Science in Society Archive

Another Knowledge, Another World

Dr. Mae-Wan Ho reveals the origins of the discussion paper "Towards a Convention on Knowledge", and her hopes that "another science" may offer the key to "another possible world".

Why 'Knowledge'?

I am a scientist, and have been for nearly 40 years. For me as for most scientists, science is my first love, and I never thought I'd be doing many of the things I am doing to-day, least of all, promoting a Convention on Knowledge. So, what happened, and why 'knowledge'?

The proximate cause for my downfall was getting invited to a conference, "Redefining the life sciences" in 1994, organised by my friends Martin Khor, Vandana Shiva, Tewolde Egziabhar and others. Instead of the usual academic talkshop, it became clear that redefining the life sciences was a matter of life and death for family farmers, especially those practising small-scale sustainable farming dependent on natural and agricultural biodiversity. Scarcely had they got over the devastation caused by the monoculture crops of the green revolution than the genetically engineered crops of the biotech revolution were staring them in the face and promising far worse.

I had left molecular genetics behind five years earlier in 1989, when all the scientific findings already indicated that genetic engineering was unlikely to work and could be dangerous.

The old picture of genetic determinism - with genes remaining almost constant in a static genome, determining the characteristics of the organism in linear chains of command - has had to be overwritten many times. Geneticists discovered huge complexities leading from the genes to perhaps a thousand times as many proteins as there are genes. Different combinations of proteins are active in individual cells at different times, depending on multiple levels of feedback from the environment. This feedback changes not just the function of genes, but the genes and genomes themselves. The genetic material of one species can be taken up and incorporated into the genome of totally unrelated species. Genetic engineering simply does not make sense given the 'fluidity' of genes and genomes in both structure and function [1, 2].

Naively, I thought that if I told the world what I knew, forces of reason, if not of good, would be set in motion, at least to prevent genetically engineered crops from being widely released into the environment.

Contrary to what's generally assumed, technology does not standalone. It is inspired by the science, and in turn reinforces the science. Genetic engineering only makes sense if genetic determinism is true. They go together like hand in glove, which is why the pro-biotech establishment is clinging onto genetic determinism.

The forces of reason are also being obscured and held back by many other constraints.

There are serious conflicts of interests, both financial and non-financial such as prestige and career, and strong peer-pressure, to go along with the powers that be.

There's love of science for its own sake, however misguided that science may be. But most of all, I believe, it is the way we know nature and the world when we are not trying to save the world. It is the knowledge system as a whole.

At a very early stage, I became aware that the debate on genetic engineering was no less than a global struggle to reinstate holistic knowledge systems and sustainable ways of life that have been marginalized and destroyed by the dominant, unsustainable monetary culture.

This task has become all the more urgent as the earth has been brought to the brink of extinction by the excessive uses of fossil fuels, and 'weapons of mass destruction' - nuclear, chemical, biological, and the latest, robotic and starwars - are back on the global agenda in the so-called 'war on terrorism'.

Wars and conflicts have the same source, ultimately the failure to see nature whole; seeing the world as separate from us, individuals as isolated and constantly competing, one against all, all against nature. It comes from seeing organisms, including human beings, as machines, and the wonderful diversity of animals and plants as so many different instruments for the survival of the meanest and the richest. Living organisms including human genes and cell lines are to be patented for commercial exploitation.

The monetary culture is profoundly pathetic. It threatens to obliterate all the qualities of life by reducing them to euros or dollars. The means of exchange has become the ultimate end that subverts and flattens all human relationships and social values.

When Thatcher, and now Lord Sainsbury, gauges scientific output in 'spin-off' companies and their market value, that's when we should worry about the quality of science.

Bad science endangers lives, and the more profit to be made, the more dangerous it is. Biomedical researchers have been caught peddling fraudulent cures and killing patients while profiting from stock-market hype of spin-off companies created at public expense.

Knowledge itself under threat

Knowledge itself is under threat in many ways. Proprietary databases and archives are being established to restrict access to genome sequences and other information on genes and proteins, and to published scientific papers, all of which severely hindering scientific research.

Globally, the new Trade-Related Intellectual Properties (TRIPS) regime of industrialised nations, which includes patents of organisms, human genes and cell lines, is being imposed on the rest of the world through the World Trade Organisation (WTO), as part of a relentless drive towards economic globalisation. The TRIPS regime is an unprecedented privatisation of knowledge. It has also led to widespread biopiracy of indigenous knowledge and resources, threatening local biodiversity and the livelihoods of indigenous communities.

Farmers in Canada and the United States who found their fields contaminated by patented crop genes have been ordered by the courts to pay compensation to Monsanto [3]. This is a foretaste of the corporate serfdom that will be imposed on all of us if we don't fight it now. It is crafted through the economic globalisation of the WTO, World Bank and International Monetary Fund, which is widely acknowledged to be the major cause of poverty, social disintegration and environmental degradation over the past decades [4]. It is obstructing real attempts to reverse the trends, and to implement a global agenda for sustainability [5].

The 'academic-industrial-military complex' engineering life and mind

The threat to knowledge is much deeper than the enclosure of the intellectual commons, and all the other consequences that follow.

Successive governments have sold science and scientists to the corporations in the misguided quest to exploit science for wealth creation. Science and scientists are being subverted to a corporate agenda that ensures the survival of the meanest and fattest corporations, so they can become ever better at exploiting the masses for further gain.

Under the banner of the 'free market' and 'free choice', we are losing our right to self-determination and self-sufficiency in every way: our food, health, social mores, the way we choose to live and most seriously of all, our right to think differently from the corporate establishment. An emerging 'academic-industrial-military complex' is threatening to engineer both life and mind [6].

Corporations have taken over the public funding agencies, to determine which kinds of scientific research get funded. Independent science and scientists are fast becoming extinct. The government and the Royal Society – the society of top scientists in the UK if not the world – got together with a transmogrified PR company funded by the food industry to produce guidelines to determine which scientific findings get reported, and what scientists can say to the media. The Science Media Centre, set up to feed the media with the 'correct' scientific information, was caught trying to suppress a BBC drama that attempted to draw attention to horizontal gene transfer, the most insidious danger of genetic engineering.

The UK national debate on GM is turning into a farce, with the head of the Food Standards Agency openly supporting GM and attacking organic agriculture based on prejudice and hearsay, completely ignoring the wealth of scientific evidence on the success of organic, sustainable agriculture around the world [7].

There is still no open scientific debate on the hazards of genetic engineering within the UK.

"Another world is possible"

"Another world is possible" was the rallying cry of the fifty thousand who gathered in Porto Alegre in February for the Second World Social Forum (WSF), to voice unanimous opposition to the present economic globalisation and to call for alternative models of world governance and finance.

But almost no one targeted the predominant, reductionist knowledge system that has provided the intellectual impetus for this globalisation as well as the instruments of destruction and oppression.

At a workshop during the WSF, I happened to be sitting next to Paul Hawken, who wrote The Ecology of Commerce [8] and other books, in which he proposed a new form of business that places primary emphasis on regenerating nature, for nature is the ultimate capital of commerce. He told me he had discussed the idea of a "Convention on Corporate Responsibility", which he confessed, could be an oxymoron.

But it occurred to me there and then, why not a Convention on Knowledge?
I discussed it briefly with Martin Khor, Director of the Third World Network, and soon after returning home, typed the first draft into my laptop. And, the rest, as they say, is history.

I was overjoyed and surprised by the enthusiastic response, first from fellow scientists and then, most importantly, from third world and indigenous peoples' representatives.

Let me take the opportunity to thank all those who have responded to improve the draft, and to add substantial texts and comments that I have tried to accommodate, if not incorporate. In particular, I want to thank SGR for playing such a major role in publicising the paper, collating the comments and organising this first conference to discuss the draft.

Phil Webber has kindly given me a preview of the comments, so I could at least explain, if not defend myself, as I do feel responsible for all the defects in the document.

First of all, it was never my intention to produce a legally binding international Convention, as that's the surest way to kill it. Look what's happening to the Kyoto Protocol, the Cartagena Biosafety Protocol, the Bioweapons Convention, and every other international agreement.

This Convention on Knowledge belongs to the global civil society. It is meant to bring together all the seemingly disparate issues that concern knowledge or which arise from knowledge, to serve as the focus of a concerted global campaign to reclaim all knowledge systems to the service of public good, and to create another possible world.

I also believe that another science is possible, that it may be the key to another possible world.

Much of the inspiration for the Convention came from knowing that there are so many people, like Paul Hawken and Martin Khor, at opposite ends of civil society, all deeply committed to "another possible world" that's more equitable, sustainable, peaceful and just; and have already contributed so much in that direction.

As a scientist, I also know that we have all the means at our disposal to help build that possible world, and we can make major contributions as scientists.

More importantly, there is another science on the horizon, emerging from within the tradition of western science, which could offer a radically different vision of life.

I mentioned the fluid genome. That is part and parcel of the shift in scientific vision, from the mechanistic towards the organic, from reductionist to holistic, that has been happening across the disciplines: the mathematics of chaos and the science of complexity, non-equilibrium thermodynamics, quantum physics of coherent states, to name but a few.

Would a different science transform the meaning and texture of our life? I think so. I started doing science as a typical biologist and biochemist, schooled to fixing, pinning, pulping and homogenising until no trace is left of the biological organisation that I was supposed to be looking for. We end up with a graveyard of information on the molecular nuts and bolts, but nothing to enable us to understand what makes the organism whole.

It was dissatisfaction with this approach that started my scientific odyssey of 30 years, falling in and falling out of many disciplines until I found what I call, the physics of organisms [9]. It is, in many ways, an extension of the work and vision of British mathematician-philosopher Alfred North Whitehead [10], biochemist and later scholar of Chinese science, Joseph Needham [11] and others who were to form the Theoretical Biology Club in Cambridge inthe first half of the last century.

There are many colleagues who share in this new vision to varying degrees. Some of us recently met at a conference [12] organised by my long time collaborator, Franco Musumeci, ex-nuclear physicist turned biophysicist and associate professor in the engineering faculty of Catania University, Sicily. The conference received enthusiastic support from many Departments within Catania University and its administration, and from all levels of the Italian government, the local municipal to provincial, right up to the national. We were showered with gifts, as local businesses also donated generously in kind.

Afterwards, a number of us proposed a M. Sc. programme on "Organic Physics": how the physical sciences and engineering can contribute to understanding life, rather than the other way around: how life can be understood in terms of physics and chemistry. I invite anyone interested to get involved in such a programme. It will be earth shaking; scarcely a month after our conference, Mount Etna erupted again.

A few days ago, I attended a workshop organised by The Living Rainforest, a beautiful mini-Eden project in Hampstead Norreys near Newbury. I spoke about my personal quest for another science [13] that brings back all the hallmarks of life – spontaneity, freedom, consciousness and love – that have had no place within the mechanistic paradigm.

Our magazine, Science in Society, is dedicated to developing the new perspectives in earnest while challenging the old. Please subscribe and write for us. The current issue 16 covers a lot of what I have been talking about, including an article [14] on how our Convention paper was launched at the Earth Summit, appropriately, at a session linking traditional knowledge and science.

The highlight of the session was a talk by a remarkable Maori healer, Kereopa, who is working with a scientist "to bring Maori medicine to the modern world". When asked how western scientists and indigenous healers like himself could work together, he said,

"You cannot stay in your university and keep on sciencing and sciencing. The future is up to you."

I have indeed found it impossible to stay in my university, or to keep on sciencing and sciencing within the mechanistic paradigm. For me, it has always been, and will always be, sciencing with love.

(This article is based on talk given to SGR UNESCO-sponsored conference, Knowledge – Common Heritage, Not Private Property, University of London Union, Malet St., London, 10 November 2002.)

Article first published 13/11/02



  1. Ho MW. Genetic Engineering Dream or Nightmare? Gateway, Gill & Macmillan, 1998, 1999; Continuum Books, 1999, Third World Network, 1998; Bath, Dublin, New York, Penang. Also available in many translations.
  2. Ho MW. Living with the Fluid Genome, Inside Science, ISIS, London 2002 (in press).
  3. "Canadian farmers against corporate serfdom" by Mae-Wan Ho, Science in Society 2002, 16, 5-6.
  4. See the excellent collection of essays in Mander J. and Goldsmith E. ed. The Case Against the Global Economy, Sierra Club Books, San Francisco, 1996.
  5. "Rough road from Doha to Johannesburg" by Victor Menotti, Science in Society 2002, 15, 26.
  6. Ho MW and Matthews J. The "academic-industrial-military complex" engineering life & mind. ISIS Report November 2002
  7. Lim LC. Organic agriculture fights back. Science in Society 2002, 16, 30-32.
  8. Hawken P. The Ecology of Commerce, Harper Business, New York, 1993.
  9. Ho MW. The Rainbow and the Worm, The Physics of Organisms, World Scienific, Singapore, 1993, 1998(2nd ed.).
  10. Whitehead AN. Science and the Modern World, Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, 1925.
  11. Needham J. Order and Life, Yale University Press, New Haven, 1935.
  12. Energy and Information in Biological Systems: How Physics Could Enrich Biological Understanding, Acireale, Sicily, September 18-22, 2002.
  13. Ho MW. What Barrier? Contribution to Workshop on "Bridging the Barrier between Man and Nature", The Living Rainforest, Berkshire, 7 November 2002
  14. "Launching convention on knowledge", by Mae-Wan Ho, Science in Society 2002, 16, 8-9.

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