Genetic Engineering: Dream or Nightmare?

Mae-Wan Ho, Gateway Books, UK, 1998, 277pp, ISBN 1-85860-051-0
Reviewed by Roger Taylor

This review first appeared in 'Network.' the Scientific and Medical Network Review, (No. 67, August 1998, ISSN 1362-1211) and is republished here with permission.

As a boy I unthinkingly took on my parents' faith in the power of science (as they knew it) to solve all problems. I well remember my scientist father's excitement on hearing of such discoveries as penicillin, DDT and 2,4-D. Then in subsequent years I saw each of these solutions reveal itself to be the seed for a host of new problems. Today, as the 20th century is galloping to its close, all these proliferating problems seem to be coming to a head in genetic engineering. This indeed is where Reductionist Man's "chickens are really coming home to roost" Mae-Wan Ho's book is a ringing indictment of the mentality of reductionist science, which now forms the most pervasive belief system yet to arise in mankind's history. She makes it abundantly clear how the need for a more holistic science is not a matter merely for academic discussion - it is a matter of the greatest practical urgency for the survival of our species and our world. She came to see how much science matters in the affairs of the real world, not just in terms of practical inventions, but in how a scientific world view can take hold of people's unconscious, leading them to act, involuntarily, unquestioningly, to shape the world to the detriment of themselves. Also to see how science may be used to intimidate and control, to obfuscate, to exploit and oppress.

The book is written with great clarity and economy of style, so that the general drift will be accessible to the intelligent layman. Many readers will particularly appreciate the concise and punchy summaries which introduce each chapter. Some sections are more demanding, as Dr Ho goes into the molecular genetic mechanisms in great detail, with extensive references, so as to give the experts currently working in this field very little room for doubt as to the dangers of this new technology. For those with ears to hear, she also leaves little room for doubt as to the urgent need for wholesale revision of the scientific and philosophical background which underlies it.

The opening chapter exposes the "unholy alliance" between bad science and big business. These partners share a common ideology, in that the economic theory currently dominating the world is rooted in that same laissez-faire capitalist ideology that gave rise to Darwinism. It is an ideology which acknowledges no values other than self-interest, competitiveness and the accumulation of wealth. Among its many destructive tendencies it has led to horrendous inequalities in wealth. For example the combined assets of the 477 billionaires in the world today are roughly equal to the combined annual incomes of the poorer half of humanity - some 2.8 billion people.

Genetic engineering depends on new and highly sophisticated technologies of manipulating DNA. Its objectives are to introduce selected genes into organisms, including human beings; in order to give them desired qualities. Many grand promises have been made: that it will lead to a brave new world in which the hungry will be fed, the sick cured, and human genetic defects painlessly removed. But the more sophisticated the technology, the further removed it becomes, both from popular understanding and from popular control. Indeed the progress in this field has been so rapid that even most scientists have barely a clue as to what the issues are. So it is hardly surprising that the general public, including the politicians, rely on the experts to inform their decisions. But herein lies a major danger (which besets the science-industry link generally): most of the experts are in the pay of the industry. Thankfully we have in this author one very well informed, articulate and courageous expert who is not in the moguls' pay.

Passing on to an analysis of the bad science, Dr Ho makes it clear how both Darwinism and Mendelian genetics (in the forms in which they have passed into dogma, and are still taught) have long been falling apart. So many pillars of theory are crumbling - or if not crumbling, at least are revealing themselves to be in urgent need of reconstruction. Central to these is the doctrine of genetic determinism, which has become deeply ingrained in our psyche. Essentially it considers genes as stable objects passing on unchanged to the next generation, and each exerting a well-defined influence on phenotypic characters, irrespective of the activities of other genes. Although hundreds of first-rate scientific papers attest to the falsity of these assumptions, they lie at the base of the whole genetic engineering enterprise. Equally deeply rooted in orthodoxy is rejection of the "Lamarckist heresy", so that the by-now-abundant evidence for inheritance of acquired characters has been played down, if not actively suppressed. Moreover, the "central dogma" of molecular genetics (one-way informational flow from DNA to RNA to protein) still clings, even though it has proved to be a travesty of the enormously complex and interactive real state of affairs. Although genetic engineers have admitted privately to Dr Ho that they do not believe in genetic determinism, it is subconscious prejudice which both motivates their actions, and enables the industry to foist its products on a world which shares the same prejudice. Again, in relation to cancer, the emphasis on genetic mechanisms has blinded the biomedical fraternity to preventable causal factors in the environment, and played into the hands of the drug companies, who promise expensive cures for the desperate, and the chemical companies anxious to deflect attention from the harm their products may do - see recent (May/June 1998) issue of The Ecologist for a series of hard-hitting articles.

While popular revulsion against genetic engineering, is widespread, it is based mainly on gut feeling. If they think about it, most people think only of the direct dangers to their health from consuming genetically modified foods. Although these are real (notably the unsuspected presence of new allergens) genetic engineering threatens our health, and the health of the entire fragile ecosystem on which we all depend, in quite new ways which can only prove disastrous in the longer term. Dr Ho goes to great pains to make these threats very clear. Without listing them all, I could say that to appreciate them requires two crucial understandings. The first is that genes within a cell function as a complex interactive network. Thus the random insertion of engineered genes is like "throwing a spanner in the works". It has already caused unexpected negative effects. And so, in spite of the engineers' claims to the contrary, their techniques are quite different from traditional breeding techniques. A second is the extraordinary degree to which DNA and genes can be spread between organisms, both within and across species - a process called horizontal gene transfer. In the natural, ecologically controlled, state this process can be counted as one more powerful factor linking up all of life into one seamless web. But when unnatural methods are used which both enormously speed it up, and render it indiscriminate, then the ecological web is thrown dangerously out of balance.

Among the many unnatural techniques used in genetic engineering there are some which give particular cause for concern. For example, a desired gene must first be linked to a gene for antibiotic resistance. Only then can one select those bacteria that carry the desired gene. But such a move must of course greatly enhance the spread of antibiotic resistance genes throughout nature. Of course this is already a fast-growing problem, which even now seriously affects our health. Another highly dangerous aspect is that the artificial viruses ("vectors") which are used to insert genes into organisms are constructed from precisely those viruses which cause diseases and cancers. They become particularly dangerous because they are specifically designed to cross species barriers, and moreover have this capability to an enormously greater extent than occurs naturally. Also very dangerous is the use of special "promoter" genes to enhance the expression of other desired genes. These have the capacity of enormously enhancing the virulence of any pathogens with which they may become linked.

Put all together these add up to an eventual doomsday scenario of "genetic meltdown". When genes are thus given the opportunity to recombine in all kinds of unnatural ways, their "selfish" nature can really be unleashed, in the form of a host of new and virulent pathogens - for humans, animals and plants. In addition to the hazards of these pathogens, we will see such problems as spread of herbicide resistance to create "superweeds" increased use of toxic herbicides polluting soil and water, destroying soil fertility and leading to large scale elimination of indigenous agricultural and natural species accelerated evolution of pests' resistance to natural bio-pesticides, thus depriving the ecosystem of its natural pest controls.

In human medicine the promise of gene therapy (given that it will ever work, which seems unlikely at present) carries special risks for the generation of recombinant viruses, including cancer viruses.

Hardly less disturbing are the likely world-wide socio-economic impacts. For example, powerful vested interests will protect their intellectual property rights (including patent rights on genes purloined from the third world) by restrictive practices that will bind the farmer into the kind of dependency which has already been begun by the "green revolution". Traditional, ecologically sound practices will be further eroded, and diverse traditional produce replaced by artificial and genetically unstable monocultures, which will require regular replenishment from expensive newly-manipulated seed. All this will only reinforce the grip of "economic terrorism" in which the North holds the South, and so inflame resentments and spawn more wars.

With regard to human populations, genetic determinist thinking has fostered a belief (now shown to be almost completely false) in the heritability of intelligence, and a number of other complex characteristics thought to determine the "quality" of the individual. From here it is a short step to the industrialisation of eugenics. By encouraging new unethical practices (some already threatening in relation to insurance) it will lead to further exploitation of the genetically-disadvantaged for profit , and could give rein to some of the worst excesses of human prejudice. One possible ray of hope is the evidence so far that genetic engineering does not work. Or at least it works so unreliably that it may have to be abandoned before long anyway. But of course this will do nothing to change the reductionist mind-set, which will only drive scientists to invent new ways to ruin the world for private profit.

To replace all this horror the book ends with an uplifting vision. Now that the organism has been completely dismantled, to leave only a mess of selfish genes, the time has come for its resurrection, by means of a truly scientific theory. Me need a theory that will affirm the concept of the organism as a real and irreducible entity in itself. Among the scientists currently considering such theories are mainly physicists. But their pronouncements are usually ignored by the layman (and many biologists) as being too abstruse to be of any relevance to "real" life. For a biologist to speak up in this way, however, is to assail the very citadel of reductionism. While, for the substance of Dr Ho's theory, one needs to turn to her other publications, enough is given here to convey the sweeping breadth of this idea. Thus organismic properties do not end with the individual, but extend to societies, the ecosystem, and ultimately the whole universe. So as she says: let us look forward to the New Age of the Organism. But nothing will happen without action, so it is up to those in sympathy with these ideas to join in a concerted struggle to reclaim holistic world views and holistic ways of life that are spontaneous, pluralistic, joyful, kind, integrative, constructive and life-sustaining.

A good start for such action is to respond to Dr. Ho's invitation to sign up to the Moratorium on GE biotechnology and No to Patents on Life. You can do this by writing to Dr Mae-Wan Ho, Biology Department, The Open University, Milton Keynes, MK7 6AA, UK (Email:

Roger Taylor is an ex-immunologist, interested in new biology, kirlionics and scientific approaches to subtle energy.

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