Book Review


Genetic Engineering: Dream or Nightmare?

Mae-Wan Ho, Dublin: Gateway, 2nd ed., 1999; xiii + 385 pages

In this controversial and hard-hitting book, geneticist and biophysicist Mae-Wan Ho argues that genetic-engineering biotechnology is bad science working with big business for quick profit, against the public good. Her in-depth study exposes the serious hazards it presents to human and animal health and the ecological environment -- hazards that are still largely ignored by practitioners and regulators alike.

    Genetic engineering is a set of techniques for isolating, modifying, multiplying, and recombining genes from different organisms. It uses viruses and other infectious agents to smuggle genes into cells that would otherwise reject them, and enables genes to be transferred horizontally between species that would never interbreed in nature. For instance, a fish gene can be transferred to tomatoes, and human genes can be transferred to sheep, pigs, or bacteria. The insertion of foreign genes into a host genome* has long been known to have harmful and even fatal effects, as the transferred genes can recombine with other genes to generate new combinations that may cause disease, including cancer.

    Ho writes:

Genetic engineering is inherently hazardous, because it depends on designing artificial vectors to cross all species barriers, greatly increasing the potential for generating new viral and bacterial pathogens by horizontal gene transfer and recombination. This very danger persuaded the first genetic engineers to declare a moratorium on their own work in 1975; but pressures to go ahead with commercial exploitation led to regulatory guidelines that were drawn up largely on the basis of assumptions. Every one of those assumptions has since been invalidated by scientific findings. (p. 168)

    Genetic engineering is based on genetic determinism -- the belief that organisms are determined solely by their genetic makeup. It is assumed that each trait of an organism is controlled by a separate gene, that by changing a gene we can change the corresponding trait, and that by transferring the gene we can transfer the trait. However, it is becoming increasingly clear that instead of one gene determining one characteristic, genes work together as a complex, interacting network. And instead of being stable and unchanging, genes and genomes are dynamic and fluid; DNA sequences can undergo mutations, rearrangements, deletions, insertions, conversions, duplications, and amplifications. Ho adds:

There is, furthermore, no constant 'genetic program' or blueprint for making the organism, as the genes and the genome itself can also change during development. ... Heredity ... is the property not so much of the genes as of the whole system of the organism within its ecological environment. ... [O]ur fate is written neither in the stars nor in our genes, for we are active participants in the evolutionary drama. (p. 65)

    The mismatch between the genetic-engineering mentality and scientific reality explains why genetic-engineering biotechnology not only fails to deliver its promises but also poses such risks. Unexpected toxins and allergens have arisen as side effects in genetically engineered plants and microorganisms. The success rate in creating desired transgenic organisms is low, and very sick, monstrous animals have resulted from having a single gene introduced. A genetically engineered soil bacterium, thought to be quite harmless, turned out to drastically inhibit the growth of wheat seedlings. Pigs engineered with a human growth hormone gene to make them grow faster turned out to be arthritic, ulcerous, partially blind, and impotent. Although the biotech industry tries to play down the many failures, it is encountering widespread opposition in rich and poor countries alike.

    The biotech industry, says Ho, 'is still peddling dreams: cure for cancer, designer babies, cloning, and other means to immortality' (p. 54). She relates that, following a debate on genetic engineering, the chief executive officer of a biotech company confessed to her that he wasn't too happy about biotechnology, but was unable to do anything as it was the system, and mortgages had to be paid. He was coping by practising transcendental meditation -- unlike his colleagues, most of whom were on Prozac!

    It is claimed that agricultural biotechnology will be able to 'feed the world'. Crops allegedly need to be genetically modified to make them resistant to herbicides, pests, and disease, to improve their nutritional value and shelf life, and to bring about drought resistance, frost resistance, and increased yield. The truth is that there is already enough food to feed the world's population one-and-a-half times over. Malnutrition stems mainly from poverty and an inequitable global economic system rather than overpopulation or deficiencies in natural crops.

    Far from providing cheaper food for all, genetically modified crops will strengthen the corporate monopoly on food production and distribution, and further undermine the livelihood of family farmers all over the world, as well as posing risks to human and animal health. Giant corporations are busy patenting living organisms and their genes in the interests of profit-making, so that farmers have to pay royalties on patented seeds. 'At the same time,' says Ho, 'the use of toxic, wide-spectrum herbicides with herbicide-resistant transgenic crops will result in the irretrievable loss of the indigenous agricultural and natural biological diversity on which food security depends' (p. 147). Resistance campaigns against agricultural biotechnology are under way in many countries, accompanied by efforts to revive sustainable, organic farming.

    Microbes are everywhere, including in the air we breathe, on our skin, and in our bodies. Most of the time they have a benign, balanced relationship with us, but if that balance is disturbed, they can turn virulent and cause debilitating or lethal diseases. And when we wage war on them with a succession of increasingly potent drugs and antibiotics, they may counter by increasing the mutation rates in those genes that will eventually give them resistance against the drugs or antibiotics. It is the prodigious power of microbes to proliferate, and the ability of their genes to jump, spread, mutate, and recombine that make genetic-engineering biotechnology so hazardous. And antibiotics seem to act like a sex hormone for bacteria, enhancing mating and the exchange of genes between unrelated species.

    Drug-resistant and antibiotic-resistant infectious diseases account for a third of all the deaths in the world, the biggest killers being TB, hepatitis B, and AIDS. Such diseases have been increasing dramatically over the past 20 years, coinciding with the development of commercial genetic-engineering biotechnology. Ho writes:

The evidence is overwhelming that horizontal gene transfer across species barriers is responsible for creating new viral and bacterial pathogens and for spreading drug-resistance and antibiotic-resistance. ... We may already be experiencing the prelude to a nightmare of uncontrollable, untreatable epidemics of infectious diseases. (p. 168)

    It has been proposed that herds of transgenic animals could be cloned to supply proteins, blood, and organs for human use. Dolly the sheep -- hailed as the first mammal 'clone' -- was produced in 1997 by the technique of nuclear transplantation: basically, the nucleus of an egg from one adult sheep was removed and replaced with that of an egg from another sheep, and the developing egg was later transferred to the womb of a surrogate mother sheep. Strictly speaking, Dolly was not a real clone at all, as small and large changes in DNA are now known to occur both as part of normal development and in response to environmental factors. Furthermore, an inserted gene can inappropriately turn host genes off, scramble host genomes, or cause cancer. That is why such a large number of abnormal embryos result from transplanted nuclei. In the case of Dolly, nearly 300 embryos had to be manipulated to produce one success. Ho says that this technique 'is not the best way to generate identical clones but to generate monstrous failures. It is irresponsible and unethical to claim otherwise' (p. 201).

Dolly the clone -- who was put to sleep in February 2003, at the age of 6 (barely 40 in human terms), as she was suffering from arthritis and lung disease.
*About 98% of cloning efforts fail. *Cloned embryos usually die before birth. *Most of the survivors have potentially fatal heart or lung problems or diseases like diabetes. (

    Mice made transgenic with mutant human genes are widely used to serve as models of human diseases. The most notorious is the 'oncomouse', designed to develop cancer. However, mice engineered to carry a mutation in a gene that predisposes humans to tumours in the retina of the eye did not show any such symptoms, while those manipulated to have Gaucher's disease died within a day of birth. In other words, putting single human genes into a completely different genetic background can have unpredictable effects. Another project that has gained considerable momentum is xenotransplantation, the transplanting of organs of other species into human beings. There is already a lucrative international trade in human body parts. Ho comments:

The cloning and 'pharming' of livestock, the creation of transgenic animals for xenotransplantation and to serve as animal models of human diseases, are all scientifically flawed and morally unjustifiable. They also carry inherent hazards in facilitating cross-species exchange and the recombination of viral pathogens. These projects ought not to be allowed to continue without a full public review. (p. 218)

    The cloning of humans has also been proposed. Human embryos created like Dolly would be grown until important cells could be extracted from the embryo and used to treat human diseases. During the work, the embryo would die, while the companies holding patents on the techniques used would make lots of money. One scientist suggested that the ethical objections could be overcome by creating headless human embryos who would not be able to suffer! Ho points out that there are far better ways of generating replacement tissues and organs by using the patient's own cells.

    In China, couples planning to marry are required by law to undergo genetic screening. If they are found to suffer from genetic diseases, marriage is allowed only if the couple agree to long-term contraception or sterilization. China has also legislated for the compulsory termination of pregnancies diagnosed positive for genetic diseases.

    In the West, genetic screening, including prenatal genetic screening and gene replacement therapy, are already widely available. The hunt goes on for genes that supposedly 'predispose' people to diseases such as cancer, diabetes, asthma and allergies, and to 'conditions' such as obesity, manic depression, schizophrenia, alcoholism, homosexuality, criminality, and even attributes such as longevity and novelty-seeking. Despite some sensational newspaper headlines, the links between certain genes and such conditions are generally very tenuous. And even if certain conditions are associated with biochemical or anatomical differences, this does not tell us whether these differences are their cause or their consequence.

    Ho warns:

If screening is eventually going to be applied to 'predisposing' genes and to genes whose connection with dubious conditions is increasingly tenuous, we shall slip insensibly into an era of human genetic engineering dictated purely by corporate interests. This will lead to the exploitation of the sick and the gullible for profit, at the same time giving rein to the worst excesses of human prejudices. ...
    Genetic discrimination and eugenics are being privatised and depersonalised and are therefore much more insidious than the state-sanctioned forms, because they cannot be effectively opposed. They are being promoted under the banner of scientific progress and free choice. (pp. 219, 222)

    Genetic tests are actually poor predictors for the condition of any individual; the same gene will have different effects from individual to individual because their other genes are different. Genes associated with certain conditions in one population turn out to have no associations at all in another. There appears to be no such thing as a genuine single-gene disease, as the expression of each gene is entangled with that of every other. Biologists, says Ho,

are stuck in the mechanistic era, refusing to see the reality of organisms as irreducible wholes within which genes (and genomes) are mutable and mobile as they respond to their cellular and physiological milieu, which is ultimately connected to the external ecological and social environment. (pp. 244-5)

    Geneticists claim to have identified a mutation in a gene that causes aggressive behaviour and may be implicated in attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in young children, conduct disorder in adolescents, and anti-social personality disorder in adults. One scientist even suggested that six-year-olds diagnosed with ADHD might be saved from a criminal career if they were given prophylactic drug treatment. As Ho says, 'branding a child a potential criminal on account of its genes is simply to relinquish responsibility for its care and proper upbringing' (pp. 223-4). Prenatal diagnosis may well lead to a growing number of 'therapeutic' abortions. For instance, positive tests for a condition known as PKU, which causes severe mental retardation, have already created social pressures on parents to abort the fetus, whether they wish to do so or not.

    Despite all the promises, attempts at gene replacement therapy have been uniformly unsuccessful and pose unacceptable hazards for patients.

The design of more aggressive gene transfer vectors introduces further risks from the genetic recombination of vectors with viruses to generate new disease-causing viruses. Recombination between viruses coming from the environment and those in the organism is strongly implicated in many cancers in animals. Similar hazards also arise in the proposed use of modified viral DNA as vaccines and in the xenotransplantation of organs. (p. 243)

    Most recent developments of gene technology are commercially driven. The same chemical and drug industries that have been major polluters of the environment and have damaged public health are now set to reap enormous profits. Furthermore:

Genetic-engineering biotechnology diverts attention and resources from the overwhelming causes of ill-health, which are environmental, and blames the victims. The key to genetic health is precisely the same as the key to physiological health: an unpolluted environment, wholesome organic foods free from agrochemicals, and sanitary, socially acceptable and aesthetically satisfying living conditions. (p. 243)

    Mae-Wan Ho rejects the simplistic neo-Darwinian theory that evolution occurs mainly by the natural selection of rare random genetic mutations. A neo-Darwinian explanation typically starts by identifying a characteristic that is assumed to be controlled by a gene. If an organism possesses the characteristic, this is said to be because it confers a selective advantage and has therefore been 'selected for', and if the organism does not possess the characteristic, this is because it confers a selective disadvantage and has been 'selected against'. Ho comments:

Neo-Darwinian explanations, in purporting to explain everything, ultimately explain nothing, because there is no independent verification of the 'adaptive story' that must be invented to 'explain' how the characteristic is selected for or against. (pp. 89-90)

    The link between genes and characteristics is usually far from straightforward. What we do know about genes is that they regulate the synthesis of different proteins. It is a big conceptual jump from that to the characteristics of organisms. Moreover, it is one thing to name a characteristic such as hair colour or eye colour; it is quite another to say that there is a characteristic called 'aggression', for instance. Ho states:

Animals may engage in aggressive acts, but that does not mean there is a characteristic called aggression ... To invent a characteristic and, on top of that, a gene determining it is to commit the fallacy of reification -- mistaking processes for things. There may be many mutations in many genes that affect a person's ability to read or speak or remember things, but that does not mean there are genes for reading, speech, or memory. Even in the case of the bodily form of organisms -- their morphology -- there are no theoretical or conceptual grounds justifying the separation of a characteristic from the interconnected whole that is the organism. (p. 89)

    Scientists have discovered that whereas genetic variation is accumulating between different species, within a species all the copies of a particular gene that make up a multigene family tend towards uniformity.

It is as though some invisible hand is keeping all the gene sequences the same throughout the course of evolution. What is responsible for this 'concerted evolution' of sequences, many of them dispersed throughout the genome? (p. 126)

One scientist sparked controversy by calling this phenomenon 'molecular drive', on the grounds that it drives evolution much more substantially and rapidly than natural selection.

    The 'central dogma' of molecular biology states that DNA makes RNA makes protein in a one-way information flow, and no reverse information flow is possible. Environmentally induced modifications in the characteristics of somatic cells* supposedly do not affect the DNA and cannot be inherited. There is abundant evidence that this dogma is false. Environmental influences and experiences in the lifetime of the organism can directly affect its genes, particularly in the germ cells, and 'acquired characteristics' can be inherited.

    According to Ho, 'the weight of evidence is overwhelmingly against the idea that mutations are random, in the sense that they are not correlated with the environment' (p. 132). Changes in DNA occur in cells and organisms exposed to a wide range of substances, including insecticides, herbicides, and certain drugs. As plants and the majority of animal phyla do not have distinct germ cells and somatic cells, these modifications will be inherited by subsequent generations. Even in animals with apparently distinct germ cells, the germ cells may also respond directly to the same stimuli, or reverse transcription (whereby DNA is made from RNA) may provide a feedback channel from somatic to germ cells.

    Experiments have shown that if E. coli bacteria are plated on media containing high concentrations of a metabolite they cannot use, they begin to mutate many orders of magnitude faster than the 'spontaneous', 'random' mutation rate, but only in genes that subsequently enable them to use the metabolite and hence to grow. This phenomenon of 'directed mutations' or 'adaptive mutations' also exists in yeast cells and possibly fruit flies. Another finding is that defective genes in organisms can become corrected and regain their normal function. This was known for bacteria and yeast but has now been discovered in humans. Ho writes:

The notion of an isolatable, constant gene that can be patented as an invention for all the marvellous things it can do is the greatest reductionist myth ever perpetrated. Genes and genomes need to be fluid and adaptable to maintain stability on the one hand and to respond to environmental challenges on the other. This is the essence of organic stability, as opposed to mechanical stability. It is also becoming clear that the 'fluid genome' processes are a complex regulatory system for carrying out the 'natural genetic engineering' on which life depends. (p. 108)

In contrast to the precision of natural genetic engineering, artificial genetic engineering carried out by humans is incapable of taking all the relevant interacting factors and their potential consequences into account, and is therefore inherently dangerous.

     Ho concludes by saying that reductionist science has had its day, and that contemporary scientific approaches that concentrate on complexity, interconnectedness, and wholeness are more consistent with scientific findings, and also with traditional indigenous sciences all over the world. It is high time, she says, to put the 'warfare with nature' mentality behind us and to start learning how to live sustainably and healthily with nature.


    'Adaptive mutations', 'concerted evolution', and 'directed evolution' cannot be understood within the framework of materialistic science. And this applies both to the old reductionist materialism and to the organic and holistic version championed by scientists such as Mae-Wan Ho. Genes and organisms that 'respond' successfully to environmental challenges are not acting randomly but purposefully, and this points to an instinctive intelligence at work that transcends purely physical mechanisms and processes. Similarly, there is good reason to doubt whether one type of animal can be transformed into a different type of animal through the gradual accumulation of genetic mutations -- whether ascribed to blind chance or environmental stimuli. To explain the origin of species, some scientists therefore invoke 'organizing principles'. If this is more than just a vacuous expression, it can only refer to the influence of paraphysical realities.

    The theosophic tradition or perennial philosophy -- echoes of which are to be found in both western esotericism and eastern mysticism -- extends the holism that Ho describes at the physical level to include subtler, more ethereal dimensions of nature: the astral (or formative) level, the mental (or creative), and the spiritual-divine (or archetypal). All these levels interact, with the higher providing overall guidance and direction for the lower. According to this outlook, nature is alive and conscious throughout, guided from within outwards, in accordance with past evolutionary patterns and forms. And every physical organism possesses some kind of mind and memory as it is the outer vehicle of an evolving, reembodying consciousness.

    On each level of the human constitution, we are the products of our past. A reincarnating soul is drawn to the parents who can provide it with a physical body and family environment that reflect its own former thoughts and deeds, for evolutionary growth depends on reaping what we have sown. In this sense, we inherit our genes not so much from our parents as through our parents -- from our own past. But even during a single lifetime, our genes are changeable to some extent rather than absolutely static; and this applies to our basic mental tendencies as well. However much our present freedom of choice and action is constrained by the habits we have built up in the course of many past lives, our selfconscious minds mean that we remain the ultimate arbiters of our destiny, both individually and collectively.

by David Pratt. June 2002.

Theosophy and the systems view of life

Fate or free will?