In the 1980s, the mechanistic theory of life seemed set for ultimate triumph. The neo-Darwinian theory of evolution had eliminated God from nature, and life itself was about to be explained in terms of physics and chemistry, with no need for any mysterious fields or factors. Many scientists believed that molecular biology was on the verge of revealing the secrets of life through an understanding of the genetic code and the control of protein synthesis. Meanwhile, brain-scanning techniques were about to unveil the mechanistic workings of the mind.
The Decade of the Brain, inaugurated in 1990 by President George Bush Sr., led to further acceleration in the growth of the neurosciences, and stimulated yet more optimism about the power of brain-scanning to probe our innermost being.
Meanwhile, an enthusiasm for artificial intelligence led to the expectation that a new generation of computers would soon be able to rival, or even exceed, the mental abilities of human beings. If intelligence, and even consciousness itself, could be programmed into machines, then the final mysteries would be solved. Life and mind would be fully explicable in terms of molecular and neural machinery. Reductionism would be vindicated. All those who thought that minds involved something beyond the reach of mechanistic science would be refuted forever. But this has not happened.
It is hard to recall the atmosphere of exhilaration in the 1980s as new techniques enabled genes to be cloned and the sequence of “letters” in the “genetic code” to be discovered. This seemed like biology’s crowning moment: the instructions of life itself were finally laid bare, opening up the possibility for biologists to modify plants and animals genetically, and to grow richer than they could ever have imagined. There was a continuous stream of new discoveries; almost every week newspaper headlines reported some new “breakthrough”: “Scientists find genes to combat cancer,” “Gene therapy offers hope to victims of arthritis,” “Scientists find secret of ageing,” and so on.
The new genetics seemed so promising that soon the entire spectrum of biological researchers was busy applying its techniques to each specialty. Their remarkable progress led to a vast, ambitious vision: to spell out the full complement of genes in the human genome. As Walter Gilbert of Harvard University put it, “The search for this ‘Holy Grail’ of who we are has now reached its culminating phase. The ultimate goal is the acquisition of all the details of our genome.” The Human Genome Project was formally launched in 1990 with a projected budget of $3 billion.
The Human Genome Project was a deliberate attempt to bring “Big Science” to biology, which had previously been more like a cottage industry. Physicists were used to huge budgets, partly as a result of the Cold War: there was enormous expenditure on missiles and hydrogen bombs, Star Wars, multibillion-dollar particle accelerators, the space program, and the Hubble Space Telescope. For years, ambitious biologists suffered from physics envy. They dreamed of the days when biology would also have high-profile, high-prestige, multibillion-dollar projects. The Human Genome Project was the answer.
At the same time, a tide of market speculation in the 1990s led to a boom in biotechnology, reaching a peak in 2000. In addition to the official Human Genome Project, there was a private genome project carried out by Celera Genomics, headed by Craig Venter. The company’s plan was to patent hundreds of human genes and own the commercial rights to them. Its market value, like that of many other biotechnology companies, rocketed to dizzying heights in the early months of 2000.
Ironically, the rivalry between the publicly funded Human Genome Project and Celera Genomics led to a bursting of the biotechnology bubble before the sequencing of the genome had even been completed. In March 2000 the leaders of the public genome project publicized the fact that all their information would be freely available to everyone. This led to a statement by President Clinton on 14 March 2000:
“Our genome, the book in which all human life is written, belongs to every member of the human race . . . We must ensure that the profits of the human genome research are measured not in dollars, but in the betterment of human life.”
The press reported that the president planned to restrict genomic patents, and the stock markets reacted dramatically.
In Venter’s words, there was a “sickening slump.” Within two days, Celera’s valuation lost $6 billion, and the market in biotechnology shares collapsed by a staggering $500 billion.