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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 (2005).
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 (Aug 29, 2002).
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 Stephen L. Talbott. NetFuture #123 (Oct 9, 2001). 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 Stephen L. Talbott. NetFuture #108 (July 6, 2000).
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 (Spring 2004).
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 (Spring 2004).
“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 (Nov. 24, 1998).
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 (Mar. 20, 1997).
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 Stephen L. Talbott.
NetFuture
#75 (July 30, 1998).
A short critical commentary on the thesis that genetic engineering is “natural” and nothing new.

“The Trouble with Genetic Engineering” by Stephen L. Talbott.
NetFuture #31 (Nov 5, 1996).
A review of Craig Holdrege's Genetics and the Manipulation of Life: The Forgotten Factor of Context.

“On Scrambling Genes Safely and Precisely” by Stephen L. Talbott.
NetFuture #161 (Mar. 9, 2005).
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://netfuture.org/inx_topical_all.html and search under “genetic engineering” and also “agriculture.”

Genes in a Larger Context

“DNA and the Whole Organism”, by Stephen L. Talbott.
In Context #34 (Fall 2015).
An attempt to show the place of DNA within the context of the cell and organism as integral unities. A key lesson: the organism knows what it is doing with its DNA.

“When Engineers Take Hold of Life: Synthetic Biology”, by Craig Holdrege.
In Context #32 (Fall 2014).
What happens when genetic engineers, becoming yet more ambitious, begin to envision the synthesis of altogether new life forms, using Lego block-like “BioBricks”? The ambition may be foolish, but huge resources are now being devoted to it, with grave implications for the biological future.

“Of Weeds, Milkweed, and Monarchs”, by Craig Holdrege.
In Context #31 (Spring 2014).
Genetically modified crops designed to endure herbicides now occupy great swaths of the American heartland. This may be good news for the manufacturers of the herbicides, but it does not look like good news for the monarch butterflies that must navigate through this heartland to their overwintering sites in Mexico. Monarch numbers have been declining in apparent synchrony with the increasing use of herbicides.

“From Mechanistic to Organismal Biology”, by E. S. Russell.
In Context #30 (Fall 2013).
An excerpt from marine biologist E. S. Russell’s 1930 book, The Interpretation of Development and Heredity: A Study in Biological Method, which contains some remarkably up-to-date understanding of what a whole-organism biology would look like. In this excerpt, the author begins with the provocative assertion: “Biology occupies a unique and privileged position among the sciences in that its object, the living organism, is known to us not only objectively through sensory perception, but also in one case directly, as the subject of immediate experience. It is therefore possible, in this special case of one’s own personal life, to take an inside view of a living organism.”

“Shattering the Genome”, by Stephen L. Talbott.
In Context #30 (Fall 2013).
A microorganism known as Deinococcus radiodurans can endure massive doses of radiation that fragment its genome into hundreds of pieces. Its proteins simply reassemble a whole genome from the fragments. It raises a question that turns out to be universally applicable: Where is wisdom stored in the organism? No place in particular — and certainly not only in the genome. We are forced to think of the organism in its totality as an active agent in the world. This article is part of The Nature Institute’s Biology Worthy of Life project.

“Plasticity, Stability, and Whole-Organism Inheritance”, by Stephen L. Talbott.
In Context #29 (Spring 2013).
The development of complex organisms tells a dramatic story about the plasticity of DNA in the “hands” of the whole cell and whole organism. The story of development is first of all a story — a narrative with intention and direction — not merely a series of physical causes and effects.

“Context-Sensitive Action: The Development of Push-Pull Farming in Africa”, by Craig Holdrege. In Context #27 (Spring 2012).
How do you control insects by attracting and repelling them at the same time? Hundreds of African farmers, particularly in Kenya, have been delighted to learn that a “push-pull” method really does the trick. The ambitious and economically important research program behind this development tells us a lot about how science can be productive in its own terms while also playing a socially transformative role.

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 Stephen L. 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 #14 (Fall 2005), 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 (Spring 1999).
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.

“Manipulating the Genome of Human Embryos: Some Unforeseen Effects” by Craig Holdrege (May 28, 2015).
An assessment of the first attempts to edit the genomes of human embryos using the latest and most sophisticated gene editing techniques. The ethical issues have been widely noted and — as far as the technology is concerned — we again find that the thing to expect most is the unexpected.

“Logic, DNA, and Poetry” by Stephen L. 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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