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Collapse of the Biotech Empire


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Guest Editorial May 2003

Mae-Wan Ho

16 May 2003

Collapse of the Biotech Empire

The biotech empire is fast collapsing because it has got the science wrong. The whole biotech enterprise, from GM crops and gene drugs to human cloning, is a phenomenal waste of public finance and scientific imagination.

One of the most persistent dogmas in Western science is genetic determinism, the belief that our genetic makeup, or our birth, ultimately determines who and what we are. This neo-Darwinian theory is very comforting for those who derive the most benefit from the status quo, and they are responsible for a huge ‘Darwin industry’ dedicated to ‘explaining’ why this is the best of all possible worlds, which is masquerading as mainstream science.

Genetic determinism was the guiding principle in the development of the modern science of genetics, which in turn gave rise to the eugenics movement that lasted at least until the mid 1970s in the United States and Europe. Not only were ‘inferior races’ persecuted; ‘inferior’ and ‘disabled’ individuals were also considered ‘unfit’ and targeted for elimination.

Eugenics is surfacing again as human ‘genomic’ science. Spawned by the sequencing of the human and other genomes, it promises to identify all the ‘bad’ genes that cause diseases and disabilities, so they could be eliminated at conception or before birth, while the ‘good’ genes would be promulgated, and, better yet, used for the ‘genetic enhancement’ of anyone who can pay for the privilege.

Genetic engineering greatly enhances horizontal gene transfer and recombination, the very processes that create new viruses and bacteria that cause outbreaks of infectious diseases and spread drug and antibiotic resistance.

An ‘academic-industrial-military complex’ has matured with the rise of gene biotechnology that is increasingly active in suppressing scientific dissent in the genetic engineering debate, threatening the survival of science and endangering lives. This time round, eugenics will not be sanctioned by the state. It will be up to the ‘global market’ to decide. The poor will become a genetic ‘underclass’. Social inequality will be redefined as, and transformed into, genetic inequality.

Fortunately, science as knowledge of nature is never just subject to our arbitrary whim and prejudice. We can delude ourselves, but only for so long. Nature has a way of fighting back, of puncturing our illusions. It is futile to think that we can go on ruining our ecosystem and stay healthy so long as we have ‘good’ genes. Genes, unlike diamonds, are not forever.

The story of the ‘fluid genome’, as related in my new book Living with the Fluid Genome, tells how geneticists came face to face with scientific findings that completely undercut the old genetic determinist paradigm. It makes nonsense of all the eugenicist claims and promises, and exposes the futility as well as the hazards of genetic engineering for the health of human beings and the entire life-supporting system that is our planet.

It is time for us to liberate ourselves from the genetic determinist myth and to recognize that the only way to keep genes and genomes healthy is to have a balanced ecology.

© Mae-Wan Ho 2003

Dr Mae-Wan Ho is Director of the Institute of Science in Society, editor of Science in Society magazine and author of Living with the Fluid Genome.

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