The End of Bad Science and Beginning Again with Life
This is a public Lecture for Conference on "The Limit of Natural Selection", French Senate, Paris, March 18, 2000 (to appear in Proceedings in French)
Abstract: The debate on evolution between the creationists and the neo-Darwinists is not just sterile, it misses the central issue, which is that neo-Darwinism is wrong and dangerous. It is promoting and misguiding a runaway technology that has the potential to destroy all life on earth. It reinforces a worldview that undermines every single moral value that makes us human. It is also obstructing and preventing the necessary shift to holistic ecological sciences that can connect to the organic revolution rising from the grassroots all over the world, which can truly regenerate the earth and revitalize the human spirit.
"..the potential for new science is hard to find in the Creationist-Darwinist debate. Both sides appear to have a common interest in presenting a static view of the scientific enterprise. This is to be expected from the Creationists [who reject science]..But the neo-Darwinian advocates claim to be scientists, and we can legitimately expect of them a more open spirit of enquiry. Instead, they assume a defensive posture of outraged orthodoxy and assert an unassailable claim to truth, which only serves to validate the Creationists criticism that Darwinism has become more of a faith than a science."
Let me make clear that I am not a Creationist, as there is a tendency in the popular media to regard any and every critic of neo-Darwinism as a Creationist. I intend to show you how neo-Darwinism has been invalidated within science itself, as an explanation of how life on earth has evolved and is evolving. It is nevertheless still perpetrated by the academic establishment, if only because it serves so well to promote genetic engineering, a technology that has the potential to destroy all life on earth. Furthermore, neo-Darwinism reinforces a worldview that undermines all moral values and prevents us from the necessary shift to holistic, ecological sciences that can truly regenerate the earth and revitalize the human spirit.
The bad science of reductionist biology
Up to the late 1960s and early 1970s, biology was dominated by the double helix of DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid), the genetic material, which got Watson, Crick and Wilkins the Nobel prize. Complementary base-pairing between the strands of the double helix enables the DNA to be faithfully copied, and passed on unchanged generation after generation. Random mutations occur, but these are very rare, about one in a billion or less.
DNA is faithfully transcribed into a complementary strand of RNA (ribonucleic acid), which is, in turn, translated into a protein with a specific amino-acid sequence. This is the so-called Central Dogma of molecular biology. Genetic information is strictly linear, and goes in one direction, from DNA to RNA to protein, and no reverse information flow is allowed. As the proteins catalyze all the biochemical reactions in our body, the implication is that the genes ultimately control and determine all the characteristics of the organism.
The Central Dogma formalizes the four basic assumptions of genetic determinism and give them material substance.
1. Genes determine characters in a straightforward, additive way: one gene-one protein, and by implication, one character. Environmental influence, if it occurs, can be neatly sorted from the genetic.
2. Genes and genomes are stable, and except for rare, random mutations, are passed on unchanged to the next generation.
3. Genes and genomes cannot be changed directly in response to the environment.
4. Acquired characters are not inherited, as germline genes are not influenced by the environment.
These assumptions fit neatly with the dominant neo-Darwinian theory, which says that all of marvelous life on earth evolved, and is still evolving essentially by the natural selection of random genetic mutations. Neo-Darwinism combines Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection with August Weismann's theory of the immortal, inviolable germline, which, through Mendelian and molecular genetics became the Central Dogma. So, there is supposed to be a Weismann's barrier forbidding environmental influences from changing the genes directly, especially in the germ cells that give rise to the next generation.
That is how biologists and the public at large came to see the living world purely in terms of genes and DNA. There are no organisms, only collections of selfish genes, all clamoring to replicate. There are no societies of communities, only selfish individuals competing against one another. Dawkins is the best known popularizer of such views.
The explanation on offer for altruistic behaviour is essentially disguised selfishness. Dawkins view on the organism, is that it doesnt exist, the organism is just the means for propagating replicators, or genes,
The greatest danger of this reductionist biology is that we end up denying and explaining away all that is good in organisms and human beings, such as altruism, love and compassion. That is all of a piece with the dominant social reality that glorifies competition and exploitation, of corporate capitalism that makes the rich ever richer and the poor ever poorer.
One has to appreciate that the assumptions of genetic determinism, in one form or another, have been the bread and butter of mainstream biology for at least 100 years, rather the way that Newtonian mechanics had been the foundations of physics in the pre-quantum physics era. Within 10 years of the Central Dogma, however, genetics was turned upside-down. All those assumptions, and more, were contradicted by research findings, from the then newly developed recombinant DNA (rDNA) technology.
Recombinant DNA technology is a set of techniques for isolating, multiplying, cutting and joining pieces of DNA, and for transferring DNA between species. It is what makes genetic engineering possible, and it happens also to be a powerful research tool.
The initial crack to the genetic determinist edifice appeared before rDNA research really got underway. Howard Temin and David Baltimore in the United States, independently discovered reverse transcriptase, an enzyme that does the reverse of transcription - making a copy of complementary DNA from an RNA sequence, which is inserted into the genome the totality of all the genetic material in the cell or organism - so it can be replicated with the genome. Reverse transcriptase was first found in retroviruses, such as the ones implicated in AIDs and in cancers, which have RNA as their genomes. Then came a torrent of new discoveries which shook the very foundations of genetic determinism.
By far the most significant picture to emerge from the findings is how very dynamic and flexible the genome is in both its function and structure. This is in striking contrast to the static, mechanical conception that previously held sway. Gene functions are mutually entangled in extremely complex networks, with many genes required to turn other genes on or off, which are in turn regulated by other genes. Genes can get silenced under certain physiological conditions, and this state can be passed on to all daughter cells. According to the Central Dogma, one gene specifies one protein. In reality, all possible specifications exist. One-to-one, one to many, many to one, and many to many. The gene is no longer a continuous stretch of DNA on the chromosome. It exists in bits, interrupted by long non-coding stretches which are spliced out in the RNA transcript. Transcipts are subject to numerous processing reactions including alternative splicing to produce different proteins. Most surprisingly, the transcript can become extensively edited by chemical modifications to change the base sequence, so that it is translated into a protein completely different from the one encoded.
Furthermore, the genes themselves and the structure of the genome are both
subject to small and large changes in the course of normal development and as the result of environmental perturbations, so much so that molecular geneticists have coined the descriptive term, the fluid genome almost 20 years ago. There are many processes contributing to the fluidity of the genome (see Box 1). All these processes are under cellular regulation and also occur in response to the environment.
Genes jump around from one site to another, they may be multiplied up to hundreds of thousands of times, or the repeated copies could contract down. DNA may be deleted or inserted, some of the insertions resulting from reverse transcription, the process that copies a complementary sequence of DNA from the RNA transcript. Chromosomes can undergo rearrangement to change the linear order of genes. Hyper-mutations can occur at up to a million times faster than usual mutations, and they may be directed by environmental factors.
Hyper-mutations and gene amplifications often occur in response to noxious chemicals, to make cells and organisms resistant to the chemicals. This happens in mammalian cells during drug treatment, as in chemotherapy against cancer. It happens in insect cells exposed to insecticide and plant cells exposed to herbicides. Amplifications the multiplication of specific stretches of DNA in the genome - are often accompanied by gross changes in chromosome structure. These changes in genes and genomes are repeatably generated by particular agents in particular cells lines, and are part and parcel of the spectrum of physiological responses common to all individuals in a population. They have nothing to do with natural selection. Gross, repeatable changes in the genome are also induced in flax and other plants by treatments with different fertilizers, and these are inherited in subsequent generations.
Directed mutation, or adaptive mutation, is a phenomenon first discovered in bacteria some 25 years ago, and is now found in yeast and other organisms. When cells are presented with a nutrient they cannot use, the starving cells eventually acquire mutations that enable them to feed on it. Directed mutations may be similar to the mutations that make cells resistant to drugs, insecticides and herbicides. Gene conversion, on the other hand, is the substitution of one sequence of a gene by another. Evidence suggests that those genes that are most actively used are candidates for converting other genes. This is a case of the Lamarckian principle of use and disuse at the molecular level.
Finally, the genes themselves can travel outside the original organism on their way to infect another. This is horizontal gene transfer, now known to be very widespread. The scope of horizontal gene transfer is essentially the entire biosphere, so genes and genomes are not only fluid and adaptable, they are also delocalised. Typical vectors or carriers for horizontal gene transfer are viruses, and other genetic parasites, plasmids and transposons. Plasmids are pieces of DNA that replicate independently of the genome of cells, and transposons are jumping genes - units of DNA that can jump from one site in the genome to another, or jump out into the genome of another organism altogether.
However, it is recently found that other pieces of naked or free DNA, that is, DNA outside cells or in the case of viruses, DNA without the viral coat, may also become transferred, as they are readily taken up by cells of all species including our own. Horizontal gene transfer is the process exploited by genetic engineers to by-pass normal reproduction, to transfer genes directly, often between species that would never interbreed in nature.
Recent research in gene therapy and nucleic acid vaccines leaves no doubt that naked or free nucleic acids do get into the cells, and in some cases, integrate into the cells genome. Researchers are elated that they can deliver naked genetic material by all routes to practically all cells. You can apply it in the eye in eye-drops, rub it in on the skin, inject it, inhale it and swallow it. In fact, the most underestimated and serious danger from genetic engineering biotechnology is the huge diversity of artificial combinations of genes released into the environment that have never before existed in nature, and which can be passed onto unrelated species, to be multiplied, mutated and recombined indefinitely.
Finally, the ultimate neo-Darwinian taboo has been broken. Wiesmanns barrier has been breached, and in many different forms, some of which I mentioned already (see box 2).
Weismann's barrier can operate only when organisms have germ cells that are separated from somatic cells. Plants have no separation between germ cells and somatic cells, as any somatic cell is capable of becoming a germ cell, so any change in DNA induced in a somatic cell can become inherited. In fact, the majority of animal phyla also do not have separate germ cells and somatic cells. Even for animals which appear to have such a separation, there are two possibilities, either the germ cells may also respond to the environment, or more likely, there is a feedback communication channel between the somatic cells and germ cells, so DNA changes acquired by somatic cells can become incorporated into the germ cells and passed on to the next generation.
I have already mentioned the numerous reverse transcripts present in the genome of all higher organisms, which suggests that one feedback channel may be reverse transcription. Reverse transcriptase may exist in the cell itself, or it may be encoded by dormant retroviruses, or retrotransposons, a large number of which are found in all genomes. Australian immunologist Ted Steele and his colleagues have found evidence that reverse transcription may indeed be involved in transferring somatic information back to germ cells in the immunoglobulin V genes.
It so happens that as part of the immune response, a complicated series of genetic rearrangements has to take place in the genome of the blood cells to bring specific combinations of several different kinds of genes together: V, D, J and C genes. This is followed by hyper-mutation of the antigen-binding region so that, eventually, very high affinity antibodies are created. This region is coded by one of the V genes. Steele and colleagues found evidence that hyper-mutated V genes from somatic cells are transferred to the germ cells, probably by resident viruses smuggling them into the germ cell.
Actually, recent findings indicate that sperm cells are very effective in picking up naked DNA, so naked V gene sequences may well be taken up directly and undergo homologous recombination with the germ-line V genes. It is a case of gene conversion, in which a somatically mutated and functionally tested gene converts a germ-line gene.
Ted Steele and others including myself have written on how those newly discovered processes seriously undermine neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory over 15 years ago. The evidence against the natural selection of random mutations has grown overwhelming since. Simply stated, organisms can mutate their genes as they are selected; and there is a large degree of non-randomness to mutations.
Recently, molecular geneticist James Shapiro has joined the debate. He is critical of neo-Darwinians like Richard Dawkins and John Maynard Smith who are still clinging to the discredited paradigm. "Localized random mutation, selection operating "one gene at a time" (John Maynard Smiths formulation), and gradual modification of individual functions are unable to provide satisfactory explanation for the molecular data, no matter how much time for change is assumed. There are simply too many potential degrees of freedom for random variability and too many interconnections to account for."
And yet, the variations are far from random. The processes responsible for the fluidity of the genome form a highly sophisticated regulatory system, which can provide hyper-variability or stability for genes or genomes as required. All organisms, from bacteria to human beings, possess a wide range of repair and proof-reading functions to remove accidental changes to DNA sequences and correct errors resulting from physiological and physical insults. The same cells also possess numerous biochemical mechanisms for changing and reorganizing DNA through natural genetic engineering processes that include cutting and splicing of DNA molecules into new sequence arrangements (like the immunoglobulin genes). Most frequently, natural genetic engineering involves mobile genetic elements, found in all genomes, which can move from one position to another, enabling organisms to respond to environmental challenges.
The ability to activate those mechanisms under stress can significantly accelerate evolutionary change in times of crisis without threatening genetic stability under ordinary circumstances. Shapiro suggests that further studies of transposable elements and DNA rearrangements may throw light on directed mutations. Just as signal-transduction systems of the cell can direct the transcriptional apparatus to specific genes, so there might be mutational apparatus(es) that can be similarly directed to mutate specific genes. In other words, the natural genetic engineering done by organisms themselves is quite precise, even though we don't yet know how they manage it.
There is a striking contrast between the DNA-centered Central Dogma and the new genetics. The scientific findings have completely invalidated genetic determinism. The new genetics is diametrically opposite to the old static, reductionist view. It is radically holistic. The gene has a very complex ecology consisting of the interconnected levels of the genome, the physiology of the organism and its external environment. Changes in the environment is transmitted inwards, and may alter the genes themselves. Conversely, putting a new gene or new combination of genes into an organism will create disturbance that may propagate out to the external environment. Remember that the genes themselves can spread by horizontal transfer to unrelated species, so the potential ecological impacts are enormous.
But the mainstream biology community has remained untouched by this profound revolution. Dawkins' views have not changed much since his first book. Worse yet, genetic determinism is rife, if only because it is perfect for promoting genetic engineering biotechnology and selling it to the public. James Watson said this when launching the Human Genome Project to sequence the entire human genome.
Literature supposed to promote public understanding, and endorsed by Government scientists, are no better.
These statements are nothing if not genetic determinist. More seriously, they claim a precision for the technology that simply does not exist. For in contrast to natural genetic engineering, which is regulated by the organism as a whole, artificial genetic engineering is uncontrollable, unreliable and unpredictable. The foreign genes insert at random, giving correspondingly random genetic effects including abnormalities and cancers in animals and toxins and allergens in food plants. And there are other greater dangers.
The world is experiencing a worsening public health crisis in drug and antibiotic resistant infectious diseases. Many factors have been suggested as contributing to the resurgence of infectious diseases within the past 25 years, most of them social and ecological; highlighting the point there is no reductionist single cause to disease. The most publicized factor is the overuse and abuse of antibiotics in intensive farming and medicine.
The evolution of antibiotic resistance is where the orthodox community persists in misrepresenting the causes. It is still treated as a classic case of the natural selection of random mutations. In reality, it is a paradigm case of the fluid, adaptable and delocalised genome. The rate of mutation to resistance was grossly underestimated. The mutations are not random, but directed, in the sense that they do not pre-exist before the cell interacts with the drug or antibiotic, they occur at high rates, and possibly, only the relevant genes are hyper-mutated. Until fairly recently, the experts also did not realize how widespread is horizontal gene transfer, which rapidly spreads antibiotic resistance genes necessary for survival to all the bacteria, not only of the same species but of unrelated species as well. The microbes are involved in rampant cooperation instead of competition, sharing their most valued assets for survival in hostile environments. Another ignored factor is that the presence of antibiotic increases the frequency of horizontal gene transfer 10 to 10 000 fold. The key question is: has genetic engineering biotechnology contributed to creating the new viruses and bacteria that cause diseases and spreading antibiotic and drug resistance genes among the pathogens?
One main focus of genetic engineering biotechnology is to enhance horizontal gene transfer, greatly increasing both its scope and frequency. It effectively breaks down all species barriers, using artificial vectors made of parts of the most aggressive viruses and genetic parasites that spread disease and antibiotic resistance genes, in order to transfer genes between species that would never interbreed in nature. A huge variety of arbitrary combinations of genetic material from pathogens are created, which have never existed before. The potential for creating new cross-species viral and antibiotic resistant bacterial strains by the enhancement of horizontal gene transfer and recombination was recognized by the pioneers of genetic engineering themselves. That was why they called for a moratorium in the 1970s.
Unfortunately, commercial pressures cut the moratorium short. We now know that the regulatory guidelines drawn up to allow commercial exploitation to go ahead were based largely on assumptions, everyone of which has been proved wrong by scientific findings since. The most serious being that naked or free DNA can persist in all environments and transfer horizontally to unrelated species. Current evidence also indicates that horizontal gene transfer and recombination have been responsible for generating the new viruses and bacteria associated with infectious diseases, and spreading drug and antibiotic resistance genes among these pathogens.
The two-way connection between science and society
Genetic engineering biotechnology is not just about food production. It is about any and every way of exploiting life and our life-support system for profit. It is the ultimate in the dominant way of life that knows the monetary cost of everything and the value of nothing.
There is a two-way connection between science and society. Science is both shaped by the politics and the mores of society and it can reinforce them. And nowhere is it more clearly seen in the mechanistic, instrumental worldview that pervades the scientific mainstream and the dominant culture at large.
The mechanistic paradigm of western science is really a direct legacy of the Judaeo-Christian tradition. The tradition inspired the search for eternal laws, ordained by God, which could make the universe move in predictable, mechanical ways. Through Copernicus, Galileo and Descartes, this strand of thought culminated in Newtons mathematical laws of mechanics. Mechanical explanations seem so compelling that every event in nature came to be seen in a mechanical perspective.
Another strand in the legacy of the Judaeo-Christian tradition is that human beings are supposed to be created in the image of God and to have immortal souls, while animals and the rest of nature are to be used by human beings. Descartes established the dualistic separation of human beings from nature, of mind from body and matter from spirit. He maintained that only human beings can reason, that animals are unfeeling machines; and condoned cruel experiments on dogs and cats. Francis Bacon, similarly, urged that it was our right to extend our power and dominion over the universe.
Thomas Hobbes went further. For him, nothing exists except matter and motion, the universe including human being are to be explained mechanically. He argued that human beings are ruled purely by their appetites and aversions, and without a powerful king to restrain and channel those impulses, our lives would be "poor, nasty, brutish and short". In other words, absolute government is necessary to prevent the war of each against all to which natural selfishness inevitably leads. Hobbes was writing when mercantilism reached its high point in Europe, and brought great power to those princes and merchants who successfully accumulated vast quantities of gold and other precious metals.
Hobbes influence has passed down to us via Charles Darwin in an age that saw the birth of capitalism and the expansion of the free market under the military might of the British Empire. Nature became ultimately reduced to isolated atoms jostling and competing in the struggle for survival of the fittest. In its present-day form, neo-Darwinian sociobiology has changed very little from social Darwinism. Neo-liberal economic theory is in many ways much more pernicious than Adam Smiths laissez-faire economics, which is based on competition tempered by moral restraint. And so, through the self-fulfilling prophecy, mechanistic science has created a dysfunctional social milieu and a globalized economy which is destroying our planet and failing to serve the physical and spiritual needs of the vast majority of humanity. That was why fifty thousand people from all walks of life and of all ages took to the streets at the World Trade Organization conference in Seattle at the end of November, 1999.
It is clear that the mechanistic paradigm has failed the reality test in life as in science. But the discredited paradigm is still perpetrated by mainstream academic institutions as though no alternatives exist.
Mechanistic biology has reached its logical conclusion when organisms including human beings are to be genetically manipulated and cloned. The first human clone has been created, by injecting the genetic material of a human being into a cow's egg, a scene reminiscent of Mary Shelley's prophetic parable of Frankenstein. Dr. Frankenstein, in a role not unlike the contemporary genetic engineer, is a scientist obsessed with mastery over nature; so much so that he attempts to create the perfect human being. Instead, he created a monster. Mary Shelley's classic is as much a parable of the mechanistic science that inspires the deed as it is of the scientist playing God.
All species are being genetically manipulated. Millions of transgenic mice are being created to serve as dubious models of human diseases, and an increasing number have to be sacrificed to make room for more. Livestock are humanized to provide spare organs for transplanting into human beings, or engineered and cloned as bioreactors to produce pharmaceuticals and industrial chemicals in their milk, blood, urine and semen, and with tens of thousands of failures and abnormalities.
Apart from the potential hazards of creating new viruses that cross species barriers, the excessive suffering inflicted on the animals violates the most basic moral code of human society. Michael Fox strongly questions the right of human beings to interfere so profoundly with the inherent nature or telos of other species. Indeed, each species has its own intrinsic value, its own purpose in the scheme of nature, which we violate at our own peril. This is also the most abiding ecological wisdom which western science has lost touch with, and is only now rediscovering.
The organic revolution and the new ethic of science
Genetic determinism offers a simplistic, reductionist description which is a travesty of the interdependence and complexity of organic reality. It has no concept of the organism as a whole, nor of societies or ecosystems. That is one reason why genetic engineering, at least in its current form, can never work. It is based on misconceptions that organisms are machines, and on a denial of the complexity and flexibility of the organic whole.
This brings us to the kind of science appropriate to society, which can transcend the existing dominant ethos, to support the necessary transition to sustainable ways of life, and to connect with the organic uprising that is coming from the grassroots all over the world. Many remarkable individuals and local communities are indeed changing their own lives and the world around them for the better. They all do so by learning from nature and recognizing that it is the symbiotic, mutualistic relationships which sustain ecosystems and make all life prosper, including the human beings who are active, sensitive participants in the ecosystem as a whole.
The same organic revolution has been happening in western science over the past thirty years. Jim Lovelocks Gaia theory, for example, invites us to see the earth as one super-organism. Even more remarkable is the message from quantum theory: that we may be inseparably entangled with one another and with all nature, which we participate in co-creating. In other words, the universe is an entangled whole consisting of organisms that are themselves wholes. From my own work, I have shown that the organism is so perfectly whole that it approaches quantum coherence: a state of both maximum local freedom and global cohesion. The organisms activities are fully coordinated from the molecular to the macroscopic, and that is why, with a special imaging technique invented in my laboratory, we can see the living, moving organism as a liquid crystalline being.
It is this holistic, organic perspective that can enable us to negotiate our path to a sustainable future. It also provides the basis of a new ethic of science that can reshape society and transform the very texture and meaning of our lives. Seattle has shown us that things can be different. Society does not have to be ruled by the dominant culture. Science can transcend the dominant status quo to reshape society for the public good, which is also the private good. We begin to appreciate how the purpose of each organism and species is entangled with that of every other. Our humanity is a function of this entangled whole, and we cannot do arbitrary violence to one another, nor to the nature of other species without violating our own nature.