Objector on the road to gene hell

December 25, 1998

Biologist Mae-Wan Ho thinks that genetic engineering is so catastrophic it could plunge the world into a scientifically induced nightmare. David King talks to her

Although she is rapidly acquiring a reputation as Britain's most fearsomely outspoken opponent of the genetic engineering of animals and crops, one of the first things Mae-Wan Ho tells me is that she used to be a good girl. Born in Hong Kong in 1941 and educated by Italian nuns, she did not stray from the straight and narrow path of orthodox science until she was in her thirties.

She sees herself as an earnest seeker after truth. In her book The Rainbow and Worm, she writes: "To me science is a quest for the most intimate understanding of nature. It is not an industry set up for the purpose of validating existing theories and indoctrinating students in the correct ideologies. It is an adventure of the free, enquiring spirit..."

She is outspoken because, for her, achieving a correct understanding of nature and man's relationship with it is crucial. She criticises the western objectivist model of science that separates knowledge of the world from morality. "I am trying to find a knowledge system to live by." At 57 she is still an idealist.

Until the 1970s, her career followed a fairly conventional path. After a doctorate in biochemistry at the University of Hong Kong, she worked as a biochemical geneticist at the University of California at San Diego and then came to the former Queen Elizabeth College (now part of King's) London on a fellowship from the US National Genetics Foundation. It was then, she says, that it became impossible for her to sustain her internal conflict between the reductionist science she was doing and her holistic views, which stem in part from being Chinese.

Much of her work since then has been a critique of reductionist science, but she is not a New Age mystic, and her more recent work has been aimed at providing a description of the physics of biological systems. "The problem about reductionist science is that it tends to see the world as a collection of bits, and views the connections between them as linear chains of cause and effect. It tends to ignore whole organisms, societies, ecosystems and the ecological connections between them. By holism, I mean seeing an organism as a whole and creating a description that pays attention to all the levels, from the molecular to that of the organism."

Together with her husband, Peter Saunders, she spent ten years working on alternatives to the orthodox neo-Darwinist view of evolution. "I just didn't believe the story that (genetic) mutations are totally random and then they get selected (by the environment), which is the dogma of neo-Darwinian theory," she says.

Since the mid-1970s geneticists have discovered many examples of processes through which genes are mutated, rearranged and jump about within chromosomes. "More importantly, they found that these processes actually respond to the environment, so that if you have a stressful environment, you are likely to increase gene jumping and mutations. It might be true that this is just increased randomness. But there is also a lot of evidence showing that you can get repeatable changes of the genes in given environmental conditions."

So the environment may be influencing genetic change? "You have to see the gene as having its own complicated ecology. It's got to fit together with other genes, with the physiology of the organism, and the organism is part of the ecosystem. So the new genetics is actually compelling us to take a very ecological view, even where genes are concerned. In order to keep genes stable, you have to have a balanced ecology."

Ho has had to face considerable difficulties in her academic career because of her views. In the 1980s, "I decided I simply had to get a tenured position to carry on doing what I wanted to do. I applied for an Open University position as a geneticist and decided to pass myself off as a human population geneticist, which wasn't too much of an exaggeration, I was a human biochemical geneticist. So I spent two weeks brushing up on the Hardy-Weinberg equation. Biologists think if you understand the Hardy-Weinberg equation, you must be quite bright. And I think I got the job on that basis."

This enabled her to come out of the closet, but her attacks on reductionist science have made it difficult to get grants and promotion. She says the university told her that: "Unless my enemies in the mainstream, like Lewis Wolpert and Richard Dawkins, say nice things about me, I can't get promoted." She has not received any grants for years and funds her research by sharing her salary with her technician and graduate student. "But I consider myself lucky that I can do this, I'm not saying, 'Oh, poor Mae-Wan'."

A turning point for Ho was an invitation in 1994 to attend a conference in Malaysia organised by the Third World Network, a radical environmental group, which involved scientists from around the world. Although she had never previously been involved in any political campaigning, she clearly enjoys the opportunity to speak her mind.

Genetic engineering is simply an offence to her entire world view, for it epitomises reductionist science. In her latest book, Genetic Engineering, Dream or Nightmare, she damns it as bad science. She argues that underlying genetic engineering is a simplistic genetic determinism, which assumes that genes determine biological characteristics in a simple, linear and additive way. She notes that no biologist would admit to this view, yet the practice of genetic engineering, and its popularisations, are all based upon and guided by it.

Even official environmental and food safety risk assessments depend upon the assumption that if a single gene is transferred into a new animal or crop, the result will be the simple addition of one new character. Interactions with other genes, the destabilisation of the genome caused by the process of genetic engineering and other nasty effects tend to be ignored. This, Ho says, is bad science, and she backs it up with examples where unexpected results have occurred.

Her particular hobby horse is "horizontal gene transfer", the transfer of genes between different organisms and species (as opposed to normal "vertical" transmission between generations). The classic example is the way bacteria have rapidly picked up antibiotic resistance genes from other bacteria, leading to a major public health problem.

Genetic engineering is dangerous, she says, because it uses viruses, which are specifically designed to transfer genes horizontally. These may speed up the rate of gene transfer, leading to ecological disruption. "The large-scale release of genetically engineered organisms is much worse than nuclear weapons or radioactive nuclear wastes, as genes can replicate indefinitely, spread and recombine. There may be time to stop the dreams turning into nightmares, if we act now before the critical genetic melt-down is reached."

In short, genetic engineering is a thoroughly Bad Thing and although Ho's critique comes first from science, she has added a political critique, which is summed up in the subtitle of her latest book, The Brave New World of Bad Science and Big Business. Reductionist science, she tells us, persists because it serves the interests of big corporations, who want to sell us foods we do not need, to solve problems created by industry in the first place.

Her solution is a five-year worldwide moratorium on commercial releases of genetically engineered organisms into the environment and a public inquiry. She feels that it is crucial that scientists speak their minds. "If we are not careful, we will get into a brave new world, in which corporations dominate everything, and scientists will be their accomplices." She says the scientific community in France is able to speak out because of a more reflective philosophical tradition that is lacking in Britain. "There is more pressure here on scientists to keep quiet, but it is all self-imposed. It has to do with your whole class system."

Ho, however, is happy to stand up and take extreme positions and has a number of scientific colleagues who will support her privately, but not in public. "Some of them use me like one of those buoys, to mark the limits of where it's safe to swim. If they find themselves on this side of Mae-Wan, they think they're safe."

Although she enjoys her current phase of political activism, she says she yearns to return to her ivory tower and concentrate on her research, which now centres on biophysics. She has studied organisms using a variety of non-invasive methods in order to "listen to nature". Her aim is to create an authentically western but holistic scientific paradigm, and The Rainbow and the Worm is nothing less than an attempt to answer the question "what is life?". Her tentative definition is, "Life is a process of being an organising whole. It is a process and not a thing, nor a property of a material thing or structure."

Perhaps the key thing about Mae-Wan Ho is summed up in her phrase "your class system". She is not English and she does not play by the rules of English academia. It can take an outsider to a culture or a scientific paradigm to illuminate it for those steeped in it, and despite what some see as over-enthusiasm, Ho certainly does that.

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