Ecology versus Genetics
Two Opposite Tendencies within the Sciences of Life

Trond Skaftnesmo


The Act of Identification
The Digitised Image
The Ecology
The Leitmotivs


"Ecology, that's something very good, isn't it?"
"And genetics? Well, that's something dangerous."

If we asked 10 'people on the street' about their opinions regarding these matters, I would not be surprised if the answers mainly tended in the indicated direction. And of course, these attitudes are rooted in something real. The activity which is founded on the knowledge of ecology, has not yet (as far as I know) harmed or threatened any organism or any ecosystem. On the contrary, one might say that the basic task of this field of science is to map the conditions for the maintenance and sustainability of the organism and the ecosystem. Not so with genetics - and its associated discipline, genetic engineering. Activities which have their basis in this discipline, for instance in agriculture and in medicine, can potentially be saving and protecting life - under certain circumstances. But potentially it can also be a threat to life. In any case it's threatening the potato - at least judged by this newspaper article: "Genetic engineering is threatening the potato! The potato is one of many plants which is threatened with extinction because the market wishes big, pretty potatoes.... The vegetable has undergone a genetic development to please a market which demand potatoes with thin skin and equal size. At the same time the species has also become more vulnerable to attacks from different diseases... etc." (From a common Norwegian newspaper, "Klassekampen", May 9, 1996.)

Articles of this kind have become daily literature during the last years. We've more or less become used to the horror-messages. Besides, there are of course also a lot of messages of a bit more uplifting character, messages about the great new opportunities in genetic engineering. For instance we can now see the possibility to shape plants and animals to fit our needs or we can fight hereditary diseases that used to mean death or disablement. But still, there will be a lot of insecurity and fear behind these prospects - and with good reason; can we ever be sure that we survey the consequences of making such interventions in the genome - or is the whole business an expression of a basic hybris?

Already now, from these selected hints, we are able to realise that there are some very good reasons why there is far more scepticism towards the field of genetics/genetic engineering than towards the field of ecology. But still, it's genetics that makes the profits and attracts the scientists with the best papers. We already knew that our past is written in our genes, now it seems that our future lies there too. As James Watson has put it: "Earlier we used to believe that our fate was written in the stars. Now we know that it's in our genes." (Time, March 20, 1989)

What a strange situation! What we all realise is needed for our survival (ecological insight) is not a profitable business, and you must fight for every penny that is going to be spent on it. What we all realise to be an environmental Russian roulette (genetic engineering), well - the stream of money into it comes easily and seems endless.

This just to put a preliminary frame on the subject, which we now will approach from quite another side.

The Act of Identification

Natural science is fundamentally based on observation and identification of certain objects. What happens during such an act of identification? Let us take a flower as an example: In our standard-imagining of a flower, there are four main organs - sepal, petal, pistil and stamen. Together they make up a certain geometrical pattern, a certain order. Besides the form, there is the colour, the odour etc. - which all contribute to make the impression 'flower'. But now the flower can of course lack some of these organs. Yes, the plant can even make an impression of a 'flower' from quite other organs, for instance from the last leaves of the stem. In 'The Christmas Star'(Euphorbia pulcherrima) we have an example of this phenomenon. Further we can also recognise the 'flower' when the 'real flower' (as seen through a botanist's-eye) is converted to be part of a super-flower or composite-flower as e.g. dandelion and daisy. What by first sight seems to be one flower, reveals itself by closer examination to be a composite of many flowers.

How is it possible that we are able to recognise all these distinct different forms as 'flowers'? The first answer is easy to grasp: We recognise the flower as a gestalt, that is as a whole. It's indeed not before we begin to examine the parts one by one that we eventually become doubtful. So, our perception of the 'flower' is spontaneous, intuitive, emerging out of the wholeness.

The next thing to realise is that, regarding the form, this perception is formed by certain proportions between the parts. Computer-manipulations of pictures can tell us a lot about how the gestalt emerges from the proportions: A familiar face, for instance my own, can become totally strange to me - just by some quite small displacements between e.g. the areas of forehead-eye contra nose-jaw. Similar with the flower: Each part taken by itself can lack a lot to be 'a proper flower-organ'. But insofar the parts are properly tuned to each other, the impression 'flower' will be created. Now, proportions, i.e. mathematical or geometrical relationships, are nothing but comparisons between material elements. A proportion has by itself no material reality. So, we are forced to realise that the recognition of a gestalt is based on a 'subjective', inner activity. Our perception, our senses give us only the parts, the elements - our own spiritual activity must tie them together to outer forms as well as inner concepts.

Flowers and faces are spatial gestalts, that is - as they present themselves in a given moment they are. But apart from that they are of course mainly time-gestalts; their being is a process, a flow-form in time. And if we are going to conceive them in this aspect, we must develop our ability of identification to a higher level. Now, we must manage an 'evaluation of proportions' which is far more advanced than the one we managed for the spatial dimension. We are then entering the field of research to which Goethe first opened the gate with his 'dynamic morphology', especially in his book: "The Metamorphosis of Plants".

But even something as simple as listening to a melody will imply an 'evaluation of proportions' of this kind. The melody, the music originates through the intervals, the chords. The senses give us nothing but the tones; we must on our own tie them together to sounds, chords and melodies. The music originates from a pure spiritual activity, as an experience of continuity - so to speak 'in the free space between the tones'.

The Digitised Image

There is, as we just have seen, a certain polarity between 'the facts of the senses', i.e. what is bound to matter, and what can be experienced to rise out of the chaos of sense impressions - as a consequence of our own spiritual activity; the identity, the conceptual, the continual-holistic.

IS imbued with a tendency towards

is imbued with a tendency towards

In the physical world, things are - as a matter of fact - apart, particular, in a state of discontinuity. The world is really fragmented, (and there is no end to the possibility of splitting it up!) - as seen from a pure materialistic point of view. And a recognition which one-sided lean to the plain sense-experience, will therefore also be imprinted by this quality - in the form of a tendency towards the analytic - the activity of splitting-up. First for the spiritual sight, the world originates anew as a wholeness. First through ones own spiritual activity can 'the space between the parts' be filled with content.

An example of a technical-scientific discipline, which 'one-sided leans to the facts of the senses', we find in the digital-technique. One of the great tricks of the computer is its ability to simulate processes from the world of senses. But it can also simulate processes of cognition, e.g. memory and imagination. What happens when you save a picture on a computer? If a computer is to be able to remember and save a picture, it must first split it up, chew it to pieces. When this is done and the picture is reduced to millions of different pieces - points - each of them is given its own numerical value, differing from its grey-tone or colour-tone. Each point is now represented by a certain code in the binary number system - for instance the code 11011010. Some other grey-tone can have the code 11011011 and so on. (Each figure in this system represents an information-unit, one BIT. An ordinary number or a letter is represented by 8 BITs = 1 BYTE.) When the picture is scanned, i.e. chopped in millions of pieces of this kind, it can be transmitted, electronically - by cable or by satellite - to another computer some other place on earth. When the impulses of 1's and 0's reach the recipient-computer, they can be decoded back to points on a PC-screen. But this collection of points is a picture just for our sight. For the computer it has been a collection of BITs all the way. The only thing a computer can remember is a whole mess of 1's and 0's. Whether the transmitted picture was a simple drawing of lines or a reproduction of the Sixtinian Madonna, is completely indifferent for the computer; the last picture will just be a fairly bigger mess of 1's and 0's than the first one.

Thus, we realise: The tendency towards analysis, fragmentation and dissolution of identity is built into the technology - namely the very technology that materialises the concept of progress within today's science. It's especially within two fields of technology and science that we since the late 80's have been overwhelmed by an exponential growth of innovations: First there is of course, as mentioned, the computer-technology and last but not least we have the field of genetic engineering. And the fact is that they are based on the same digital technique! The principle of the DNA-code is the same as for the computer-code. In the latter case, the information is encoded by series of numbers - 11001010; in the first case it's encoded by series of bases, each represented by its first letter -ATTCGGCT...


A DNA-molecule can, which has often been pointed out, be compared to a ladder, where the steps (the coding part) is made of bases (A-T and C-G) and the sides are made of two components, sugar and phosphate. The coding part of the DNA-molecule is composed of four different bases: A (adenine), T (thymine) C (cytosine) and G (guanine) - which are arranged in certain sequences. One base with attached sugar and phosphate parts make up the basic unit called a nucleotide. A typical gene can consist of ca 10.000 nucleotides. What the molecular-biologist names a 'gene' is then a limited (but not necessarily continual) part of the DNA-molecule, which codes for a specific protein. Proteins consist of amino-acids - arranged in a certain sequence. And the DNA-code is a code for nothing but this sequence. This code is made of three by three bases along the DNA (codons), where each codon represents one amino-acid.

As already mentioned the difference between the Sixtinian Madonna and a simple drawing of lines will be completely indifferent to the computer; the first picture will only be a bigger morass of BITs than the last one. Likewise within genetic engineering: The difference between a bacteria-DNA and a human-DNA, is not a principal one. Human beings have a slightly bigger genome (totality of genes) than a bacteria, but the language of codes is the same - from viruses and bacteria all the way up to man. That's why it's possible to put a bit of human-DNA into the bacteria-DNA. By this kind of genetic engineering it has been possible to get bacteria to produce human insulin, which gives us plentiful and easy access to this vital hormone.

Thus, a bacteria can, from a genetical point of view, be described as a string of nucleotides: ATTCGCTTA..... A human being is also a string of nucleotides, a bit longer though. This is how 'the digitised image of man' could be summarised. But is there really anybody who believes that man can be reduced to this kind of a digital gene-centre? If we are to take them seriously, there are actually enough of them, price-awarded biologists who claim exactly that. Says Edward O. Wilson (one of the founders of the Sociobiology), in his main opus: "Sociobiology. The New Synthesis": "The organism is just DNA's way to produce more DNA." Thoughts of this kind have been efficiently spread by lots of writers in the genre of popular science. A famous example is Richard Dawkins in his book: "The Selfish Gene", where he argues with strength for the opinion that the genes have made us, body and soul, to serve one single purpose: gene-reproduction. We are gene-carriers, survival-machines, blindly programmed to fulfil those gene-transmission-strategies which evolution has favoured.

The fact that this blind gene-transmission-strategy at the same time is able to come to insight into all this and even write books about it, should after all do it some honour. Indeed, it should right away tell us that man is in possession of something, which enables him to rise above the blind determination of matter - and make free judgements. But apart from that, we must consider the reductionism of Wilson & CO to be praiseworthy consequent: Given the conventional reductionism in biology as a basis, taking the Darwinian view on evolution for granted, you are inevitably forced to reduce the concept of the organism to its hereditary substance. This is after all a thought which is older than E. O. Wilson; it was introduced by August Weissman at the end of the 19th century. He pointed out that it was indeed the 'germplasma' (the genes, as we would say) which was transmitted to the coming generations, while the organisms themselves were blind-ending side-tracks.

As long as one view DNA as a fixed, stable quantity, this model gives a certain sense. But as soon as you recognise that DNA actually is in a state of flux, i.e. in a certain sense in continual movement, (demonstrated beyond doubt by the research of Barbara McClintock), the whole business get a bit more complicated. Important though in this model, is the way the 'branches' are thought to originate, a question about which there has been reasonable consensus. As we can see, the arrow is pointing in one single direction:


This simple model, which states that DNA determines the organism, and by no means the other way round, is known as 'The Central Dogma of Molecular-biology' (F. Crick). Even though the dogma can be questioned, and indeed has been falsified a few times already, it still stands firmly in all textbooks and at the basis of (nearly) all gene-thinking. It is reasonable to say then, that the gene-thinking, (as it is today) is built on a linear model of explanation, where DNA is the cause and the organism is the effect. This way of thinking is radically different from the ecological way of thinking, which we now are going to have a closer look at.

The Ecology

As we already have seen, genetics has a central-concept; the DNA-molecule. This concept is central in two ways; first of all as a concept at the core of the whole research-field, but then also literally - since the molecule actually is dwelling in the nucleus of the cell. Now, there is also an opposite tendency within the sciences of life, a tendency towards integration and synthesis, towards making friendship with the periphery. This tendency we find developed most obviously in the field of ecology. Does the ecology also have a central-concept? It has indeed, but this concept - namely the concept of the ecosystem - can with equal right be called a periphery-concept. This concept leads us not towards any defined centre, but it takes us out into the vast surroundings, out into the periphery. The ecosystem can not, as with the DNA-molecule, be limited within strict borders. It 'floats away', always interacting with a bigger surrounding.

Let's take, as an example, an ecosystem which seems to be well limited - a small lake, or a pond. Surrounding the pond, there will be terrestrial ecosystems - forests, mountains and marsh-areas. It's easy to imagine how these ecosystems are weaving into each other. Continually there is a flow of matter and energy, of information and organisms from the surrounding ecosystems into the pond and vice versa. When we think it over, we realise that we also are such ecosystems, 'weaving into each other'; a bit of the air which I am breathing at this moment, was just 10 seconds ago a part of my neighbour's body; each 7th year all my substantiality will be exchanged and so forth. Thus, my experience of being limited to the border of my skin, is revealing itself to be nothing but a convenient illusion. Every ecosystem is more or less open - and is continually exchanging matter and energy with its surroundings. Still, each has a life of its own, a life which follows quite distinct laws. Now, let's go on with our little lake and have a look at which processes we can find here.

The first thing we notice in this ecosystem is the distinct polarity between the upper and the lower strata in the water. (The deeper the lake/pond is, the more significant the differences will be.) In the upper strata we'll find a synthesising activity, i.e. building up new organic material through the photosynthesis. We could name this region the 'vital-pole' of the pond or its 'life-pole'. In the lower strata and on the bottom of the pond, a disintegrating, analysing activity dominates; the decomposition of organic material. This is the 'death-pole' of the pond, insofar as the organic material, which has been built up through the life-processes, here is brought back to its inorganic, mineralised state.

Now, that we have an understanding of this polarity, we can go on and divide the pond into three layers / zones:

The shoreline- and surface-zone
The intermediate zone (the free waters)
The bottom-zone

These layers will be more or less interweaving, according to the local conditions and the rhythm of the year. Each of these zones or layers will be housing special types of organisms - in the following order:

Producers (plankton / green plants)
Consumers (crustaceans, insects and fishes)
Decomposers (mainly fungus and bacteria)

These groups of organisms are continuously interacting, in a certain circulation-process: The biomass of the producers is taken up by the consumers and both groups give their substances - in form of faeces and dead organisms - to the decomposers. They, i.e. mainly fungi and bacteria, are taking care of the last part of the circulation-process, by mineralising the substances to nutrition-components which the plants can use. There is a certain homeostasis in this system, an equilibrium which is fluctuating from season to season around specific mean-values.

What kind of image is this? - It's the image of an organism! Already we have described the organism as an ecosystem; now is the time to realise that the ecosystem also is an organism. The concept homeostasis (fluctuating equilibrium) is indeed a central characteristic of any organism. The complex relationships between the individual organisms and the ecosystem as a whole, correspond likewise to the relationships between the organs and the organism. Neither ecosystems nor organisms can be understood by concepts deriving from a simple linear causality, only by thinking according to a correlation-causality, by networks of relationships and feedback-processes. We must make use of a correlative view, i.e. study the way the parts are correlated to each other and to the wholeness. The ecosystem can by no means be detected if we do not make use of the same ability (in a higher degree though) which we make use of when recognising a face or a flower: The face, the flower does not originate as the sum of the parts, but it emerges from the relationships (proportions) between the parts. There is nothing to be proved, no equation to be solved; only a simple recognition of a being to be made.


Where do we find, in our own organism, the decomposing, analytical activity? And where do we find the integrating, synthesising activity? The polarity between the bottom-zone and the surface-zone can be detected in our own organism, in the polarity between head and abdomen, nerve-sense-system and digestive-metabolic system. Only a few, but central examples can be given here: The liver, as a representative for the abdominal-organisation, has an ability of regeneration which stands in definitive contrast to the lack of the same in the nerve-system. The liver can regenerate itself even though as much as 2/3 is removed through operation. (The epithelia of the intestines is likewise intensively occupied with a continuous regenerative process!) The activity of the liver is for a great part a synthetic one, namely synthesis of 'liver-starch', glycogen, from more simple sugar-compounds. Here it reveals its kinship with the synthetic activity of the plant.

The neurones have - as a contrast - completely lost their ability to proliferate, to regenerate. They are in a state of dying-but-not-yet. The activity of the brain is also characterised by an intensive decomposing of organic substance (sugar), which its great need of oxygen is an expression for. No other organ is, like the brain, in such an acute crisis by a moment of break in the oxygen-supply. When this happens not only the well-being of the organ, but even the life of the whole organism is in danger. An exactly corresponding role is given to the oxygen in the bottom-zone of the pond: With the decomposition of the debris there is a great need of oxygen. An acute lack of oxygen can originate in the late winter-time, especially if the lake/pond is covered with ice and if there has been a rich supply of nutrients last summer - caused by pollution. Needless to say, an oxygen-break of this kind will, if it's total, result in a total extinction of all oxygen-based life in the lake.

Our own pole-of-death is at the same time our pole-of-consciousness; here we find the site for imagination and memory. Would it be to farfetched if we look for a corresponding function of consciousness in the bottom-zone of the pond? Absolutely, yes - if we had as our prejudiced attitude that the analogy which is described here is just an outward coincidence, a matter of lucky connections. If we however renounce from having any attitude of this kind, well - then the hypothesis of course is testable. We have to look then for objective processes and functions in nature, which in their work correspond to for instance our memory-function. Do we find something like that somewhere in the pond? Where do we find it? Whilst the surface-zone always renews itself and never is the same, we'll find in the bottom-zone of the lake exactly the process we were looking for: Not all the debris which sinks to the bottom will be decomposed and mineralised; what escapes the influence of oxygen also escapes this fate. Year after year there will be stored remnants of organic material in the bottom-debris. In these remnants, for instance in the pollen-grains, we can read the story of the lake and its surroundings, from season to season, from century to century. That's how we are able tell the biography of the ecosystem way back to the ice-age; when we take probes from a marsh (that used to be a pond) and find pollen-grains there, they can tell us a lot about the climate of the actual period, the animals and plants that used to live there and so forth. Where we today find only a scanty vegetation, with pine, heather and moss, there used to be a warmth-loving flora some 3000 years ago (late bronze-age), with oaks and black alder as important elements: The bottom-zone reveals itself to be the memory-organ of the lake.

The Leitmotivs

The facts which are pointed out in this article, are of course not too numerous as compared with the complexity of the phenomenon itself. But the important thing to get a hold on is, however, not the facts as such, but the way they are handled. The facts we are dealing with can be compared to the facts of the face (nose, mouth, eyes and so on) - facts which one and each can point in the direction of a face - for one who is familiar with that concept. But at the same time: facts that all together are unlikely to convince one who has never seen a face as such.

The field of ecology is, as we have seen, appealing to an inner activity of wholeness-recognition. Its central-concept of the ecosystem is the 'face' we are confronted with. This ability of recognition can be cultivated, but it is indeed also a possibility of decay and destruction. Those scientific disciplines which one-sided practise an analytical-fragmenting and linear-causal way of reasoning, stimulate towards the last possibility. Genetics of today is a science of this kind. Its orientation is directed towards the centre, towards the point, towards the nano-cosmos ('the 10^-9-dimension'). And its way of reasoning is one-way-linear:


Thus, a basic leitmotiv within genetics, is the line, expressed through the hunt for simple chains of causes and effects. Explanations of this kind, in the form of a mapping of logical coherent sequences of events, is characteristic for the study of chemical and physical processes, as for instance in chemical reaction-equations.

In the humanistic sciences there has been a more hermeneutic tradition (understanding and description instead of causality), which takes notice of the irreducible complexity in the research of social and historical relations. Amongst the disciplines of natural science, it's the field of ecology that has been closest in following this tradition. Thus, the leitmotiv of ecology we'll find in the circle rather than in the line. The same principle is, as we all know, also valid for the relationship between:


If we now put these two principles together, we get an odd asymmetry:


While the organism is in a give and take-correspondence to the environment, it's on the other side supposed to be completely determined by its own DNA, which is completely blind and deaf towards any feedback-message. Following 'the central dogma' there should be no possibility that the organism / the protein could make any influence back upon the DNA. On the other hand we know that the organism is intimately co-ordinated with its environment and that the organism is both formed by it and at the same time is actively forming it. The last aspect has most evidently been expressed by the 'Gaia-hypothesis' (James Lovelock) - where a 'mythological', pre-scientific concept serves as an analogy for the perhaps most important ecological acknowledgement of our century.


The contrast between the traditional approach of natural science (the gene-thinking) and a genuine ecological-organic approach can be summarised in this way:

Simple linear model
Explaining (causa efficiens)
Directed towards the centre (atomistic)

Correspondence model
Descriptive (causa formalis)
Directed towards the periphery (holistic)

These two different approaches we should conceive without making any moral judgements. At the same time we must see the dangers that emerge when one single tendency becomes totally sovereign, in education and research, to define 'science': A one-sided investment in gene-thinking (in a broad context) will stimulate a natural science which is imprinted with reductionism and techno-orientation, where phenomena of organic, psychic and spiritual nature will disappear out of sight, yes - are bound to become 'unscientific'.

At the same time it is so that we are in a way 'awake' in what's centre-directed, in the exact-quantitative: Our ego-consciousness is able to wake up when it meets something that corresponds to its own tendency towards a point-concentration. In our day-consciousness we are indeed experiencing ourselves as such a point. But this is of course not the only way to be a human being: When we are asleep - and when we are a child - we are not that small. During those periods of life our consciousness is 'floating away' into the periphery. But then, the more we are floating away, the more we are loosing our consciousness of course. Now, as we have seen, the research-field of ecology leads us into the vast periphery. It is not going to be a science for our time, if we cannot follow this periphery-directed movement without falling asleep. When we are able to 'wake up in our periphery-consciousness', we will also be able to outbalance the one-sidedness that characterises natural science of today.

This paper appeared in Norwegian in Chapter 5 of a textbook on natural conservation, ecology and resource-management for High Schools and Agricultural Studies. The title of the book is Naturforvaltning - veier til handling, edited by Knut Arild Melbøe, published by Vett & Viten, Oslo. 336pages, 1998 ISBN: 82-412-0304-7

Author's address:
Trond Skaftnesmo
Erling Skjalgsonsgt. 49
N-5500 Haugesund - NORWAY


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