The Future of DNA

Proceedings of an international conference
about presuppositions in science and expectations in society
October 2-5 1996 at the Goetheanum, Dornach, Switzerland
Editors: Johannes Wirz & Edith Lammerts van Bueren
Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1997 - 289 pages

To order a copy of "The Future of DNA" please contact your nearest Ifgene coordinator.

Contents Preface and Introduction - Ifgene coordinators


The limits of culture in biotechnology Klaus Michael Meyer-Abich

The cultural powers of the gene - identity, destiny and the social meaning of heredity Susan Lindee

The archetypal gene - the open history of a successful concept Ernst Peter Fischer

Back to the future - towards a spiritual attitude for managing DNA Jaap van der Wal


DNA in the environment: ecological, and therefore societal, implications Guenther Stotzky

DNA and the new organicism Mae-Wan Ho

DNA at the edge of contextual biology Johannes Wirz


The role of genetic disposition in human health and disease - bioethical aspects of DNA testing Hansjakob Müller

Genomic instability - a story of repair, cancer and evolution, with existential impact on the individual Nicolaas Jaspers

Human biography and its genetic instrument Michaela Glöckler


Practising a power free dialogue in the plenary sessions aboutmodern biotechnology Henk Verhoog


Gene concepts in motion: from Mendel to molecules Jacqueline Girard-Bascou and Craig Holdrege

DNA and food technology - between natural food and food design Anneke Hamstra and Miriam Matze

DNA and education John Armstrong and Frans Olofsen

The biotechnology dialogue in the Netherlands Huib Vriend

The genetification of our culture Florianne Koechlin

DNA in context - genes, organisms and evolution illustrated through algae and buttercups Brian Goodwin and Margaret Colquhoun

Transgenic plants - consequences and impacts for production and ecology Jos van Damme and Beat Keller

Intrinsic value of plants and animals: from philosophy to implementation Petran Kockelkeren and Michiel Linskens

Does human retardation occur at the molecular level? Jos Verhulst and Nicolaas Jaspers

Genetic disabilities - predictive diagnosis, gene therapy and communal care Peter Miny, Nick Blitz and Peter Middleton

Heredity, gene therapy and religion Ulrich Eibach and Martin Gmeindl

Genetic engineering and xenotransplantation Jürg Jungermann and Peter Braidley

Embryo, Heredity and DNA Jaap van der Wal, Peter Grünewald and Trond Skaftnesmo


Meeting the person behind the scientist involved in gene technology summary of the round table discussions Bas Pedreli


Biotechnology as a socio-technical ensemble - closing remarks and reflection Guido Ruivenkamp

Ifgene network

Subject index

Overview of the conference


Ifgene coordinators

Genetic engineering is increasingly becoming part of our daily lives. For instance, the food processing industry depends on it to a large extent and many modern diagnostic tests in medicine are based on methods derived from DNA technology. Along with these advances, the public is becoming more aware of the enormous potential of the technology, as well as the ethical and social issues related to it. Since the conference has taken place, two events have continued to sharpen public awareness and to deepen the controversy: the arrival of transgenic soya beans in Europe, as well as the first, successful cloning of a mammal from tissues of an adult animal, the sheep Dolly.

Scientific views about DNA and genes challenge our fundamental concepts about life, nature, society and humanity. The public debate about genetic engineering is based on a paradigm that seems to be widely accepted by scientists, as well as by laymen. It is the paradigm of reductionist biology, which postulates that all attributes and characters of life in its substance and form are ultimately determined by genes. Other factors like the natural and the social environment are recognised as being only of secondary importance.

There are however other possible approaches to an understanding of life. Some of them stress the contextual and relational qualities of organisms and consider them to be the basic cause rather than the consequence of molecular interactions at the genetic, i.e. the DNA, level. They acknowledge that every living being is endowed with its own dynamics, sustained by the interaction of both environment and genes. But approaches to understanding life that encompass genetic determinism are also conceivable. Indeed, molecular biological discoveries themselves prompt us to search for such approaches.

Such a search would be of value not only to philosophers of science or epistemologists, but also to all those concerned with biological science and its application. From the outset, our concepts and ideas shape our perceptions of the world and determine our actions. Thus, ethical or moral values necessarily reflect our scientific outlook on the world.

Some initial questions related to the scientific and social aspects of genetic engineering can be identified: Where does the power of this technology originate from? What characters and properties of living beings does it unravel? Where and how does it come up against limitations?

A second group of issues relates to the presuppositions of DNA thinking. The success of molecular biology often hides the fact that its scientific and philosophical foundation is open to being questioned and reflected upon like any approach to understanding life. Obviously, such reflections are more fundamental than socio-economic interests and concerns, which are anyway to do with applications of the technology. Indeed they transcend an ethical debate which is restricted to risk-benefit assessment, be it in ecology, public health or social rights.

At the Ifgene conference the fundamental issues were tackled in several different ways. On the first day, the discussion focused on scientific and social aspects. The introductory lectures shed light on the benefits, challenges and dangers of DNA-thinking and faced the question: What will our world and society look like if they are shaped by the concepts of molecular genetics? What qualities of science and society will be deepened and enlarged by gene thinking? Which qualities would be lost and how can they ultimately be salvaged, reintroduced or formed anew?

The second day covered molecular genetics in biology. The rate of discovery of new genes and their functional properties and interactions is breathtaking. Our insight into molecular function is highly advanced and will develop in still greater depth. However, when molecular biology moves from a descriptive to an explanatory science, obstacles are encountered. Molecular function does not readily explain pattern formation during development or processes of consciousness etc. The fate of transgenic organisms in the environment cannot be deduced from the results of DNA manipulation or calculated in advance. Thus, the theories based on the molecular approach fail to explain life processes. Are there essential aspects missing?

The third day was dedicated to DNA and the human being. Faced with the serious issues about the social impacts of the new technology, public, scientific and medical awareness is severely challenged. Diagnosis and therapy open a whole field of new questions which require us to rethink and reformulate concepts such as human individuality, health and disease.

Participants in the evening round-table discussions shared their attitudes towards genetic engineering and the aspects of their personal biographies that led them to take their particular positions. These discussions showed that besides the ability to grasp certain 'objective' facts about this technology, the contextual environment, i.e. the 'personal subjective approach' is of equal importance for judgement formation.

The Ifgene conference brought together people - both scientists and non-scientists who wanted to enter dialogue to create a pluralistic exchange of concepts, hypotheses and pictures of what it is to be human and the nature of the world. The discussion focused on the presuppositions, as well as the consequences and perspectives of knowledge, in order to raise consciousness and provide a broad foundation for individual ethical judgement forming.

Article about "The Future of DNA" conference
Zusammenfassung von "The Future of DNA" (auf Deutsch)
Summary of Round Table Discussions

To order a copy of "The Future of DNA" please contact your nearest Ifgene coordinator
or your local booksellers.
(A few copies are available direct from Ifgene: e.g. UK price including UK postage £27) Back to Ifgene home page