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Barcoding Life


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Illustration: Kristy Wynne

Patents / ETHICS

Barcoding life
Are geneticists really getting closer to understanding
life itself – or are they seeking to subdue it and make a mint?
Jordi Pigem inspects a flawed enterprise.

The businessman was busy counting and owning the stars: 'Five-hundred-and-one million, six-hundred-twenty-two thousand, seven-hundred-thirty-one. I own them. they belong to me, because I was the first person to think of it.' This was the fourth planet the Little Prince had visited, his brief stay increasing his puzzlement at how grown-ups can delude themselves.1 And they do indeed. In 1980, a Californian by the name of Dennis Hope hopelessly claimed the Moon to be his. He staked a claim at his local federal office and notified the US, the USSR and the UN. Since then a number of grown-ups have bought plots of lunar land from this lunatic at $15.99 an acre. In that same year, more worryingly, the US Supreme Court defined living forms as 'machines or manufactures', and it ruled in consequence that living beings can be patented. Grown-ups can patently delude themselves.

The Supreme Court ruling didn't come out of the blue. It just gave legal form to what Descartes had claimed more than three centuries earlier: living beings are machines and we should aim to be 'masters and possessors of nature'. A generation before him, Francis Bacon dreamt of 'enlarging the bounds of the human empire' by, for instance, 'the transformation of bodies into other bodies' and 'the making of new species'. His dreams - and the Little Prince's nightmares - are starting to come true.

Quest for control
The Little Prince, incidentally, knew more about life than most of  today's molecular biologists. He had imagination and a sense of wonder. They have abstractions - and a quest for control.

The mechanical view of life - so alien to all indigenous and traditional cultures - leads to treating life forms as machines; that is, as things that can be patented, mended, bought and sold and used at will. But that view is as immoral as it is insane. For genetic reductionists like Richard Dawkins and his peers, humans are not exempt: 'Each of us is a machine, like an airliner only much more complicated.'2 They are believers in the central dogma of genetics, the belief that genes determine an organism's traits. We hear every week that scientists have identified and sequenced the gene for a specific trait or illness. That makes good news: it helps us feel we are in charge of the world. Later research ends up showing that in other contexts the same gene acts in very different, uncontrollable ways. That contradicts the dogma - and therefore is silenced.

science has transgressed a barrier that should have remained inviolate

Genetic modification is as inaccurate as trying to improve a published poem by dropping on the page lots of bits of paper with your favourite word in them: occasionally one of the words may fall in a place where it makes sense. That's why, as geneticist David Suzuki says, 'For every genetic-engineering success there are thousands and thousands of failures.' And even the 'successes' could be eventually undermined by multiple side-effects. Genes, like words, make very little or no sense without their context - but a meaningless word can be innocuous, whereas a gene out of place can self-replicate and have devastating effects.

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Illustration: Kristy Wynne

Honest scientists would admit that we know very little about the intricate balance of the web of life that sustains us. What we do know is that life has proven time and again to be more unpredictable than the experts of the day ever thought. What molecular biologists call 'genes' are just temporary arrangements in the cell that instruct it to make proteins. They are not lasting things waiting there to be discovered: they are brought forth by an extremely reductionist and decontextualised view of life.3 Once you buy the gene-centred view, organisms are ready to be patented and engineered and gone is all reverence for life. In a future, saner society, people will find it laughable that so many learned people took life to be nothing more than 'genes'. Many of our indigenous contemporaries find it laughable already.

At war with nature
In the 1920s Erwin Chargaff chose to devote himself to the study of biology, fascinated by the wonder and diversity of life. 'Life is the continual intervention of the inexplicable,' he later wrote. He became one of the greatest biochemists of the century, and he inadvertently gave Watson and Crick the clue that would lead to the double-helix model of DNA. He deeply regretted that. 'My life has been marked by two immense and fateful scientific discoveries: the splitting of the atom, and the recognition of the chemistry of heredity and its subsequent manipulation... In both instances... science has transgressed a barrier that should have remained inviolate.'

Chargaff's autobiography Heraclitean Fire4 is a testimony of how biology became increasingly dogmatic and removed from life. Not just biology: 'Science was to grow into a machine for solving all kinds of problems which, in being solved scientifically, would give rise to even greater problems.' He saw 'genetic meddling' as an 'unthinkable crime' and as a worrying sign of a 'pathology of the scientific imagination' (even more than 'the desire to hop on the moon'). A letter he published in the journal Science in 1976 finished thus: 'This world is given to us on loan. We come and go; and after a time we leave earth and air and water to others who come after us. My generation, or perhaps the one preceding mine, has been the first to engage, under the leadership of the exact sciences, in a destructive colonial warfare against nature. The future will curse us for it.'

The biotech peepshow
Ethical behaviour is based on acknowledging the other as a mystery that cannot be explained away. We respect the other because they are unique, irreplaceable, because the roots of their being and the source of their freedom are beyond what we can fathom. Once we reduce the other to a label or explain them away, all respect is gone. As farmer and writer Wendell Berry says: 'To treat life as less than a miracle is to give up on it.'

The indigenous or organic farmer, standing on the soil, sees the seed as an embodiment of the wonder of life. She often plants the seed with rituals and prayers, always with care and respect, hoping that the elements of the Earth and the heavens will play their part so that, a few moons later, the miracle will happen again and the land will bear fruit. The genetic engineer, isolated from the world in a lifeless cubicle, sees the seed or the cell as instrument and plaything, while the business executive behind him sees them as commodities and secret alleys to everlasting power. They are likely to say that agriculture has always interfered with nature. But the difference between organic agriculture and genetic engineering is like the difference between child rearing and child abuse.

Meddling with life forms is an insane and irresponsible venture, with dangers as bound-less as the web of life itself

'Nature' (from the Latin natus, 'born') is what gives birth to itself and raises itself out of its own potential. Nature is an endless repository of freedom and creativity. But biotechnology craves to subdue this creativity, to rob nature of its own nature, to denaturalize and dispirit it. Peers at it armed with hi-tech peepholes, arid abstractions and financial fetters. Life's essence is ensnared and barcoded, chained to patents in the hold of a corporate slave boat, ready to be manipulated and sold, a mere object to be auctioned in the market, stripped, arousing the lust for power of an obscene gaze in the biotech peepshow. Bioslavery. Bioporn.

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Kristy Wynne

Vortex of power
Biotechnology is the most totalitarian spearhead of the Western mind's rebellion against the body and against life. Nietzsche saw the history of the West as driven by resentment against life. He wouldn't have imagined this resentment would go that far. The implicit aim is to become masters of the universe, to be above life, like God.

Barcoding life reduces it to a commodity, a cog in the stock market machinery. But the first, immediate casualty is the meaning of our lives, our sense of belonging to something bigger than ourselves. Losing respect for life, we lose respect for our own. To compensate for the loss of self-respect we crave more power over the world, which degrades us more, which makes us crave for more power, and so the cycle spirals.

Hegel observed that the master becomes slave. In fact, as wise men and women from many cultures have realized, tyrants and tormentors degrade themselves more than they degrade their victims. By objectifying life we also objectify ourselves. By alienating nature we alienate our own nature. Trying to stamp upon life we cut ourselves off from it: we deaden ourselves. No wonder the culture that wants to dominate life is a lifeless, depression-prone monoculture of bored consumers.

Meddling with life forms makes of them biomines that today threaten food security and tomorrow may devastate whole ecosystems. It is an insane and irresponsible venture, with dangers as boundless as the web of life itself. New human diseases that have proliferated in the last two decades could be related to genetic meddling and the resulting - even if not intentional - transfer of viruses and parasites across species. By paving the way for new 'superbugs' and 'superweeds' and drastically disrupting the food chain, whole species could be wiped out - including ours. The good news is that life cannot be subdued for very long. Even if the biodespots were to have the upper hand, the web of life would eventually, after a few million years, regain its balance. Hopefully, human sanity will wake up before that. 

Regardless of the delusions of the biodespots, life remains a miracle - and we are part of it.

Jordi Pigem [image, unknown] Jordi Pigem is lecturer in philosophy at Schumacher College in Devon, England. 

1 The Little Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (1943).
2 The Blind Watchmaker (Penguin 1996).
3 A good unmasking of the bad science behind genetics is Craig Holdrege's A Question of Genes: Genetics and the Manipulation of Life (Floris 1996). See also www.netfuture.org/inx_topical_all.html
4 The Rockefeller University Press 1978.

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