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Genetics and Biotechnology

The Nature Institute's contextual, qualitative approach to the study of organisms and heredity reveals the broader story of an organism, its interplay with the environment, and its relation to human society, vividly illustrating the limitations and dangers of single-target biotech "solutions" to complex problems.

Our Latest Book

Beyond Biotechnology: The Barren Promise of Genetic Engineering, by Craig Holdrege and Steve Talbott (University of Kentucky Press, 2008, 272 pages).

Reviewing this "this insightful new book" in Nature Biotechnology, biologist and philosopher of science, Lenny Moss, writes that he would "strongly encourage the adoption of this book as core reading for all incoming biotechnology, bioethics and philosophy of biology students." You will find further details and ordering information in our bookstore.

Biology Worthy of Life

The papers and other resources gathered here are part of an ongoing project by Stephen L. Talbott to reconsider the nature of the organism in light of recent discoveries in genetics, epigenetics, and molecular biology generally. The emerging picture could hardly differ more from the received — and still generally advertised — one. It is a picture of irreducible holism.

In our work we:

The Problem We Address

The question how humanity can obtain nourishment and healing substances from the earth without damaging the web of life that sustains us is critical. Genetically engineered plants and animals are technology's newest "answer" to solving the world's food and health problems. From soybeans that are resistant to herbicides to corn that produces its own pesticides, we are surrounded by a whole new realm of manipulative power.

This technology, which aims to effect discrete and predictable changes, overlooks the fact that organisms are living, complex systems, interacting with changing and dynamic environments. Any change to a part affects the whole. For this reason genetic manipulation is inherently unpredictable. When driven by the desire to control, gain scientific fame, and reap large profits, this technology presents an imminent danger to the interconnected and interdependent array of organisms and forces that serve as the context for all life on earth.

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Our Work

The Nature Institute offers insight into biotechnology to provide the basis for public participation in a conscious and responsible approach to our shared future. We want to stimulate critical thinking and inform the public, activists, and policymakers about a powerful technology that is proliferating across the globe without due regard to the acknowledged impact upon species diversity, health, economics, or human society.

Through our scientific research, publications, educational activities, and international collaborations with colleagues, we raise awareness of the limitations of a gene-centered understanding of life and the dangers of a powerful but one-sided approach to organisms through biotechnology.

Nature Institute director, Craig Holdrege, directs this program. He is the author of
Genetics and the Manipulation of Life: The Forgotten Factor of Context. David Suzuki, co-author of Genethics, said that "all budding geneticists, indeed, all biologists, ought to read this important work." Wes Jackson, President of the Land Institute, wrote, "I am tempted to shout that this may be the most essential new book of our time." And Lynn Margulis, co-developer of the Gaia hypothesis, remarked that the author cuts "through hype and nonsense to the crux of the matter — that our fundamental humanity develops in context."

Craig also gives talks and workshops nationally and internationally around this topic. Here is a list of some of these talks.

For upcoming talks please visit our Calendar of Events page.

Here is a list of publications on Genetics and Biotechnology:

Biotechnology and Agriculture:

"Will Biotech Feed the World? The Broader Context" by Craig Holdrege. This article describes the broader ecological, agricultural, and social context of feeding the hungry. The often heard claim that biotechnology is needed to feed the world's growing population shows itself to be rooted more in hype than in reality.

"Should Genetically Modified Foods Be Labeled?" by Craig Holdrege. NetFuture #135.
An in-depth article covering FDA food-labeling policies and presenting a cogent argument for the mandatory labeling of GM food.

"Sowing Technology" by Craig Holdrege and Steve Talbott. NetFuture #123; a version of this article appeared in Sierra (July/August 2001).
This article discusses current developments in agricultural biotechnology within an ecological context and shows the pitfalls of this approach to revolutionizing agriculture.

"Golden Genes and World Hunger: Let Them Eat Transgenic Rice?" by Craig Holdrege and Steve Talbott. NetFuture #108.
You may have heard that genetically engineered crops will enable us to feed the millions of hungry people on the planet. This article, which focuses on carotene-enriched rice, shows the shortsightedness of seeking purely technological fixes to complex issues.

"The Trouble with Genetically Modified Crops" by Craig Holdrege. In Context #11.
This 2004 article describes some negative consequences of eight years of commercial GM agriculture: the case of Percy Schmeiser, the contamination of our seed supply, and increasing pest resistance.

"From Wonder Bread to GM Lettuce" by Craig Holdrege. In Context #11.
"Nutrient-enhanced" GM food may soon be with us. What illusions and dangers are associated with this modern form of "wonder" foods?

"The Tyranny of the Gene" by Craig Holdrege. NetFuture #80.
This article highlights some illusions associated with the belief that genetic engineering can definitively control processes in organisms.

"Pharming the Cow" by Craig Holdrege. NetFuture #43.
Is the cow a complex genetic mechanism that we can manipulate at will for human ends, or is it an organism with its own integrity that warrants our respect? This article exemplifies the power of a holistic, contextual approach to tackle complex issues of technology and animal welfare.

"Is Genetic Engineering 'Natural'?" by Steve Talbott. NetFuture #75.
A short critical commentary on the thesis that genetic engineering is "natural" and nothing new.

"The Trouble with Genetic Engineering" by Steve Talbott. NetFuture #31.
A review of Craig Holdrege's Genetics and the Manipulation of Life: The Forgotten Factor of Context.

"On Scrambling Genes Safely and Precisely" by Steve Talbott. NetFuture #161.
Response to a New York Times columnist's claim that genetically engineered organisms are safer to eat than conventionally bred organisms.

For other commentaries on genetic engineering and agriculture that have appeared in our online NetFuture newsletter go to http://www.netfuture.org/inx_topical_all.html and search under "genetic engineering" and also "agriculture."

Genes in a Larger Context

Genetics and the Manipulation of Life: The Forgotten Factor of Context by Craig Holdrege (Hudson, NY: Lindisfarne Press, 1996)
This book provides a unique contextual perspective on genetics and genetic engineering not found elsewhere. Click here for details.

Science's Forbidden Question: Is Anyone There? by Craig Holdrege and Steve Talbott. /NetFuture /#166 (2007).
This article looks at the tension between biological science, which considers and manipulates life and living organisms as complex mechanisms, and the general human perception that animals and plants are creatures in their own right.

"The Gene: A Needed Revolution" by Craig Holdrege In Context vol. 14, pp. 14-17
The history of the concept of the gene dramatically belies the contemporary rhetoric that treats the gene as a fixed, well-defined thing that controls the organism and makes it what it is. Here the evolving concept of the gene is traced through the words of many of those who played a central role in elucidating the concept.

"Genes and Life: The Need for Qualitative Understanding" by Craig Holdrege. In Context #1.
Reflections on the question, "Which of our genes make us human?" None of them and all of them. The question, it turns out, betrays a grave misunderstanding of genes and people.

"Life Beyond Genes: Reflections on the Human Genome Project" by Craig Holdrege and Johannes Wirz. In Context #5, Spring 2001.
More than showing that genes determine life, the human genome project and other advances in genetics show that the organism itself determines what genes are and do.

"What Forms an Animal?" by Craig Holdrege. In Context #6, Fall 2001
An animal is formed by more than the interaction of genes and environment, as this article about lions and their skulls illustrates.

"Genes Are Not Immune to Context: Examples from Bacteria" by Craig Holdrege. In Context # 12, Fall 2004
The "lowly" bacteria are among our best instructors in the high art of genetic flexibility and adaptation. What we've been learning about bacteria illustrates the fact that the organism, along with its environment, provides the context that gives genes their meaning.

"Logic, DNA, and Poetry" by Steve Talbott. NetFuture#160, January 25, 2005
Both artificial intelligence researchers and geneticists have attempted to understand the word -- text, message, information, transcript, code, signal -- as if it were a matter of mechanized logic. And both disciplines have suffered embarrassment as a result. But with their compulsive appeals to word and text, code and message, geneticists may have glimpsed more truth than they are currently willing to acknowledge. When they finally reckon with the actual nature of the genetic word, they may find their entire discipline transformed.

Finally, here is a list of online resources relating to genetically engineered organisms—particularly their risks, regulation, and use.

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