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As the Future Catches You

Author: Juan Enriquez

Publisher: New York: Crown Business, 2001

ISBN: Center of Bus

Summary:Juan Enriquez counters, in his book As the Future Catches You, that another date when everything changed was February 12, 2001. That was the day that the code of the human genome was published...

Virginia Woolf once commented "On or about December, 1910, human character changed." Juan Enriquez counters, in his book As the Future Catches You, that another date when everything changed was February 12, 2001. That was the day that the code of the human genome was published. A day, he argues, that school children will have to memorize along with October 12, 1492. A day that the world changed.

The human genome, or the genetic information carried in our DNA, is the ultimate road map. Why do some people live long lives, while others are susceptible to disease? Why do we have two arms instead of three? Why do we breathe oxygen instead of carbon dioxide? It seems that this wonderful book of code we have uncovered contains the answers to all that. But, it is a somewhat daunting text. The human blueprint consists of about three billion pairs of molecules. Printed out in 8-point type, it would add up to more than two hundred volumes of that old benchmark, the New York City phonebook. DNA consists of only four molecules, adenine, thymine, cytosine, and guanine, but the number of potential combinations of those molecules (four to the 3-billionth) is inconceivably bigger than the number of atoms in the universe (more like ten to the eightieth).

The potential usefulness of this code is staggering, if perhaps unknowable. We have the opportunity in front of us to manipulate every plant and animal on the globe, to improve the quality of human life. Of course we already have some experience with this. For the last 11,000 years, mankind has been farming. Agriculture has always had an element of bioengineering. Through directed evolution, the corn plant has gone from being the size of your thumbnail to something more economically viable, and the tomato has gone from being small, green, and slightly poisonous to the versatile fruit (yes, fruit) it is today.

Genetic engineering doesn't just offer the prospect of new and better plants (bananas that deliver vaccines, corn that yields bulletproof fibers). It offers the hope of individualized treatments. The very weakness of some drugs-that they don't work for everybody, or that they may even harm some people-may turn out to be a godsend. Many promising drugs that never made it out of their Phase III trials will turn out to be ideal drugs for some people, if we can just identify who they are.

Another promise of the genetic revolution will be the rise of preventive medicine. I hope that our children look back on today's medical treatments as barbaric ("You amputated, just because of a cancer?"). Compare medicine and dentistry. Dentists have gone from the business of pulling teeth to filling cavities, and now they focus their efforts on preventive treatments. William Haseltine of Human Genome Sciences predicts that the current 9-to-1 ratio of medical spending on treatments versus medications will eventually be 1-to-1.

So far, this sounds like a glorious revolution. Not so fast, writes Enriquez. "Many are unprepared for the violence, and suddenness with which new technologies change lives, companies, countries, because they do not understand what those technologies can do." Some companies do. DuPont, for example, realized that the best investment it could make in biogenetics would be to acquire Pioneer Hi-Bred, the venerable seed company. But not everybody is on top of this one. While the state legislature in Pennsylvania was debating whether to ban cloning, a gene ethicist named Art Caplan did a little survey. Where in you body does the human genome lie, he asked. A third of the legislators he asked said the brain, a third said in the gonads, and a third more or less got it right. (Answer: in each one of the fifty trillion cells in your body.)

Enriquez brings a unique slant to the discussion of genomics and the bio-revolution. His background is in business and government. Before becoming involved in studying genomics and their impact on society, he was the CEO of Mexico City's Urban Development Corporation, and an outspoken advocate for reforming Mexico's economic and political structure. He has recently set up the Life Sciences Project at Harvard Business School, an interdisciplinary center focusing on how business will change as a result of the life sciences revolution. His interests in science and business and politics have led him to write a book that nobody else could have.

The results of the life sciences revolution, according to Enriquez, will be nothing less than the rise and fall of nations. "New technologies are generating enormous wealth. They are also creating enormous divisions." At the beginning of the industrial revolution, the gap between the average income in the wealthiest country and the poorest country was 5:1. Two hundred and fifty years later, it is 390:1. As the industrial era gives way to the knowledge economy, there is every reason to think that the gap will widen.

"Only those countries that educate their own or attract the best from other countries are likely to succeed," Enriquez observes. "Those who fall hopelessly behind are unlike to survive." In the last generation, countries like Singapore and Korea have flourished, while countries like the Burma and Mozambique have not. There are numerous explanations for this, like David Landes's arguments in The Wealth and Poverty of Nations, about the importance of traits like thrift, honesty, and patience. Enriquez puts it in starker terms, looking at who is even equipped to play in the information age. "Since Africa has become irrelevant to the knowledge economy…most people have abandoned an entire continent to its fate."

It doesn't matter if a country is rich in raw materials. As the phrase goes, consider the lilies. One would think that the country best suited to grow and export flowers would be someplace with a warm climate, lots of sun, cheap labor, and plenty of land. So why is Holland, and not Brazil, the leading exporter of flowers? Because Schipohl Airport in Amsterdam is the most efficient airport in the world for shipping flowers. And because the real competition isn't in land, labor, and capital, it's in knowledge-based services.

I know that economists are easy targets, but in times like these, with epochal changes underway, you can follow all the best, conventional advice, and still be left behind. "As a developing country, you can lower inflation, reduce corruption, cut your budget, privatize, and still not get rich…. Even Chile may be headed toward a crash, because it took the inefficiency out of the old economy, but failed to build a new economy." Forty percent of its exports come from two products, and they are not knowledge intensive.

In the knowledge economy, patents are a good way of keeping score. "Not all patents are valuable," acknowledges Enriquez, "but being unable to generate patents is very bad." In a book bursting with statistics, one of the more interesting was an index of patents per capita. "During 1998, 13,653 Koreans generated enough knowledge to obtain one US patent. It took 1,267,532 Mexicans to accomplish the same task." Patents reflect the commitment of a society to succeed in the knowledge economy, and are evidence of the success of its education system.

"Rich countries no longer need great deposits of gold or diamonds, or an abundance of land, or millions of people. They need to educate their population. They need smart and entrepreneurial people. They need a government that provides economic and political stability. No more, no less." Of all the stories that Enriquez tells, the one I found most memorable was not about the scientists like Craig Venter racing to map the genome, or the companies like Monsanto reconfiguring themselves for the bio-economy. It was a story about a Mexican boy, trying to go to school. Because the post-2001 economy is really all about education.

Rojitas was a bright young boy, whose sister worked as a domestic for a friend of Enriquez's, a college professor. When Rojitas was going to turn down a scholarship for junior high school, so he could go to work with his father, the professor stepped in and convinced everybody that Rojitas had to continue with school. Several years later, Rojitas had finished high school with top grades, and he applied to the state university to get a medical degree. He was rejected, because, he was told, "poor peasants don't become doctors." Undeterred, he applied to the law program, "acing every admissions test, except the socioeconomic one," in Enriquez's words. "He was rejected because the school thought it unlikely that someone so poor would be able to finish school." Giving up, he emigrated to the US, where he is now picking crops as a migrant laborer. If countries like Mexico are going to advance, they need to do better than this.

Enriquez's hope with As the Future Catches You is to tell as many people as he can that the world just changed, and that the changes will only accelerate from here. The book is addressed not just to scientists or policy makers. It wants to be accessible to everybody. In a surprising gesture, he writes in a poetical, epigrammatic style that leaves a lot of white space on the page, makes use of more fonts and type sizes than you would expect, and contains more ellipses than a Pinter play. It is something of a cross between Tom Peters and Ezra Pound, and it works.

The history of genetics is that the fittest survive. But people don't have to leave it to chance. At the same time that we are learning that we can help evolution along, we are also re-learning the fundamental importance of education and good government. When Enriquez argues that the life sciences revolution will be as much about politics as about science, he isn't just crying wolf.

©  Center for Business Innovation, Cambridge MA.