Beyond Biotechnology: The Barren Promise of Genetic Engineering
Craig Holdrege & Steve Talbott
University Press of Kentucky
Before reading this book I was under the impression that I had at least a reasonable layman’s understanding of the principles and practices involved in genetic engineering. By the time I finished it I had undergone a shocking yet invigorating reappraisal of the entire field of biotechnology.
Judging from the usual portrayals of GE in the popular media, my lack of understanding is widely shared, not only among the general public but also—however ironically—among the very scientists who are carrying out the work. To put the matter quite bluntly, we truly don’t understand what we’re doing; there is in fact a yawning and treacherous gulf between the theory and practice of genetic engineering.
The authors, Craig Holdrege and Steve Talbott of The Nature Institute, a holistic science nonprofit in upstate New York, do an admirable job of unpacking and recontextualizing the assumptions and practices of GE. The crux of the difficulty with biotechnology lies in its ignorance of the inescapable role of the cognitive activity of the scientist in carrying out scientific work. This lack of awareness is unfortunately the norm within modern science in general, and is the primary reason for the often destructive effects of modern technology.
Indeed, the conceptual cornerstone of GE, the gene, has been thoroughly exposed over the years for what it is: “not a thing at all, but a way of ordering and interpreting phenomena …” In other words, in contrast to DNA, for example, which is an actual substance, the gene is a thought-model, an abstract concept that has been reified and treated as a real thing. This is what has created the yawning gulf alluded to earlier, because on a fundamental level scientists are creating abstractions in the theoretical aspects of their work, then foisting the results on organisms that have their own reality, one that cannot accurately be reduced to these abstractions. As the authors remark, “Genetic engineering is usually hailed as a precise new technique to make exact modifications. In reality, precision stops when the DNA leaves the laboratory and enters the plant. The scientists have to wait and see what the organism has made of their attempted manipulation.” This is what gives the lie to the oft-repeated canard that GMOs have been proven safe. Apart from the obvious conflict of interest inherent in corporations funding their own scientific—or pseudo-scientific—experiments, there is the deeper problem of how such statements can be taken as valid within a context in which we demonstrably don’t know what we’re doing. The ever-escalating list of unintended effects of GE (which can be found on The Nature Institute website: natureinstitute.org) bears this out quite clearly.
Even our understanding of DNA itself has been profoundly distorted by a naïve disregard for the assumptions we bring to the practice of modern science. The cellular phenomena themselves show us a substance we call DNA participating in the overall life and functioning of the organism. This is undeniable. Yet we insist on interpreting such observations through a mechanistic and deterministic mindset that effectively alienates us from an accurate understanding of DNA’s true role within the context of the organism: “The intention to effect discrete, single-target changes in an organism lies at the heart of genetic engineering. But this frame of mind, which assumes one-directional cause-and-effect mechanisms, is inherently unecological, since all biological and ecological processes involve reciprocal relations.” In a balanced approach, by contrast, “We [would] attend to the reciprocal relations within the context of the whole rather than isolating linear pathways and manipulating them as if the rest of the system didn’t exist.”
The authors have written this book for the general public, employing easily understandable terminology. And, though the overall tone is sober and restrained, they have not shied away from pointing out hypocrisy where the evidence warrants it. An example of this is their highlighting of a blatant corporate double-standard. For the purposes of securing patents, GE organisms are declared to be novel, yet when it comes to assessing safety they are said to be not essentially different from the products of traditional breeding. Such bald-faced deceit, more than any other factor, lays bare the reality that profits, rather than feeding the world, are the true motive behind GE.
The authors seek to uncover the deeper roots of modern science’s materialistic bias in some later chapters of the book, examining fundamental questions of meaning and selfhood that shed profound light on the practice of biotechnology as a whole. Of particular importance is their reappraisal of our centuries-old banishment of qualitative and supersensible aspects from scientific practice: “[I]t’s true that the identification of science with empty formal structure leaves no room for soul and spirit. But it leaves no room for anything else, either.” In other words, if there’s no spirit, there’s no science. Any scientist who claims not to believe this does so only in theory, not in practice.
So is there any viable alternative to the distorted scientific practice that has given rise to such follies as biotechnology? Many readers may be surprised to find the oft-misunderstood scientific ideas of the great German poet Goëthe presented as the basis of a truly modern, qualitative science. Goëthe’s science brings together aspects of both science and art, and features a conscious transformation of the most sensitive and indeed central scientific “instrument” of all: the human being. Two concrete examples are provided to illustrate how such an inquiry can actually be carried out, showing how warm and respectful science can be when conducted from an attitude of humanity and humility.
Pieces on GE in the popular media often implicitly portray its opponents as deeply unscientific, credulous ninnies. This fine book clearly demonstrates that Craig Holdrege and Steve Talbott stand on a far sounder scientific footing than the genetic “engineers” themselves. Genetic engineering, as presently practiced, is largely a profoundly misconceived, pseudo-scientific fantasy masquerading as rigorous science. As Hungarian philosopher Georg Kühlewind once wrote, “I see no other hope of avoiding destruction than for our mentality to change.” A balanced, properly scientific reassessment of GE, which is precisely what this book offers, would be as good a place as any to start.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly journal of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Fall 2015