Science in Society Archive

Science & Ethics in a New Key

Dr. Mae-Wan Ho presented this essay in parts during the Science and Society Conference held in Emory College, Atlanta, Georgia, USA, October 4-7, 2001

In his recent book, Michael Fox asks whether genetic engineering will mean the end of the natural world as we know it, and take us beyond evolution [1]. But the remark that strikes me most of all is, "We have become blind to the perfection of larks". It sums up the mechanistic science that makes gross violations of the natural world a matter of routine.

Western science began in sixteenth century Europe under the legacy of the Judaeo-Christian tradition which inspired the search for eternal laws, such as could make the universe move in predictable, mechanical ways. Through Copernicus, Galileo and Descartes, this strand of thought eventually culminated in Newton's laws of mechanics. So successful was the mechanistic framework that every event in nature came to be seen in this perspective.

Another strand in the legacy of the Judaeo-Christian tradition is that human beings are considered to be created in the image of God and to have immortal souls, while animals and the rest of nature are there to be used by human beings. Descartes established the dualistic separation of human beings from nature, of mind from body and matter from spirit. He maintained that only human beings can reason, that animals are unfeeling machines; and condoned cruel experiments on dogs and cats. Francis Bacon, similarly, urged that we "vex Nature of her secrets" that it was our right to extend our power and dominion over the universe. In The Island of Dr. Moreau, he described, prophetically, animal parks used for public viewing and for "dissection and trials, that thereby we may take light what may be wrought upon the body of man…"

Genetic engineering is a step up in the exploitation of nature. The first transgenic mice were created for use in research in the 1980s. Michael Fox and Jeremy Rifkin challenged the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to suspend government-funded trans-genic animal research until the ethics and consequences had been fully explored and publicly aired. They questioned the right of our species to interfere so profoundly with the telos, or inherent nature, of animals, but met with united opposition from the scientific establishment.

Dr. Maxine Singer, world-famous molecular biologist, declared, "Species can have, and many in the past have had a telos (an end), namely, extinction. That is the only telos known to exist." Dr. David Baltimore, Nobel laureate molecular geneticist, stated that he opposed prohibitions and regulatory statements about "morally and ethically unacceptable" practices because "those are subjective and therefore provides no basis for discussion".

Fox caused a ruckus at the NIH and other animal laboratory facilities when he sent letters to several vets in charge of animals asking what analgesics they used. Many were using none to alleviate pain following various experimental procedures.

One animal scientist, when challenged as to whether pigs have feelings in a debate on factory farming, replied "We need to do more research before we can be really sure." On transporting calves in veal crates over long distances, the same scientist defended the practice on grounds that "There is no scientific evidence that veal calves need to turn around." In a recent survey of academics from various disciplines, 17 to 25% of those in animal science and zoology believed animals do not have minds.

Since the 1980s, genetic engineering of both plants and animals has expanded. Millions of transgenic mice are now used in research laboratories as models of human diseases. However, too many models do not give the same disease symptoms as in human beings, a point noted by the UK Royal Society, which defends their use, nevertheless [2]. Livestock and fish are genetically engineered to grow bigger faster, or to produce leaner meat, and further down the line, to be resistant to diseases. Farm animals are engineered as 'bio-reactors', to supply pharmaceuticals and industrial material in their milk, blood, urine and semen. Pigs are engineered to supply organs for transplant into human beings. Closely linked to transgenesis is cloning, so herds of identical transgenic animals could be created for the various uses.

Mechanistic biology has reached its logical conclusion when even human beings are to be genetically engineered and cloned for the use of other human beings. In so-called 'therapeutic' human cloning, the nucleus containing the genome of an adult human being is transferred into an egg from which the egg's nucleus has been removed. This is then stimulated to grow into an embryo from which embryonic stem cells are harvested, to be further cultured for use in cell and tissue replacement, the embryo being killed in the process [3].

The first 'human' clones were created by injecting the genetic material of human beings into the eggs of cows and pigs, all too reminiscent of Mary Shelley's parable of Frankenstein.

Transgenesis and animal cloning are both characterised by high failure rates and large numbers of monstrous abnormalities even among the 'successes' [reviewed in 4, 5]. Many clones die before birth, others succumb suddenly weeks or months after birth. In some cases, the surrogate mothers carrying the cloned foetuses are also affected. Three cows died while pregnant with clones, from fatty livers and other abnormalities.

"Cloning by nuclear transfer (NT) is an inefficient process in which most clones die before birth and survivors often display growth abnormalities" [6] so admits an international team of researchers recently, who have examined mice cloned using nuclei from embryonic stem cells. In short, transgenesis and cloning are notable for colossal failures.

Unlike Dr. Frankenstein, his modern counterparts are unrepentant, and would carry on business as usual.

The much-touted embryonic stem cells carry cancer risks and are prone to uncontrollable variations in culture [3,6]. Foetal cells, presumed to contain stem cells and transplanted into the brain of 5 Parkinson's patients, turned into an irredeemable nightmare because the cells grew uncontrollably [7]. Meanwhile, it is increasingly clear that bone marrow and other stem cells from adults show much greater promise in cell and tissue replacement. A doctor has succeeded recently in using a patient's own bone marrow cells to mend his failing heart [8]. The procedure is so simple that it does not require any patented medicines to suppress immune rejection, nor any patented cell lines for transplant, which is why profit-driven corporate science cannot afford to do it.

Transgenesis carries the potential hazard of creating new viruses that cross species barriers. The danger of new viruses and the excessive suffering inflicted on the animals are both clearly evident in xenotransplantation [9,10]. Primates have been cruelly abused as experimental transplant recipients, and endogenous pig viruses are found to infect animals receiving pig cell or organ transplants, precisely as predicted by virologists who have been warning of the danger from the beginning.

To counter this unfolding horror of mechanistic science out of control, we desperately need to recover our sense of the perfection of larks and our kinship with all of creation in another kind of science.

Most people accept that there is a two-way connection between science and society. Science is both shaped by the politics and the mores of society and it can reinforce them. But what is often overlooked is that science, by its very nature, transcends the status quo and can bring social change, if we consciously will to do so.

Mechanistic science has shaped and coloured every aspect of our lives from its inception to the present day. Thomas Hobbes, contemporary of Descartes, surpassed both Descartes and Newton. He maintained that nothing exists except body, matter and motion, that not only the universe, but man himself can be explained mechanically [11].

Hobbes' influence passed down to us via Charles Darwin in an age that saw the birth of capitalism and the expansion of Adam Smith's 'free' market under the military might of the British Empire. Nature became finally reduced to isolated atoms jostling and competing in the struggle for survival of the fittest [12]. In its present-day form, neo-Darwinian sociobiology has changed little from social Darwinism. It is based on denying and explaining away every good there is - such as love, moral feelings and altruism - as different forms of disguised selfishness.

The neo-liberal economic theory underpinning the current economic globalisation is a more pernicious form of Adam Smith's laissez-faire theory. While both glorify competition, only the latter is tempered by moral restraint. And so, through the self-fulfilling prophecy, mechanistic science has created a dysfunctional, dog-eat-dog society and a global market regime that has hastened the destruction of our planet to maximise corporate profit, while failing spectacularly to serve the physical and spiritual needs of the vast majority of humanity. That was why fifty thousand took to the streets in Seattle in December, 1999, marking the start of a global protest movement that will grow until and unless people's over-riding aspiration for a safe, equitable and just world are met.

The mechanistic paradigm has clearly failed the reality test in life. Equally importantly, it has also failed within science, having been thoroughly discredited by scientific findings. But the discredited paradigm is perpetrated by mainstream academic institutions, where it serves to promote the engineering of life.

The ideology of genetic determinism - genes determine what we are - has ruled biology and the popular culture before genetic engineering really got underway. It offers a simplistic view of the living world that is a complete travesty of the interdependence and complexity of organic reality. Scientific findings over the past 25 years speak loud and clear that genes do not work in isolation, but in complex, entangled networks. Genes are above all, sensitive, dynamic 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. They mutate, multiply, rearrange and jump around. Genes may even jump out of one organism to infect another. The genetic material is so flexible and dynamic that geneticists have coined the phrase, "the fluid genome" way back in the early1980s.

The new genetics is radically ecological, organic and holistic, and is diametrically opposed to the mechanical conception of nature that has dominated the west for hundreds, if not thousands of years.

The new genetics is all of a piece with the recovery of the organic, participatory perspective in contemporary western science, especially in quantum physics. Quantum theory tells us that separateness is an illusion, that all nature is mutually entangled in organic space-time, as is the 'observer' with the 'observed'; and that each act of 'observation' transforms both. What it does is to reinstate the holistic, ecological knowledge systems of indigenous cultures across the world, which have enabled people to live sustainably for millennia.

As we face the threats of genetic engineering in the midst of the climate change catastrophe, poet Wendell Berry reminds us, "Thine life is a miracle, think again" [13]. Think again, for it is imperative to replace the destructive, mechanistic and instrumental view of life with the truly organic and miraculous.

The organic whole is a concept totally alien to the mechanistic perspective. Just think of the "I" in each of us, the soul of our being, that is resolutely singular, despite the astonishing fact that we are made of 100 trillion cells and astronomical numbers of molecules of diverse kinds. Like all organisms, we are possessed of the irrepressible tendency towards being whole, towards being part of a larger whole. That miracle of organisms deserves volumes, and I have written just one of them [14].

To appreciate the organic whole, you have to experience live organisms, especially as you may never have experienced them, with an imaging technique invented in my laboratory, when they take on all the colours of the rainbow.

The technique is a slight modification of the polarised light microscopy routinely used to look at rock crystals and more recently, liquid crystals. But crystals have static molecular order, so how can living, moving organisms appear crystalline, when all the molecules in the body would be moving around transforming and transferring energy?

The answer is that the molecules must be moving coherently together. Because the coherent motions are much slower than the vibrations of light, the molecules appear static as the light passes through. It is like capturing a sharp still photograph of a moving object with a very fast film.

These images demonstrate that highly coherent molecular motions must be taking place in the organisms' body. Scientists have discovered coherent electrical activities in the brain not so long ago, to their great surprise. The coherence here is on a much larger scale than anyone has ever imagined, extending throughout the entire body. The organism is thick with coherent activities, from the molecular to the macroscopic. There is no preferred level within the organism. All the parts at every level are actively participating in the whole.

These images also demonstrate that how we observe determines what we observe. As someone said, if your only tool is a hammer, then everything looks like a nail. Mechanistic biology is like a hammer, so everything looks dead as nails, or like nuts and bolts. If we observe with the sensitivity of organisms, however, we see them resplendent as organisms. This imaging technique is non-destructive. You can put the organisms back into the aquarium, or the pond, afterwards.

Let me draw out some of the main lessons the organism teaches us about the organic whole as opposed to the mechanistic whole. The organic whole is an ideal democracy of distributed control. It does not work in hierarchies of controller versus the controlled, but by intercommunication and participation. Ultimately, each is as much in control as it is sensitive and responsive. In the ideal coherent system, local freedom (or autonomy) and global cohesion are both maximum. That is impossible within a mechanical system where public and private, local and global, are inevitably in conflict.

Another important lesson is that the organic whole is quintessentially diverse and pluralistic. It is the antithesis of uniformity and homogeneity. We have some 30 000 genes and 300 000 proteins, astronomical numbers of metabolites, cofactors, inorganic ions, in numerous types of cells, constituted into tissues and organs that make up our body; all of which are necessary for sustaining the whole. In the same way, populations are naturally diverse, and thriving ecosystems are rich in species. And I must stress in the strongest terms that we need the diversity of cultures in the human species to sustain the human miracle, to express the full creative human potential.

Now think of an organism as a domain of coherent activities. Its boundaries are dynamic and fluid, expanding and contracting with the extent of coherence. An organism could be an individual, a society, or indeed the whole earth and beyond. More importantly, each organism, in becoming itself, enfolds the environment consisting of other organisms into a unity residing in a 'self', while aspects of the self are communicated and enfolded by other organisms. The realisation of 'self' and 'other' are completely intertwined. The organic society is thus a community of mutually implicated organisms. We are literally constituted of all our fellow human beings, just as every fellow human being holds hostage to a part of us.

The organic universe of mutually entangled nested wholes is the rational basis of a naturalistic ethic reflecting the highest moral ideals shared by all cultures, that can reshape society and transform the very texture and meaning of our lives. We begin to appreciate that the will and purpose of each organism and species is entangled with that of every other. Our humanity emerges from this entangled whole. We cannot do arbitrary violence to one another, nor to the nature of other species without violating our own. The ethic of science is no different from that of being human.

It is in this context that we must heed the message of Martin Luther King Jr. (Strength to Love, 1963), particularly in the painful aftermath of the September 11 attacks on the United States [15],

"Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction....The chain reaction of evil - hate begetting hate, wars producing more wars - must be broken, or we shall be plunged into the dark abyss of annihilation."


  1. Fox, M. Beyond Evolution, The Lyons Press, New York, 1999, ISBN 1-55821-901-3.
  2. See "UK Royal Society soft-selling GM animals" by Mae-Wan Ho, ISIS News 9/10, July 2001, ISSN: 1474-1547 (print) ISSN: 1474-1814 (online)
  3. Ho MW and Cummins J. The unnecessary evil of 'therapeutic' human cloning. ISIS News 7/8, Feb. 2001, ISSN: 1474-1547 (print) ISSN: 1474-1814 (online)
  4. Ho MW. Genetic Engineering Dream or Nightmare? Turning the Tide on the Brave New World of Bad Science and Big Business, Gateway, Gill & Macmillan, Dublin, 1998, 1999; Continuum Books, New York, 1999.
  5. Ho MW. Why Biotech Patents Are Patently Absurd. Third World Network Biodiversity, Knowledge & Rights Series 2, Penang, 2001.
  6. Humpherys D, Eggan K, Akutsu H, Hochedlinger K, Rideout WM, Biniszkiewica D, Yanagimachi R and Jaenisch R. Epigenetic Instability in ES Cells and Cloned Mice. Science 2001, 293, 95-7.
  7. "Cell implants in Parkinson's study cause catastrophe" by Gina Kolata, International Herald Tribune, 9 March 2001.
  8. "Heart repair with bone marrow cells" ISIS Report, October 2001
  9. Ho, M.W. and Cummins, J. Xenotransplantation - How Bad Science and Big Business Put the World at Risk from Viral Pandemics, ISIS Sustainable Science Report #2, August 2000 <>; Third world Resurgence 127/128, 2001, 46-55.
  10. "Xenotranplantation must end" by Angela Ryan, ISIS News 7/8, Feb. 2001, ISSN: 1474-1547 (print) ISSN: 1474-1814 (online)
  11. See The Post-Corporate World by David Korten, Kumarian Press, 1998.
  12. See Genetic Engineering Dream or Nightmare? Turning the Tide on the Brave New World of Bad Science and Big Business, Gateway, Gill & Macmillan, Dublin, 1998, 1999; Continuum Books, New York, 1999.
  13. Life is a Miracle by Wendell Berry, 2000.
  14. The Rainbow and The Worm, The Physics of Organisms by Mae-Wan Ho, World Scientific, Singapore, 1993, 2nd ed., 1998.
  15. Scientists for Global Responsibility Forum, Special Issue on the Terror Attacks in the USA, Issue No. 36/2001 (Dateline: September 13, 2001)

I-SIS News 11 index

Article first published October 2001

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