Genetics and ethics
The difference between inorganic and organic nature in theory and practice

Lukas Rist & Michael Rist

    Forschungsinstitut für Natur- und Geisteswissenschaftliche Biologie, der Johannes-Kreyenbühl-Akademie, Reinach, Switzerland

Linking with Ilse Démarest-Ölschläger and Lorre Deggeller in Goetheanum 47, 1997, we sketch out here an alternative to the materialistic-reductionistic theory of genes in a way that harmonises with both the epistemology of Rudolf Steiner and the facts revealed by modern molecular biological research. The way from a biology based on causality to a spiritual understanding of nature ultimately hinges on answering the pressing question: What is life?

Epistemological basis

Since Rudolf Steiner's work on the theory of knowledge of 1886, 1892 and 1893 as well as his introductions to Goethe's scientific writings (1884 - 1897) it is now unequivocally and clearly demonstrable that knowledge comprises appropriate conceptualisation by the thinker's own activity when confronted by the initially incomprehensible world of percepts. Experimental science involves establishing whether the given concepts (hypotheses) match the demand for concepts (incomprehensibility). This occurs when expectations of behaviour which logically follow from the available concepts agree with the observed behaviour of the case in question. With respect to phenomena, concepts always have a generic character which is why they were formerly referred to as universals. In the correspondence between the given concepts and the demand for concepts, the concepts themselves become individualised and phenomena which are at first incomprehensible become freed from their lack of context through putting the concepts back in their proper context. Only through this last step is reality attained. Reality is therefore the conceptually or spiritually permeated world of phenomena (Witzenmann, 1977/78). It follows from this that in reality there is no spiritless matter. But there is certainly a matterless spirituality in the form of thinking.

Autonomous beings and causality

From the above point of view it follows that for autonomous beings - including human beings in their knowing and doing - outer circumstances are not the causes of what results from this autonomous activity, but they are more or less favourable conditions under which the autonomous being produces these activities. And, vice versa, it follows that physical causality, the principle of outer cause and stimulus, always presupposes that the factors under consideration manifest no autonomous activity, that they are passive. This applies to non-living things (Rist, 1985).

In his introductions to Goethe's scientific writings on the distinction between the phenomena of inorganic and organic nature Rudolf Steiner commented as follows: 'An example of the former kind, for instance, is the collision between two elastic balls. [...] We have comprehended this phenomenon when we are able to state the velocity and direction of the second ball on the basis of the mass, direction and velocity of the first and the mass of the second; when we see that, under the given conditions, that phenomenon must occur as a matter of necessity. But this means only that what is presented to our senses must appear as a necessary result of what we have to postulate in the idea. If such is the case we have to say that concept and phenomenon coincide. There is nothing in the concept which is not also in the phenomenon, and nothing in the phenomenon which is not also in the concept. [...]'

Living beings such as plants and animals are different in that in the constant metabolism, change of shape and behaviour, the autonomous activity of the animal or plant species comes to expression. It is characteristic that throughout its life history an organism remains the same species, whereas the material composition constantly changed. Because of this, the modern geneticist is forced to speak of a genetic 'program'. He must have some sort of constant in the change of appearances and cannot find it in the matter. Rudolf Steiner (1884 - 1887) expressed it thus: 'For instance, it cannot be said of the plant that size, form, position, etc. of the roots determine the sense perceptible characteristics of the leaves or the flowers. A body in which such would be the case would not be an organism but a machine. It must be admitted, rather, that sensible characteristics in a living entity do not appear as effects of other sense perceptible conditions, as is the case in inorganic nature. All sensible qualities appear here rather as a result of something which is not perceptible to the senses. [...] We must go beyond the sense world. What is perceived does not any longer suffice; if we are to explain the phenomena we must conceptually grasp the unity.' Goethe described this higher ideal unity whence all animal and plant species come as the 'type', or as Rudolf Steiner (1886) put it: 'The type is the true primal organism; either primal plant or primal animal according as it specialises ideally. It cannot be any single sensibly real living entity.'

This ideal differentiation of the primal organism is based on two formative tendencies: plants are organisms which both functionally and morphologically - from seed, through seedling and green leaf to flower - open out more and more to the environment, indeed lose themselves in it as pollen. In fertilisation this abandonment to the environment reverses and in fruit and seed formation leads back once again to the closed form of autonomy. This counteracting form-tendency prevails in the animal organism. Animals increasingly close themselves off from the outer world with their skin (fur, feathers, shell etc.) thus emphasising their autonomy (Rist, 1993). This gives only the main tendencies, the ultimate form depending on two aspects:

1. how the environment or autonomy of particular plant or animal species metamorphoses, specialises: "The type the revelation of the principle in the organism, its idea, the animality in the animal, which out of the life that unfolds from it, has the power and ability to develop a multiplicity of outer forms (species, genera) out of its inner potential." (Steiner, R. 1884 - 1897)

2. how the outer conditions are formed, amongst which the individualisations of the type take place.

It is not that outer circumstances shape the organism, but that these can provide more or less favourable conditions. What appear physically are only particular metamorphoses, individualisations of particular species that develop from the type. The species as such are not sense-perceptible, only their representatives in the form of individual organisms which under particular conditions are not exactly the same, but because they belong to the same species are similar. '...since it [the organism] is here subject, not only to its own formative principles, but also to the conditioning influences of the external world - since it is not such as it ought to be according to the nature of the self-determining entelechy Principle, but also such as it is through the influence of something else upon which it depends - it therefore appears as if never in full accord with itself, as if never heeding only its own nature. Here human reason now enters and forms in idea an organism not corresponding to the influences of the external world, but heeding only that principle." (Steiner, R. 1884 - 1897)

This shows that the species are soul-spiritual beings which, stemming from the spiritual cosmos, enter into earthly events. That a plant or animal species is not an abstract concept, not even a subjective scheme for putting things in order, but soul-spiritual potential can be clarified with the following example: we know that soul-spiritual conditions affect our bodily functions, such as blushing, trembling with excitement or raised adrenaline levels with stronger stimuli. This is demonstrated experimentally in bullocks which have differing blood adrenaline level differs according to the level of psychological stimulus (Unselm et. al. 1978). The hormone production is the result of the stimulus and not the reverse. Hormones provide the conditions for our soul-spiritual state to affect our bodies. Hence we call them messenger substances. Interestingly, certain hormones can affect the genes and exert a regulatory influence in genetic processes (Wehner & Gehring, 1990). Thus information flows not only from DNA to protein, but also from immaterial, soul-spiritual potentiality of the species to the hormone and then to the DNA. Because of this we can answer the question raised at the beginning as to what life is in the following manner: Life is the autonomous interaction of the respective plant or animal species or the human individuality with the prevailing environmental conditions.

An alternative perspective on genes

A way of looking at genes that accords with the spirit does not comprise the inadequate view that genetic substance builds up the organism in a physical causative way. Rather is the genetic substance the condition under which the omnipotence of the species individualises itself to a specific phenomenal form similar to its predecessors whence came the genetic substance. The genetic substance is the condition for getting a Fresian calf from the mating of a Fresian cow with a Fresian bull. That an organism of the cattle kind arises at all is not attributable to the genetic substance but to the soul-spiritual 'information' of the species of cattle.

Unbiased observation of gene technology or genetic engineering suggests that these designations are inappropriate because for one thing many experiments do not 'succeed', i.e. do not deliver confirmation of the materialistic theory (Goodwin, 1984; Holliday, 1988; Heusser, 1989; Reiber, 1995; Strohman, 1997), or when they do 'succeed', malformations result or unexpected results are produced. It is less a matter of a mature 'technology', than an interesting field of scientific research. To this one might add that many experiments which have not succeeded according to the current theory have not been reported (Fox, 1991). If mechanical technology had a similarly uncertain outcome, hardly anyone would set foot in an airplane or even a train.

The most extensive proliferation of gene manipulation has been with bacteria. Wirz (1995) explains this as being the result of the fact that bacteria can be easily cultured in millions, the few good examples easily isolated and multiplied. It is also worth noting that bacteria have a natural tendency to exchange genes. Furthermore, bacteria allow the introduction of genes from higher organisms, but even then the outcome is not at all certain as shown for example by the Escherichia coli bacterium which received a foreign gene for the oxidation of naphthalene to salicylate, but unexpectedly produced the dye indigo (Ensley et al, 1983). In addition we need to consider that in prokaryotes (organisms with no cell nucleus) which include the bacteria it is always the whole gene that is expressed whereas with eukaryotes (organisms with a proper cell nucleus) which include almost all plants and all animals, only a part of the gene is expressed. Here, even at the molecular level, lies a functional difference between the simpler and the more developed species.

It can happen that some DNA sequences code for more than one protein or that genes overlap. Through varying the splicing (Lewin, 1991) different proteins can be obtained from the same nucleotide sequence. The more highly developed species are less able to fit themselves to different environmental conditions than universal organisms which can appear under various conditions and therefore from an experimenter's point of view are more easily manipulable.

In the transition from bacteria to higher organisms it is clear that genetic engineering experiments are most successful with plants that are more closely related to one another (Potrykus, 1991). Even here the boundaries are once again closely set, as for example with the 'tomatato' which was a protoplast crossing between the two nightshade species tomato and potato. Although it grew, it resulted in neither an edible tomato nor an edible potato. Both species could still influence the genetic material but it led to corresponding disturbances in their species-specific formative tendencies, especially their assimilation into the corresponding fruit or root regions. In addition it should be noted that in plants genes foreign to the species are soon no longer expressed, i.e. brought to appearance, but through a molecular reaction (methylation) are inactivated (Meyer, 1996) - so called 'gene silencing': the transgene concerned poses an unfavourable condition for the plant species and can be silenced by it.

Stable expression of such transgenes is difficult to attain, especially when the environmental conditions vary a lot. Thus in an open air experiment petunias containing a so called colour gene from maize initially showed the desired colour. But when a period of hot weather arrived - i.e. a change in the environmental conditions - they lost the colouration once again showing that the gene had been inactivated (Linn, 1990). So called pleiotropic effects appeared, meaning that other features than pigmentation were affected. The transgenic petunias had more leaves and shoots per plant and were more resistant to pathogenic fungi. They showed greater vitality and lower fertility than the unmanipulated petunias (Meyer, 1995). During the hot weather the vitality of the transgenic petunias was suppressed. This illustrates clearly how the petunia species can more or less effectively influence its hereditary material depending on the environmental conditions.

Gene manipulation comes up against the greatest difficulties with mammals. So in the so called 'knockout experiments' on mice in which genes are switched off by a molecular technique, out of approximately a million treated cells only one with the desired effect could be found (Capecci, 1994). In the 'production' of transgenic animals one can hardly fail to notice the enormous 'embryo consumption'. In a large experiment on pigs lasting three years only 8% of the manipulated egg cells gave rise to births. Of these 8% only 7% had in fact taken up the transgene. This corresponds to a success rate of only 0.6% (Pursel et. al., 1989). In the animals that actually took up the foreign gene, its effect in most cases showed as deformations or functional disturbances. For instance, the pigs grew faster. But in the long run this was detrimental to health as the pigs showed a strong tendency to gastric ulcers, arthritis, cardiomegaly, dermatitis and kidney diseases. Through this intervention the conditions for the porcine species became so unfavourable that it could only imperfectly form its organism. The 'growth hormone' gene became - in the language of genetics - an arthritis gene.

In the aforementioned knockout experiments people hope to gain information on the function of the deleted gene in the organism. To the amazement of the experts a large number of these deletions were without visible consequences for the organism or quite other characteristics were affected from the ones predicted from theory (Tautz, 1992; Brookfield, 1992). When the species is capable of forming a complete organism without a gene presupposed to be essential, it can only mean that genes are not the cause of the organism's existence, but only provide more or less favourable conditions and in some cases can be completely absent.

Consequences for breeding

From these examples it is clear that the species, in its soul-spiritual potentiality from the non-spatial and non- temporal, exerts its influence at all times and throughout the organism. It can manage this better the more favourable are the available conditions (Rist, 1997).

Three categories of conditions can be distinguished: firstly the terrestrial conditions, which include the external environmental influences (e.g. warmth, light, moisture, soil composition with plants, husbandry and nutrition with animals); secondly the cosmic conditions, which include the relation of the sun, moon and planets to one another and to the fixed stars (Steiner 1924), as frequently shown experimentally by Speiss (1990), Zürcher (1992) and Thun (1993); and thirdly the genetic conditions. The latter stem from the ancestors and set more or less favourable inner prerequisites for the organism for it to develop in accord with its species. Breeders do their best to bring together the most favourable outer conditions with the most favourable hereditary material (inner conditions). Through getting all the conditions optimal it becomes possible for the species too - over several generations (1924) - to form its genetic material optimally. In conventional breeding it is always ensured that along with selection the optimal conditions for life for the desired goal of the breeding are made available - albeit with the justification that what is stored genetically can also manifest itself. It is therefore questionable whether the characteristics achieved arise through chance mutation and/or the conditions for life (for which 'chance' is not a scientific explanation, but rather shows that one does not know the reasons, conditions or inner activity at work which give rise to the appearances in question).

One can even accept that through the intervention of gene manipulation of the hereditary material this too could be improved. But it is worthwhile first considering that by optimising the environmental conditions the species is not forced to do anything in particular, but is left to respond according to its own potential. As the species has self-referentially developed its whole organism - including its hereditary material - under terrestrial and cosmic conditions appropriate for the species, over a series of generations the hereditary material becomes increasingly characteristic for the species. In this way, through optimising the environmental conditions the genetic conditions become increasingly optimal, i.e. increasingly species specific, because the species itself knows best the optimal genetic make up needed for doing justice to the intentions characteristic of the species.

From knowledge to an ethics for the living world

So conditions for embodiment can be divided into three categories: terrestrial, cosmic and genetic. It follows from this that the genetic conditions are also dependent upon the terrestrial and cosmic conditions, because the genetic material is formed and stabilised only in the organism that contains it and in its series of generations. As an alternative to genetic engineering's relatively clumsy intervention in the hereditary material, researchers who think biologically have at their disposal the optimisation of the terrestrial and cosmic conditions. This means that for certain activities (e.g. sowing, fertilisation) particular cosmic constellations must be selected.

Mankind's task lies not in forcing the species to our own degenerate intentions, but in optimising the conditions in which the species can develop free from unfavourable circumstances. This is the goal of plant and animal husbandry that is true to the species, as is striven for and practised in biodynamic farming. That with this the nutritional quality of the respective plants or animals improves, has already been demonstrated by experiment (Balzer-Graf, 1995).

The foregoing yields an ethical insight that the task of the people who understand plants and animals is to create the optimal conditions for their embodiment. Optimal product quality, e.g in milk, vegetables, corn, medicinal herbs arises in this way as a reciprocal exchange from the plants and animals to the caring human beings. Agriculture then becomes the art of creating the optimal living conditions for plant, animal and human being.


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Author's address: Lukas Rist, email:

Lukas Rist b. 1966, Zurich, studied biology at the University of Zurich and is currently doing a Ph. D. He leads the Forschungsinstitut für Natur- und Geisteswissenschaftliche Biologie at the Johannes-Kreyenbühl- Akademie, Reinach, Switzerland.

Michael Rist b. 1927, Stuttgart, did his journeyman examination in joinery and bricklaying, studied construction engineering and philosophy at the Stuttgart Technical College and did a Ph. D. at the Stuttgart- Hohenheim Agricultural College. Forming and developing the section for 'Species appropriate animal husbandry and agricultural construction' at the Swiss Federal Technical College (ETH) Zurich. Cofounder and former leader of the Johannes-Kreyenbühl-Akademie.

This item also appeared in Das Goetheanum - Wochenschrift für Anthroposophie (7/1998, 15th February 1998, pp 93 - 96). Address: Wochenschrift 'Das Goetheanum', Postfach, CH4143 Dornach 1, Switzerland. Tel: +41 61 706 44 64. Fax: +41 61 706 4465. Email:

Translated by David J. Heaf

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