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What Is Life? The Scientific and Philosophical Case Against Genetic Engineering

by Mark Gabrish Conlan/Zenger's Newsmagazine Sunday, Jun. 24, 2001 at 8:31 AM
mgconlan@earthlink.net (619) 688-1886 P.O. Box 50134, San Diego, CA 92165

Account of the "Science and Genetic Engineering" panel at the Biojustice/Beyond Biodevastation V conference in San Diego, California June 22, 2001, featuring former genetic researchers Drs. Martha Crouch and Ricarda Steinbrecher. They discuss the mindset of genetic engineering, the scientific flaws in its central premises, the limitations of scientific information in general and the corporate agenda that decides what genes get research and what genetically modified products get created.

errorWhat Is Life?
The Scientific and Philosophical Case Against Genetic Engineering

by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Copyright 2001 by Zengers Newsmagazine Used by permission

What is life? Is it just a mechanical process, determined solely by our genes the way the functioning of a machine is determined by what the people who drew up its blueprints designed it to do? Or do organisms develop in ways conditioned by environments and the overall contexts in which individual genes function and express themselves? The panel on Science and Genetic Engineering as part of Biojustice/Beyond Biodevastation V at the First Unitarian-Universalist Church June 22 spent an hour and a half discussing these basic philosophical questions about life itself and critiquing the simplified, mechanical view of life on which genetic engineering is based.

The panelists included Brian Tokar, scientist, member of the Vermont-based Institute for Social Ecology (ISE) and editor of Redesigning Life?, a forthcoming anthology of articles critical of genetic engineering; Dr. Martha Crouch, former genetic engineer who helped develop the Terminator sterile-seed technology before she got disgusted with the ethical implications of her work and quit; and Dr. Ricarda Steinbrecher of the Nexus group in Britain. Beth Burrows of the Edmonds Institute, which has helped organize all the Biodevastation conferences held in opposition to genetic engineering, participated in a short welcome ceremony with Tokar just before the panel.

Is it good, complete science to base a whole science on the assumption that genes control everything? Dr. Crouch began by asking rhetorically. The idea that if you know the sequence of a gene, you know what that genes function is, is ridiculous. That doesnt make sense to classical biologists, who know genes interact with each other and the environment. Organisms are based on relationships that determine what that organism will be, and we dont know anything about these relationships.

We dont even know what 99 percent of the organisms in soil are, let alone what they do, Dr. Crouch continued. What molecular biologists focus on is what they do know. Its remarkable that weve been able to read the genetic alphabet, but thats only a pinprick of what an organism is about.

Genetic engineering is based on the idea that if you know the DNA you can control the organism; that organisms are just like machines; and that you can turn genes on and off at will. You have genetic engineers with their blinders on, thinking theyre controlling life by transferring genes around and if they can tweak it a little in the process they can say they own it, they can patent it and they have invented it.

To me, thats a wrong view of the world that will inevitably lead to undesirable consequences. It may work for a little while, but those genes are not going to stay put. Theyre going to move around in the environment.

Dr. Crouch spent much of her presentation attacking the idea put forth by the proponents and propagandists for genetic engineering that its fundamentally the same as selective breeding and domestication of plants and animals, which people have been doing for at least tens of thousands of years.

Domestication, by necessity and probably, at least to some degree, by choice has been a collaboration, she explained. Weve been in a position to choose the variability of nature and enhance it. It was something the plant offered us, and then we picked out what we wanted. Our cycle of life has depended on the health and well-being of plants and their lives.

Things began to change about 100 years ago, Dr. Crouch continued, when humans first learned the laws of genetic inheritance and were eventually able to breed freaks that exist purely for our own convenience like top-heavy turkeys with unnaturally large breasts that cant mate on their own and have to be artificially inseminated to survive. Genetic engineering is a further step in the industrialization of life and humankinds ongoing rape of nature for its own priorities, she argued.

With genetic engineering we can force our desires on other organisms, and it doesnt matter whether it enhances their survival or not, Dr. Crouch explained. We can decide we want a cow to make a human growth hormone, or a petunia plant to make plastic. The methods are forceful. We use guns to shoot genes into organisms pretty much at random, and the results are not only unpredictable but unstable.

Dr. Crouch cited her own work as an example, not only of the problems with genetic engineering as a whole, but specifically with what the multinational corporations funding the research want to do with it and what priorities get written into the genetic codes of bioengineered organisms. She and her colleagues located the promoters in plant seeds and pollen that turn their genetic information on and off and inserted toxins into them so seeds grown from the plant would be infertile.

This was the so-called Terminator technology, an effort to come up with a seed that farmers could not save for replanting because it would not grow. For the genetic engineering companies, this was a way to build their economic priorities into the basic germ plasm of food plants and thus eliminate the need to hire goon squads and pay informers in farm communities to turn in farmers suspected of saving genetically engineered seeds or growing them without the companies permission. For Dr. Crouch, it was a basic perversion of the whole purpose of science and humans manipulation of nature.

Every time we discovered something, it was used to make the corporation much more efficient at making money, Dr. Crouch said. Thats not why I went into science, but if you go into nature with a mechanistic view you create a machine for making profit. I would rather go into science as a part of nature than as a master making a robotic slave.

What I have learned is that what I was doing in genetic engineering has so many more questions than just sound science, said Dr. Steinbrecher, also a recovering genetic engineer. Its crucially intertwined with democracy, ethics, morals and power.

Dr. Steinbrecher devoted much of her presentation to accounts of the unforeseen consequences of genetic engineering, including the possibility that genetically engineered plants particularly ones in which a virus has been used to introduce the foreign genes in the first place could be infected with other viruses whose genes could recombine and produce far more deadly viruses that could wipe out whole strains of plant life.

She also cited a study done at the University of Georgia to find why Monsantos genetically engineered Roundup Ready soybeans were more vulnerable to fungi than conventional varieties. The answer one research team came up with was that the genetic modification increased the amount of lignin the substance that makes trees stiff enough to stand up in the soy plants.

When the summer came, the plant was so rigid it couldnt adapt to the higher temperature, Dr. Steinbrecher said. The stems cracked open, and that allowed fungi to get in. That could have been tested before the plant was first marketed, but by the time that was discovered the plant had already been on the market for 10 years.

Dr. Steinbrecher also stressed that scientific knowledge is conditional. The knowledge we have in science is just what we know this year; next year it could all be different, she said. When I was working in human genes it was assumed there were 100,000 to 150,000 genes in the human genome. Now weve discovered that there are only 30,000 to 40,000, which is hardly more than a mouse.

This revelation from the Human Genome Project has fundamentally shaken the whole assumption behind genetic engineering the idea that each gene codes for (i.e., tells the bodys chemistry to produce) one and only one protein. When I went to school, it was one gene, one trait, Dr. Steinbrecher said. When that was disproven, it became one gene, one protein. If one gene really produces six to eight proteins, what are we doing with genetic engineering? How can we know what those genes are doing when we insert them? We dont have enough facts.
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