Science And Ethics Needed To Appraise GM

Published: Tue 7 Nov 2000 10:10 AM
Robert Mann
The open letter (Guardian May 21) from biologist Richard Dawkins to Prince Charles accuses HRH of 'hostility to science' and of 'embracing an ill-assorted jumble of mutually contradictory alternatives' in his reservations about genetic modification (GM).
The first distinction to make is that GM is technology, not science - though it does rely on a version of science which I discuss briefly below.
Dawkins thinks HRH "may have an exaggerated idea of the naturalness of 'traditional' or 'organic' agriculture. Agriculture has always been unnatural. . . . Wheat, be it ever so wholemeal and stoneground, is not a natural food for Homo sapiens." Allowing tools as natural, so that milling wheat to flour counts as natural, how is wheat not a natural food for us? Dawkins' explanation: "A wheat grain is a genetically modified grass seed, just as a pekinese is a genetically modified wolf. Almost every morsel of our food is genetically modified - admittedly by artificial selection not artificial mutation, but the end result is the same." This is perhaps the most stupendous falsehood in the whole GM debate. GM inserts foreign genes by processes very different from those that led from the wolf to the pekinese and those which produced modern wheat strains. GM is nothing like mere speeded-up natural processes. Indeed, its benefits are routinely claimed on just that basis - that nature will never insert jellyfish genes into sugar-cane, for example. But when drawbacks of GM are suggested, the proponents withdraw po-faced behind this smokescreen of deceit 'we're not doing anything unnatural'. A PR agent uttering this falsehood may just be too lazy to have researched the truth first (bearing in mind that truth is not a PR virtue); a biologist stating it is harder to forgive.
Dawkins says "the hysterical opposition to the possible risks from GM crops" may divert attention from "definite dangers which are already well understood but largely ignored. The evolution of antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria is something that a Darwinian might have foreseen from the day antibiotics were discovered. Unfortunately the warning voices have been rather quiet, and now they are drowned by the baying cacophony: 'GM GM GM GM GM GM!' " That account is almost unrecognisable. In the late 1960s official advisors, led by Professor Wm Hayes FRS (doyen of British microbial geneticists), pointed out that routine addition of antibiotics to bulk agribusiness stockfeeds would select multiple drug-resistance transfer factors which could then proliferate by bacterial promiscuity causing severe hazards, at least in hospitals. This grave warning was ignored, and some credit could be given to critics of GM who have lately been pointing out the misuse of antibiotic-resistance genes in typical GM crops. These recent complaints, far from drowning mainstream scientists' warnings, have valuably augmented them.
Evolution includes "no natural foresight, no mechanism for warning that present selfish gains are leading to species extinction" quoth Dawkins. What is the evidence for his assertion? Only his further novel claim "99 per cent of all species that have ever lived are extinct." Experts do agree that most species have gone extinct (90 per cent is the usual estimate); but why should any number of extinct species be interpreted as evidence that evolution is blind? If it were blind, how could any coherent ecology have evolved let alone proliferated in variety & complexity over several billion years?
Dawkins rightly points out that long-term planning is precious and fragile. He deduces "we must use all our scientific artifice to protect it". Quite so; let us begin by understanding what travesties of science are entailed in GM as now practised. Here are some of this trade's drastic falsehoods:-
* They pretend the DNA alphabet has only 4 letters (G, C, A & T) when it has been well known for decades that DNA also contains 'odd' bases - methylC, methylG, and others - whose biological functions are little understood.
* They pretend that the effects of genes inserted by radically unnatural methods are predictable, when they are known to be extremely variable (usually lethal).
* They pretend that a cell surviving such gene-insertion processes, and then selected on just one property - resistance to an antibiotic - and then grown into a whole organism, e.g. a potato, will have all properties at least as good as those of a normal organism. Never since the Nazi attempts to legitimize racism has science been so suddenly and severely degraded. Apologists for GM posing as defenders of true science are taking up an untenable, indeed ludicrous, stance.
According to Dawkins, thinking "here, means scientific thinking. No more effective method exists. If it did, science would incorporate it." On the contrary, thinking about GM will require non-scientific ideas as well as the valuable roles that scientific thinking will contribute. To assess artificial movements of genes from humans to cows, we will need not only a clear picture of the science involved but also a wider consideration of questions beyond science - ethical questions. I for one would take my lead from the Prince on ethical issues, rather than from one who keeps on saying that there is no plan in evolution but only the blind outworkings of the laws of chemistry through "selfish" genes.
Richard Dawkins boasts the title, as Guardian readers were told, "the Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science" at Oxford University. Not all readers would realise this means Oxford has accepted funding from one of the original Megasoft profiteers. The claim that GM is based in good science is consistent with this commercial connection.
This reply (which has here been slightly shortened for space reasons) was sent to the Guardian newspaper but not published;
Dr Mann, a biochemist, was the University of Auckland's first Senior Lecturer in charge of Environmental Studies and has been involved in scientific appraisals of GM since it was invented.
- Robt Mann consultant ecologist P O Box 28878 Remuera, Auckland 1005, New Zealand (9) 524 2949

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