Science in Society Archive

Seeing Nature Whole

World Goodwill Seminar: The Will to Good: Dispelling the Glamours of Our Times, School of Oriental and African Studies, Brunei Gallery, London October 28, 2000. Dr. Mae-Wan Ho

'To-day, we are learning the language that allowed God to create life.' That was how Clinton announced the human genome map on 26 June 2000. The Human Genome Project, (HGP) an international public consortium of research laboratories led by the United States, and Celera, a private American company, made the announcement jointly, ending months of competition to complete the first sequence of the human genome. Craig Venter, Director of Celera, hailed this 'historical day in the 100,000 years of human history' when, for the first time, 'the human species can read the letters of its own text.' Not to be outdone, Francis Collins, head of the public project, referred to the gene map as 'the revelation of the book of life'.

Speaking of the Glamours of Our Times, no other fits the bill better than the Human Genome Project. The media were full of similar hyperboles. It was a feat comparable to landing on the moon. It will produce cancer cures. It will enable us to identify all the 'bad' genes that cause diseases as well as the 'good' genes that make us intelligent, beautiful, good at sports, and even prolong our life span. The bad genes can be eliminated and good ones put in to enhance our genetic makeup. It will give us personalized medicine and a prescription of lifestyle based on our genetic makeup.

Ten years ago, when the Human Genome Project was being sold to the public at the cost of $3 billion to the United States taxpayers alone, they promised us the blueprint for making a human being when the human genome is sequenced. Now, dozens of genome sequences later, geneticists have no clue as to how to make the smallest microbe, nor the simplest worm, let alone a human being.

In case you have any lingering doubt, up to 95% of the human genome may consist of what is known as 'junk DNA', because geneticists have no idea what functions it serves. They cannot even agree on how many genes there are. The estimates range from 30 000 to 100 000. The human genome map announced in June was only 85% complete in the coding regions only.

In reality, the Human Genome Project is the biggest sellout in the whole of human history. It is the privatisation of the human genome financed by the public purse, with many disastrous consequences on the social and moral fabric of civil society.

What's happening? Human genes and cell lines are being patented and owned by corporation; among them are those taken from indigenous peoples without informed consent, under the pretext of providing medical care. These same indigenous peoples are being driven to extinction by the activities of the oil, timber and mining corporations. Their DNA and cell lines are being advertised and sold openly on the internet.

Human embryos are grown in the laboratory for the purpose of providing cells and tissues for transplantation. The UK Government has finally bowed to pressure from scientists and the biotech industry to give approval for research on human embryonic stem cells using 'spare embryos' from in vitro fertilization and aborted foetuses. International trafficking of human organs is already rife. It can be predicted that cell lines, eggs and human embryos will be added to the list. A hospital in South Africa has been contracted by a biotech company to supply frozen placentas of black people to be shipped to Paris, presumably, to have cells and DNA extracted from them

Human germline gene therapy is openly advocated, which amounts to creating genetically modified human beings. Genetic modification is a hazardous process, as they should know from work done on animals and plants. My life has been ruined in having to travel the world to counter Monsanto and those scientific experts who have been telling the public GMOs are absolutely safe. These are probably the same kinds of experts who have been assuring us that there is absolutely no risk from eating BSE beef.

No one has yet been cured with somatic gene therapy, a procedure that is not supposed to change the germline, but can do so nevertheless. The death of a healthy teenager who took part in a clinical trial last year sparked off a major public enquiry. It transpired that between 1998 and 1999, scientists associated with US drug companies failed to disclose five other deaths and more than 650 adverse events resulting from clinical trials of gene therapy, on grounds that they were 'commercially sensitive' information.

Two years ago, the first 'human' clone was created, by transferring the genetic material of a human cell into the egg of a cow. Thankfully, the scientists destroyed the experiment at 14 days, which is the current legal limit, otherwise, we would have been faced with Frankenstein. At least the original Dr. Frankenstein did not do it for money. And that is one of the roots of the problem. When deciding on whether any application is ethical or beneficial, the bottom line must be, would it be done if there were no money to be made? And who can benefit when all the genes, cell lines and reproductive processes are patented for commercial exploitation?

Gene biotechnology is not just about GM food or GM human beings. It is a commitment to an existential nightmare, a descent into a self-made hell on earth. Mary Shelley´s brilliant novel was not just a parable of the arrogant scientist playing God; in the present context, it is about mechanistic science out of control, in the service of the corporate empire. Ultimately, it is the failure to see nature whole.

The mechanistic paradigm of western science has dominated world politics and the policy of nations for centuries since the industrial revolution, not just through destructive technologies, but especially through the way the world is perceived and shaped. It presents nature as isolated atoms jostling and competing against one another in the Darwinian struggle for survival of the fittest. Organisms, including human beings are regarded as machines, and there is no limit to what can be manipulated and exploited for corporate profit. It is all of a piece with the neo-liberal economic theory that is promoting globalisation - the removal of all barriers to trade, investment and finance - so as to enable corporations to better exploit human beings and destroy the earth. The result is a social, economic and ecological crisis on a global scale. That was why 50 000 took to the streets of Seattle last November in peaceful demonstrations against the World Trade Organisation.

The mechanistic paradigm has failed the reality test in life. What is not generally known is that it has also failed the reality test within western science itself. Contemporary western science across the disciplines is revealing how nature is organic, dynamic and interconnected. There are no linear causal chains linking genes to the characteristics of organisms, let alone the human condition. Yet, the discredited paradigm of genetic determinism is still being perpetrated by the scientific establishment, in exactly the same way that neo-liberal economics still dominates the political mainstream. Not only is the old paradigm good for promoting gene biotechnology, it also makes unethical uses seem compelling.

Study after study continues to show that there are no simplistic explanations for diseases in terms of single genes. The top human geneticists are all saying that there is no such thing as a single gene disease, simply because the action of each gene is modified and affected by many, many other genes. For example, cystic fibrosis among Northern Europeans is strongly associated with a mutation in a certain gene, but the severity of symptoms varies over a wide range, depending on the background of other genes. Moreover, among the Yemans, the same mutation is associated with a different condition; while cystic fibrosis is linked to another gene altogether.

The connection between genes and disease becomes more and more tenuous when it comes to conditions such as cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and further down the list, schizophrenia, intelligence, alcohol abuse, homosexual and criminal behaviour, where environmental and social factors increasingly predominate.

There are up to 100 000 genes in the genome, with hundreds of variants in each gene. Each person is genetically unique, except for identical twins at the beginning of development, before they can accumulate genetic mutations independently. It is impossible, in principle, to give the prognosis for any disease for an individual, let alone predict his or her lifestyle, based on the person's genetic makeup. As a matter of interest, identical twins have very different brains because brain development is strongly dependent on individual experience.

The overwhelming causes of ill health are environmental and social. So-called single gene diseases account for less than 2% of all diseases, and as mentioned earlier, even for these, the severity of syndromes tend to vary very widely in most cases. For many conditions in which 'predisposing genes' are identified, environmental influences swamp even large genetic differences. For example, breast cancer is known to be relatively rare among women in non-industrial countries in Asia, while the incidence among European women in the industrial countries is five times as high. However, among Asian women who have emigrated to Northern Europe and the United States, the incidence of breast cancer jumps to that of the European women within a single generation.

The World Health Organisation International Agency for Research on Cancer has concluded that at least 80 percent of all cancer is attributable to environmental influences. Hundreds of potential and actual carcinogens have been identified among the 70 000 industrial chemicals that pollute our air, water and soil. Rising epidemics of childhood cancers are linked to mutations caused by radioactive wastes seeping from processing plants, or dumped into the sea and washed up on our beaches. Meanwhile, practically all that the cancer research establishment is doing on cancer prevention is to identify the genes associated with cancer.

The focus on genes is entirely misplaced. It is diverting attention and resources away from the real causes of ill health, allowing the culprits to continue to pollute our life support system with impunity, and at the same time profiting from the huge health market created by the rising tide of ill health. A headline in the financial pages of The Guardian (Wednesday August 2, 2000) says it all: 'Gene hunters say patients are a bankable asset'. Worse yet, the 'genetic mantle' placed on diseases and other human conditions end up blaming the victims, contributing to the re-emergence of genetic discrimination and eugenics that have blighted the history of much of the last century.

We should never forget the devastation of indigenous peoples world wide (which is still happening), the persecution of the Jews, apartheid in South Africa, all of which were justified on grounds that some peoples were racially inferior. Within European countries like Germany and Sweden, and the United States, eugenic programmes led to tens of thousands of their own citizens, considered physically handicapped and mentally defective either being put to death or forcefully sterilised, right up to the 1970s and beyond.

The only concrete offers from the human genome project thus far are genetic tests, some 740 already in the market. In cases where the use of such tests can help diagnosis and treatment of patients, exorbitant licence fees have prevented their use. On the other hand, healthy people testing positive have been denied employment and health insurance. There are moves to make it compulsory for individuals to reveal the results of genetic tests to insurance companies within the UK. Thank God we still have National Health here.

Prenatal diagnosis on the unborn, and pre-implantation diagnosis on human embryos have resulted in the elimination of foetuses and embryos with genes that are said to pre-dispose them to cancer as adults. And James Watson, co-winner of the Nobel Prize for the structure of DNA, the genetic material, even suggested that parents might want to eliminate the unborn carrying homosexuality genes. There are no such genes, by the way.

Meanwhile, a prominent band of scientists and 'bioethicists' are openly declaring that the creation of a gene-rich class of human beings is inevitable, as those who could afford to, will pay for genetic enhancement of their offspring. There will be a genetic underclass - children of those who cannot afford to pay - that might become a separate, inferior species. Those projections, like the promise of individually customised medicine, are genetic determinist fantasies. But they are far from harmless, for they are giving rein to the worst eugenic tendencies in our societies.

Another trend is the erosion of privacy and civil rights. Governments are creating large DNA databases of suspects, if not the entire population of a nation, so as to better apprehend criminals. Governments including the UK, along with biotech companies, are also encouraging ordinary people to donate their DNA to create national databases that can help identify susceptibility to diseases. That's what the Guardian article I mentioned was all about.

The DNA database of an entire nation, Iceland, has been sold to a private company, and negotiations are taking place between another private company and the Swedish Government for the 'ethical' take over of the Swedish population database.

These trends have persuaded the Council for Responsible Genetics, a non-government organisation in the United States, to draft a Genetic Bill of Rights to protect 'human rights and integrity' and the 'biological integrity of the earth' (<www.gene-watch.org>). There is also a call for a World Ethics Council consisting of independent scientists and representatives of a cross-section of civil society, to deal with the violations of human rights, privacy and dignity.

But no regulation can be effective unless there is a 'will-to-good' that values the integrity and purpose of every being for its own sake. It arises from seeing nature whole. And because nature is whole, this 'will-to-good' is the most universal ideal of human societies everywhere.

There is an organic revolution within western science. I have alluded to the genetic determinist mindset that has ruled biology and the popular culture at large before genetic engineering got underway 25 years ago. It offers a simplistic description of organisms. It has no concept of the organism as a whole, nor of societies or ecosystems. Instead, it sees only selfish individuals, each competing against all, and all at war against nature. The organism is presented as little more than a collection of 'traits' tied to specific genes that are supposed to pass on unchanged to the next generation. If that were the case, genetic engineering would be as precise and effective as is claimed: identify the gene that determines the desired trait, isolate it, and transfer it to another organism to create a GMO with the desired trait, once and for all.

This view became increasingly untenable as researchers began to reveal what turned out to be an immense amount of cross talk between genes. Genes function in complex, entangled networks. They are nothing if not dynamic, sensitive and responsive, to other genes, to the cell or organism in which they find themselves and to the external environment. Genes are active, or not, depending on the environment. Furthermore, they can mutate, multiply, rearrange and jump around. Genes from one organism can even jump into the genome of another. The genetic material is so flexible and mutable that by the 1980s, geneticists were inspired to coin the descriptive phrase, 'the fluid genome'.

Genetics has indeed changed out of all recognition. Genes have an extended ecology comprising all other genes in the genome, the physiological milieu of the organism and the ecological environment. For genes and genomes to maintain dynamic constancy, there must be a balanced ecology. The new genetics is radically ecological, organic and holistic, it is diametrically opposed to the mechanical conception of nature that has dominated the world for hundreds of years. The transition between classical genetics and the new genetics is analogous of the transition between classical and quantum physics. That is why genetic engineering, at least in its current form, can never succeed. It is based on misconceptions that organisms are machines, and on a denial of the complexity and flexibility of the organic whole.

Parallel discoveries are made in ecology. For too long, academic ecologists have tried and failed to explain the diversity of ecosystems solely in terms of competition. In reality, it is the myriad of mutual, symbiotic relationships among diverse species that enable all species to prosper, including the human beings that have shaped and sustained those systems in the course of tens of thousands of years. Conservation and environmental policies that exclude human beings are misguided and pernicious. During the 1980s, prominent conservationists in the United States have argued that the earth can only support 5 million people. (That may be true if all of them consume the earth's resources at the rate of the average person in the United States.)

In general, population arguments are based on the concept of carrying capacity of the ecosystem, the maximum number of individuals that it can support. The fallacy is to assume that carrying capacity is a fixed physical constant, it is not. Evidence is emerging that the more biodiverse a system, the greater the carrying capacity and hence also the productivity. Biodiverse systems are also more stable and resilient, therefore offering greater food security. In short, academic ecologists have been rediscovering what indigenous farmers all over the world have known and practised successfully for millennia. Ecological farming systems have been revived all over the world since the 1980s. Not only have yields doubled and tripled and continued to increase, they have brought major social, health and environmental benefits. They offer the only way to recover and regenerate land degraded by industrial agriculture.

Perhaps the most significant turning point in western science is the development of relativity theory, and especially of quantum physics at the beginning of the last century. For it overturned the most fundamental assumptions of the mechanistic paradigm. Instead of seeing things as separate and isolated, quantum theory gives us a universe inhabited by de-localized, mutually entangled entities that change and evolve like organisms. The separation between observer and observed is thus also illusory.

The change is so profound that Alfred North Whitehead declared it is impossible to understanding nature except as an organism that participates fully in knowing. The knower and the known are one. How we know determines what we know. The act of knowing transforms both the knower and the known. That is why we must know with sensitivity and compassion.

What does it mean to be an organism instead of a machine? To be an organism is to be possessed of the irrepressible tendency towards being whole, towards being part of a larger whole. I have outlined a tentative theory of the organism in the second edition of my book, The Rainbow and The Worm, The Physics of Organisms, published in 1998.

To get a feeling for the organism, imagine an immense super-orchestra, with instruments spanning the widest spectrum of dimensions from molecular piccolos of 10-9 meter up to a bassoon or a bass viol of a meter or more, performing over a musical range of seventy-two octaves. Incredible as it may seem, this super-orchestra never ceases to play out our individual songcycles, with a certain recurring rhythm and beat, but in endless variations that never repeat exactly. There is always something new, something made up as it goes along. It can change key, change tempo, change tune perfectly, as it feels like, or as the situation demands, spontaneously and without hesitation. What this super-orchestra plays is the most exquisite jazz, jazz being to classical music what quantum is to classical physics. One might call it quantum jazz. There is a certain structure, but the real art is in the endless improvisations, where each and every player, however small, enjoys maximum freedom of expression, while maintaining perfectly in step and in tune with the whole. There is no leader or conductor, and the music emerges as it is played.

What I have given is an accurate description of the totality of molecular, cellular and physiological reality of the ideal, healthy organism, which serves to illustrate the paradoxical nature of the organic whole. It is thick with activity over all scales, with maximum local freedom and global cohesion. This is inconceivable within the mechanistic paradigm, but is precisely captured by the concept of quantum coherence. In the organic whole, global and local, part and whole, are mutually implicated and mutually entangled. Intercommunication is the key. Each is as much in control as it is sensitive and responsive.

The coherence of organisms is quintessentially pluralistic and inclusive at every level. It takes tens of thousands of different macromolecules to make a cell and many kinds of cells to make different tissues and organs in the body. For the same reasons, we need a profusion of species in a thriving ecosystem, and a kaleidoscopic diversity of cultures to fulfill the creative human potential.

When we extend the mutual entanglement of part and whole in the organism to societies, ecosystems and ultimately to all of nature, we begin to recover the profoundly holistic ecological traditions of indigenous cultures worldwide. We begin to realize how each of us is an embodiment of all that exists and how it is that we cannot do harm to any other without harming ourselves. Therein lies the basis of our will-to-good, why it is that we feel impelled to celebrate and nurture individual diversity and freedom with universal love.

Article first published 28/10/00


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