by Sheila Rothman and David Rothman
Pantheon Books, 2003, 320 pp., $14.00Let Them Eat Prozac: The Unhealthy Relationship between the Pharmaceutical Industry and Depression
by David Healy
New York University Press, 2004, 368 pp., $29.95
Beyond Therapy: Biotechnology and the Pursuit of Happiness
The President’s Council on Bioethics, foreword by Leon Kass
Regan Books, 2003, 352 pp., $14.95
In the part of South Carolina where I grew up, you can’t travel too far without seeing a field or a patch of woods covered with a thick, green canopy of kudzu. Kudzu is a crawling vine native to Japan that was introduced to the South in the 1930s to prevent soil erosion. The federal government paid farmers to plant it. What neither the farmers nor the government anticipated was just how hardy kudzu would become in the humid Southern climate, where the soil is rich and kudzu has no natural enemies. There, kudzu grows like a pole bean on steroids. The vines extend themselves by a foot a day and will cover objects up to forty feet in height. It is not uncommon to see large trees, telephone poles, barns, abandoned tractors, or rusting cars completely enveloped by kudzu vines. Not only do most herbicides fail to kill kudzu, at least one of them is said to make it grow even faster. Enterprising Southerners sometimes say that if you could just harness kudzu for a commercial purpose you could make a mint, but the fact is that you’d be more likely to make a B-grade horror movie, like The Monolith Monsters or The Day of the Triffids. Some Southerners claim that if you don’t keep your windows closed at night, kudzu will swallow up your children while they sleep.
When the merits of new, largely unknown technological advances are being argued-embryonic stem cells and nanotechnology at Harvard, kudzu control and air conditioning in South Carolina-the ethical debate often hinges on an effort to weigh up the potential risks and benefits of the technology. Yet how those risks and benefits are balanced usually depends on the prediction of some hypothetical future scenario that, in the actual event, often turns out to have been shortsighted, misguided, or wrong. The costly decision to introduce kudzu to the South is a good example of what Edward Tenner, the author of When Things Bite Back, calls “the revenge of unintended consequences.” Sometimes these consequences are simply the unforeseen side effects of a new technology, the way automobile exhaust helped bring about a hole in the ozone layer or kudzu overtook entire farms. But they also include the larger social changes that a new technology brings about. It took no great feat of imagination to see that automobiles could cause pollution. Bu...
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