover the 1988 presidential race, which was when he seriously began to contemplate longer projects. "I called a friend of a friend who I knew was a literary agent, Felicity Bryan. She's just a brilliant agent. I don't know how many lies she told about my experience and genius, but within a few months I had a very modest advance and a contract with Viking U.K."
Warts and All, Ridley's tongue-in-cheek portrayal of American electioneering, was far from a popular success. "It was remaindered pretty quickly. And I didn't ever work with that editor again. I think he was a bit disappointed in the outcome of the election. He said it would have been a lot more interesting if Dukakis had won. It would have made a better book."
But the transition from journalist to nonfiction book author had not been particularly onerous for Ridley. "It's all writing. Obviously, when you're working on a 5,000-word chapter in a 100,000-word book, you're more discursive. But it surprises me how little difference there is." He prefers to write in the mornings, and on an average day cranks out 2,000 words. "I try and get it right the first time. I may rewrite a sentence four or five times, but I rarely go back and kill a whole page and rewrite it."
Ridley, who lives in Newcastle with his son and his wife, Anya Hurlbert, a professor of neuroscience at the local university, continues to work as a journalist, at present for the Daily Telegraph, from which pulpit he pumps out weekly columns that untie the Gordian knots of politics, biology and economics. And as our discussion progresses from personal background to the specter of genetic technology's inevitable cross-fertilization with capitalist culture, his tone shifts from jovial to impassioned.
"There's obviously a spectrum between curing genetic diseases and enhancing people's genetic propensities. At one extreme, it's giving your kids an extra IQ gene; at the other extreme, it's eliminating Huntington's disease from your kids' genes. The problem comes when you get into the gray area in the middle. Are we to decide that there should be one line arbitrarily drawn? On the left of the line, it's enhancement, it's wrong, it's illegal; on the right of that line it's cure, it's right, it's legal?
"The process of drawing that line is going to be fantastically difficult. You're going to find Catholics who feel very strongly that the line has been drawn too far to the left, and free-market libertarians who think it's been drawn too far to the right. But it seems to me that if you leave it on the whole to individuals to make up their own minds, you can safely say that this end of the spectrum is fine, that end of the spectrum is not fine, but in between you can make your own choices. We're grownups."
But won't such a laissez-faire, "free-choice" mentality of genome-as-property simply doom the radically new possibilities of genetic engineering to the age-old determinism of economic haves and have-nots?
Ridley answers such a query with one of his own: "Is it really fair to look someone in the eye who's got a breast cancer risk gene and to say, no, sorry, you can't have gene therapy for that because it's very expensive and even though you can afford it someone else might not be able to?
"These are huge questions, and I'm not pretending there are simple answers. All I'm saying is that the panacea of somehow nationalizing the genome and having a single, politically imposed solution isn't always the right one. We nationalized decisions about reproduction in the eugenics debate in the first half of this century and it was not a good idea at all."
And what about those children of (albeit somewhat questionable) privilege being force-fed smart genes by tech-drunk parents?
"I think it's distasteful. My problem is, who am I to say that they can't? In what sense are someone else's children my property any more than they're their property? My gut instinct tells me it's wrong, but who's the victim in that crime?"
At the white hot center of medicine's long-prophesied moral meltdown, Ridley, an agnostic Anglican, has not lost his faith. He insists that biotechnologists have not irresponsibly and irredeemably complicated the ethical issues as much as nonscientists might imagine. In fact, Ridley asserts the case is quite the opposite.
"I think science does a lot more anticipating of ethics than people realize. Scientists think about the ethics of what they do a lot, and they think about it in less abstract terms than the so-called ethicists. Now, I love to think of myself as a cross-disciplinary figure. So I can say that the scientific, psychological understanding of human nature still lags behind literature in terms of explaining human nature. I still think that William Shakespeare and Jane Austen were better psychologists than anyone who is actually a psychologist.
"On the whole, I'm on the side of science in most of these arguments. But I've never said there should be no regulation. I'm quite happy with the idea of cloning being outlawed at least for the foreseeable future; not therapeutic cloning, not the production of spare organs. But I think it's unconscionably cruel to create a copy of yourself as an experiment to see whether you could bring yourself up better."
And the prospect of a chimp-human hybrid?
"It would be unethical to do such an experiment. You would bring into the world a new individual. And this new individual would presumably have rudimentary language, a low IQ by human standards, but a high IQ by chimp standards. I think it's unethical because it's very hard to see how you could treat such an individual kindly, however hard you tried. It would be a very social creature, a creature that very much wanted society, but it wouldn't find a chimp colony in a zoo very interesting, and on the other hand, it would find Wall Street rather daunting. It would end up having a very lonely life. And that's the only reason it would be unethical, because it would be cruel to the individual you would create."
Would he consider a fictional rendition of the chimp-human scenario?
"I've made about three attempts to write fiction in my life. They've never got beyond about five pages, and they've never even stayed in the drawer very long. They've gone in the bin pretty quickly after that."
Ridley has no textbook in mind, either. "I really enjoy reading things with a bit of history and a bit of narrative and am therefore toying with the thought of going in that direction. But there is nothing burning to get out of me like there has been when I've finished each of my previous books. The biggest thing in my life right now is that I've actually put my energy where my mouth is and started to get very involved in a capital project to build a visitor center and research facility in the northeast of England, using money from the national lottery. It's called the International Center for Life, and it opens in May this year."
As chairman of the project, Ridley has been trying to boil down the story of the gene and the brain into a form that the proverbial man in the street will enjoy. "Trying to make a visitor center that 250,000 people a year will want to come and pay to see made me realize the extent to which my writing is not popular. There's a level of dumbing down way below what I do which is necessary and important."
In the meantime, Ridley has been spending most of his waking hours shepherding a group of local politicians and businessmen through the intricacies of development. "These kinds of things are a bit of a string of crises. So I have no time to be writing a book."
So the zoologist has thrived in his environment by adapting from preternaturally articulate researcher to print polemicist to nonfiction phenom to man of letters as public activist. What will be the next step in Ridley's literary evolution?
"I'll tell you what I'd really like to do. I'd like to write a book in less of a hurry than I've done the previous books. Particularly Genome. Once I started, I knew I had to finish within a year--because otherwise I'd have to keep going back and starting again, the subject is moving so fast. The kind of book I'd quite like to write would be a book that would take me five or six years to finish.