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Synthesis/Regeneration 33   (Winter 2004)

Biodevastation 7

How to Be an Organism

by Mae-Wan Ho, Institute for Science in Society

I find myself caught by surprise because I’m still under the influence of the drumming and music presented at this gathering and that’s what I wish we could be doing instead. And that’s very important because making music really is being an organism. You know, we are forced to become machines because of this whole framework, this whole model that we are living under. It forces us to regard each other as machines, as instruments, as means of exploitation, as means of making money, as rivals in competition. It has very, very deep roots.

What we’re talking about now is not only environmental racism, but also a corporate genocide against anybody that doesn’t fit into the model, or that is surplus to the requirements of this global model. This includes everybody who’s poor or unfit in some sense. This bad science model that we have works so closely with the corporations because they share the same mindset. A mindset that worships competition—that’s how the world is organized, we’re told. Do we have to accept this mindset? I think that instead we have to really sit back and say, “What is the good life? What is the good life that we want to recover?”

We are forced to become machines because of this whole framework, this whole model that we are living under.

For myself, I’d like to spend the rest of the evening dancing, learning how to dance again, with the drums and everything. That’s how I feel tonight and that’s what I should be able to do. I once went to an ethics conference in Emory University (Coca Cola University). It was about bioethics and that was really an oxymoron. We had a little workshop with these bright young people preparing themselves for a very competitive world. I said to them, “Well, why don’t you just sit back, use your imagination, and say, ‘What is the good life you?’” Without exception, they all said they want to get out of this rat race of making money, they want to have a simple life, they want to live among friends, among people that they respect and that respect them and that they want to have a community.

Here we are, miserable as hell, because we have to fit ourselves into this neo-liberal nightmare that Monsanto, Syngenta and the rest have created for us.

Let me return to some practical issues about GM crops. UK government scientists already pointed out that there are dangers from pollen, and from plant debris that could be allergenic and also contain transgenic DNA that could be transferred horizontally to bacteria living in the mouth and respiratory tract of people. So the farm workers and the food processors are the first line of defense for these kinds of hazards. ISIS, my institution, was one of the first to call for GM-free food aid. And the reason why is because populations that are malnourished have their immune systems compromised, and therefore they are especially susceptible to the kinds of hazards that genetically engineered crops could pose. These hazards can come in the form of antibiotic-resistant genes being passed on to bacteria in the environment and in people’s guts. If these happen to be dangerous bacteria, infections could be untreatable. Transgenic DNA is made from viruses and bacteria that cause diseases and they can actually recombine, or exchange genetic material with viruses and bacteria that are in the environment to create new ones.

Genetic determinism makes it easy to condone, if not outright justify, slavery and racism.

Now then, there are also very serious ideological aspects of the genetic view of the world that we live under. This year is the 50th anniversary of the discovery of DNA and James Watson has been back and forth to Britain to give celebratory lectures, and every time he goes, he says further nonsense. The last time he went there, he said “stupidity” is a disease. Watson implied that if people are ugly, they could be made prettier or if they’re not bright, they can be actually made brighter. They are like diseases, you see. Of course, Watson is the one who promised to deliver the blueprint for making a human being once the human genome was mapped and so that’s nonsensical. Basically, Watson espouses nothing but the ideology of genetic determinism, which basically says that our genetic makeup determines who and what we are ultimately.

Genetic determinism is one of the most persistent myths in Western science. I think it goes back to this idea of noble birth and bloodlines that must have helped ruling classes retain power within families. Genetic determinism did not arise from modern genetics; it is much older than that. But it had a lot of influence in the development of modern genetics and also, because this culture values property so much, you have to reduce the whole of life to genes. Genes can be possessed and patented and commodified. When you reduce everything to genes, how can you explain life? Well, you need miracles in order to try and get life out of genes again.

Genetic determinism makes it easy to condone, if not outright justify, slavery and racism, because just as determinists see certain bloodlines as inferior to others, so they see some races as more primitive or at a lower stage of evolution than others. And there are said to be master races that are meant to subjugate and conquer and even eliminate the rest. These ideas were implicit already before Charles Darwin came along and translated them into biological science. The full title of his famous book is the Origin of Species By Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favored Races in the Struggle for Life. So he is actually quite explicit there.

We need all of this molecular diversity in order to be healthy and do all the things that constitute being alive: eating, sleeping, making love, dancing…*

A key element to Darwin’s idea of natural selection was provided by Thomas Malthus. It’s Thomas Malthus’ theory of population which stated that human populations tended to increase exponentially, outstripping the means of production, and so populations are inevitably kept down by wars, famines and disease and the influences of misery and vice. And from this grim and mistaken theory Malthus concluded that the Poor Laws of Victorian England—which conferred doles and bounties upon large families—were to be condemned because they would exacerbate they very evils that they were supposed to combat. Darwin was really very influenced by that.

Therefore, it comes as no surprise that the same eugenics folklore, genetic determinist folklore, was the guiding principle in developing the modern science of genetics. Genetics in turn reinforced the ideology, and gave rise to the eugenics movement that lasted until the 1970s in the United States and Europe. Not only were inferior races persecuted, inferior and disabled individuals were also deemed unfit and eliminated.

Eugenics is now resurfacing in human genomics science that is promising to identify all the bad genes that cause diseases, disabilities, stupidities, whatever, so they can be eliminated at conception or before birth while the good genes can be used for genetic enhancement for anyone who can pay for the privilege. And that’s where James Watson comes in.

Genetics…gave rise to the eugenics movement that lasted until the 1970s in the United States and Europe.

This misconception was really completely exposed when Craig Venter, the head of the private consortium that beat the public consortium in sequencing the human genome, announced that there are too few genes for this idea of biological determinism to work. We are not hard-wired in our genes; the environment is critical. Now it took more than $3 billion and thousands of scientists in order to come to a conclusion that a lot of people including, Barry Commoner, had already reached long before. But there you are; we spent the money! And I think we should now say, “That was money well spent, at least if everybody now knows that this is a myth that launched a thousand companies and it’s going to sink a thousand companies.” And we should leave it behind.

This is where the dancing comes in again, you see. That’s how to be an organism. You’re flexible, dynamic, spontaneous and happy because you feel connected when you dance. You’re always dancing to the music, you’re dancing with each other. It’s a wonderful sight. That’s what we have to do. We have to give up this linear mechanistic way of thinking, this static way of being and this inflexible monoculture. Now that’s the most important thing about being an organism; it’s a celebration of diversity. We have about 30,000 genes in the genome, about a hundred times that of different proteins, one hundred trillion cells in our body. All of this diversity is coordinated. We need all of this molecular diversity in order to be healthy and do all the things that constitute being alive: eating, sleeping, making love, dancing—everything.

What happens with molecular monoculture? Molecular monoculture is like mad cow disease. Mad cow disease is where the same kind of protein molecules get together. They aggregate and clump together and they can’t work anymore. That applies to human society as well. To be organisms, we must celebrate diversity. We must actually love one another, especially those most different from us. We must nurture individuality and diversity with universal love.

This article is an edited version of the author’s presentation at Biodevastation 7, held May 16–18, 2003 in St. Louis, Missouri.

[22 dec 03]

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