The CBD has done nothing to break the international impasse over the ownership and exploitation of genetic resources. Commentators describe bioprospect-ing either as a saviour or as a scourge even 12 years after Rio. The ecological and evolutionary metaphors are enlisted in an effort to settle the grudge match between biodiversity and biotechnology. Two pairs of biological distinctions, between phenotypes and genotypes, and between genes and memes, enable us to reconceptualize the conflict more fruitfully. The standard distinction between phe-notypes and genotypes clarifies the types of property at stake in disputes over biotechnology. Virtually all of the fury in this debate focuses not on the value of living things as chattels, but rather on their worth as sources of genetic information.
Let us hope that the more controversial distinction between genes and memes will show that the global North and the global South are fighting over common conceptual ground. Both sides seek to confer proprietary status on valuable pieces of information that would display, in the absence of positive law, the attributes of public goods. The conflict arises from the fact that the two sides seek protection for different things. The developing world wishes compensation for its contribution to the natural and cultural foundations for modern biotechnology. The developed world wishes to protect the value added by its life scientists.
Was this article helpful?