In my world one the key players on the international level is a country with 90% of its technology bio-based yet none of its neighbors have biological based technology even though they're just as wealthy and just as advanced technologically ( just in a different direction). I know could just hand wave this and say that the nations are different because they are. But I prefer to get some sleep exclamation. How would I explain One Nation being so technologically different from its neighbors?
A bit rambling here, but here are a variety of ideas.
Some kinds of technologies, for example, architecture, are known for their geographic variation both due to paths of development based upon initial conditions, and due to suitability to local conditions. For example, the pitch of roofs in Switzerland changes every few towns to adapt to local snowfall there.
Economic factors also drive the materials that are used - brick or stone or adobe look more attractive in someplace with few trees, than in someplace where residents have to cut down trees to clear farmland anyway. If foreign technology is expensive, the export market for it may be weaker.
In general, the harder it is to move key technological artifacts, the more they will be geographically distinct, which is one reason that architecture takes the cake for regional diversity.
But, in general, trade tends to homogenize the technologies of all who participate in that trade, although small countries are more prone to assimilation into the technological conventions of their trade partners than large ones who have markets of their own big enough to built their own tech rather than relying on imports made to someone else's standards and customary designs. Even Neanderthals started to adopt some Cro-Magnon modern human technologies during the time period that they co-existed in Europe.
There have been isolated instances of efforts to control technologies with mixed success. The Hittites kept their iron metallurgy techniques as state secrets for almost 800 years. Similarly, the city of Byblos and some of its neighbors like Tyre managed to keep their ship building techniques proprietary for centuries. Efforts to control nuclear technology are only about seventy years old and have been more hit and miss.
Still, on the whole, sustained periods of isolation are probably the most powerful means to develop distinct technologies. For example, for about a thousand years until Bronze Age collapse, ca. 1200 BCE, Western Europe was controlled by descendants of the Bell Beaker culture whose warfare methods made heavy use of long bow, while Eastern Europe was controlled by descendants of the Corded War culture whose warfare methods focused on warriors who were mounted horseman or rode chariots. They were pretty completely separated from each other in a stand off that neither could win along their shared border for a thousand years, each developing on their own path and each large enough not to need much trade with the other.
A natural time to capture such stark divides in technology would be as a long period of isolation of the societies was just starting to break down, a bit like Japan at the time it first decided to open itself up to contact with the outside world after centuries of isolation.
JDługosz has an interesting suggestion about a "rejection" of a technology along the lines of what the Hindenberg did to airships, or the sustained "bad taste" that Americans had with regard to IUDs after some early models led to health problems (in the same vein, the Japanese, have been very averse to oral contraceptives for some reason).
Fictionally, the Star Wars universe has qualms following the Clone Wars about both cloning technology and droids. The aversion to artificial intelligence is even greater in Frank Herbert's Dune universe which also develops aversions to many forms of conducting war in favor of assassination of leaders and hand to hand combat.
A rejection of biotech could have roots in general disgust (such as opposition to GMOs and chimeras at opposite ends of the political spectrum these days), concerns about stem cell research, hesitancy about cloning, etc. If there were some culture shaping bad experiences with biotech in several countries that could easily shape public opinion. Similarly, biotech people could see the land of machine users as home to "dark Satanic mills" that were amoral and unnatural.
An attraction to biotech or to machine based technologies could be driven by economics and resources. Maybe the biotech areas have poor metal and fossil fuel resources, for example. Metals also might be disfavored in someplace were rain or something else in local environment was highly oxidizing to the main available metals. For example, suppose that in lieu of coal or oil, the main sources of heat for metallurgy were geothermal giving places with access to those geothermal hot spots a near monopoly on that, particularly if metal resources were concentrated near the hot spots.
Similarly, perhaps key biotech requires special climates (e.g. tropical rainforests or coral reefs) that can't be replicated elsewhere. This has the attraction of allowing stark distinctions in technology type to persist even with trade. For example, suppose that the biotech world has lots of plants engineered to produce medicinal juices that are all derivatives of a citrus plant that can only grow in tropical or subtropical climates. You could export it to small greenhouse orchards elsewhere, but places where you could grow it outdoors would have a huge advantage and it would be cheaper to ship purified medicinal juice syrups than the fruits or the whole plants. Other major international agricultural trade goods like wine grapes and coffee are also very picky about the right environmental conditions.
Perhaps biotech areas had an abundance of local plant and animal species that were particularly well suited to domestication in the kind of narrative that Jared Diamond tells in his book "Guns, Germs and Steel." One source stock like dogs or a plant genus like Brassica (that includes cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, kale, Brussels sprouts, collard greens, savoy, kohlrabi, kai-lan, the turnip; the mizuna, napa cabbage, bok choy, cime di rapa, field mustard, bird rape, keblock, colza, and black mustard) can produce incredible diversity from a single common species or related group of species of origin which might all be concentrated near the place of origin of that species. Mastery of just a few of these super-domesticates could easily led to a thriving biotech industry dominated by the trade secret protecting masters in the places where the "industry" began.
Assume that biotech is only efficient if you have an entire biotech infrastructure. Veterinarians instead of mechanics, nutrients instead of gasoline, perhaps biotech vehicles don't like blacktop roads ... Early adopters will have to do without that.
It would be a notable economic disadvantage to pay for both infrastructures. And since there is an infrastructure in place for mechanical technology, the question is who would pay for the changeover.
- Every now and then, a country decides to stop driving on the left and to start driving on the right. That doesn't happen very often.
- Metric units go with the decimal system just as customary units go with duodecimal. Yet there are decimal countries which refuse to go the whole nine yards.
Since it is your story, declare that the changeover will pay for itself in 50 years, or 100 years. Which countries in your world are willing to make that investment?
How soon the biotech investment pays might also be affected by climate change assumptions. The same people who benefit from climate change denial might also benefit from a biotech avoidance. Some of the countries in your world might be so dsyfunctional that lobby groups prevent the only reasonable choice.
Ideology. Not necessarily a major religion, but a general pressure from the population; e.g. look at how cloning research was banned for a planned time-out of a few years.
If people rejected biotech (as they have in the U.S.) but some single country runs with it, they will not only gain a competitive advantage but they can welcome all the scientists from the “we don’t want it” nations. Now they are the only country with any capability to work on it, and it snowballs.
Perhaps we can exploit a couple unique features of biotech in order to explain why its progress might be faster in one country over others.
The primary obstacle facing genetic engineering and biotechnology broadly is a lack of knowledge about how existing biological systems work. Right now we have the technology and know-how to change any piece of a genome we want, but for the most part we don’t know what it will do. We don’t fully understand how biological systems work so we can’t modify them except by trial-and-error. Most genes appear to be regulated in a multitude of ways creating huge webs of interconnectivity and dependency. A given gene can produce many different RNA and protein products through splice variants and post-translational modifications and even similar products can have vastly different functions depending on their localizations. There are well documented examples of important genes playing one role in one part of the body and an entirely distinct role in another.
As a result of these obstacles existing biotech is quite basic. Breeding for traits is completely ignorant of the underlying causes and genetically modified organisms are for the most part just adding in a few genes from another organism and hoping they will work the same way. For true biological tinkering to be possible we need to be able to predict what will happen when we start making changes to existing systems. To do that we need a couple things. First, we need to be able to predict how a protein will fold based on its amino acid sequence, and second we need to be able to predict how that folded protein will interact with other proteins and other molecules. If we possessed these two capabilities we could in theory take the proteins expressed in a given cell, predict their folded structure, and then predict how those proteins will interact with each other. This could allow us to map out this dense network of interactions underlying the organism’s biology and begin to predict what might happen if we modified this or that protein ever so slightly.
Essentially what we really need to make biotechnology feasible is a computing revolution. But what if biotech could actually provide that computing revolution for us? Perhaps in your country there is some key breakthrough in the lab growth of functioning neurons arranged into networks just as they are in our brains. By providing electrical stimuli to input neurons and measuring output of other neurons perhaps these wet, analog neural networks could become useful for certain computational problems. In the field of machine learning electrical, artificial neural networks are frequently used to solve certain problems as a sort of loose approximation of how our brains work. One limitation to them is they take a lot of computational power to train, especially as they increase in size. A biological, analog neural network would have a constant propagation time from input to output, theoretically allowing it to be scaled upward in size without end, enabling to tackle ever more complex problems. Perhaps eventually these artificial brains are able to fold protein structures and predict interacting domains between molecules. Not only would this lead to further improvements in the artificial brains, but it would now also make biotech in other areas more viable.
Eventually the strategic importance of these artificial brains might be realized by the country’s government and research on them made classified. Larger and superior brains will continue to fuel their own advancement thus creating their own biological technological singularity potentially resulting in a general artificial intelligence. The end result is only one country having access to advanced biotech that other nations could not hope to understand or emulate without the problem solving capabilities of the artificial brains.
This boils down to biotech's efficiencies versus non-biotech efficiencies, so you have a biotech economy where biotech does everything you want it to but it does some of those things very inefficiently. This example is from Stephen Donaldson's The Gap into Vision:Forbidden Knowledge describing the process the Amnion use for metallurgy "they make steel by feeding iron ore to a viral acid that digests it and then shits it refined." Now if steel isn't terribly important to your culture the efficiency, or lack of, of such a process isn't that important. If, on the other hand, Steel is important to your society then you're going to use an efficient system of production for Steel. A society dominated by biotech is naturally going to use different materials and have different values, the neighbours won't adopt there methods and vice versa because they have different needs and methods.