Genetic Engineering: Is There a Curse on the Field?


The experiences of Gregor Mendel may have foretold the problems we see today in genetic engineering. Mendel lived in the last century. He became a monk and was known as Father Gregor. He had three notable problems in his life:


He was well schooled in physics, math, and biology ,but he flunked the Austrian National examination for a teacher's license several times.


He performed experiments with pea plant reproduction and published his findings in 1865. These were the first careful mathematical research efforts in the field of genetics, and his results were correct. His work is now recognized as the foundation of genetics, but it was completely unrecognized during his life. [why?] His published research was discovered in 1900, after it had been duplicated by several researchers.


A few years after publishing his seminal masterpiece, [name it?] he became the abbot of his monastery, and the rest of his life was consumed in struggles with the Austrian government over monastery taxes.


Let us compare each of Mendel's experiences with the issues of genetic engineering in the United States today:


Although Mendel had one of the finest, most imaginative, and comprehensive scientific minds of his time, he failed&emdash;several times&emdash;a government examination for a teaching license. The established norms of scientific understanding and the popular ideas of knowledge that were being tested in the government exam were rigid and outmoded to Mendel, whose thinking had progressed far beyond them.


Today, genetic engineers at large chemical companies and high-tech startups have convinced the Congress of the United States and the regulatory authorities in the federal government that the outmoded techniques of breeding and hybridization of the past few centuries are no different in substance from current high-tech genetic engineering techniques. These dominant figures in genetics keep saying publicly, over and over, that genetic engineering is essentially the same as traditional breeding, and that consequently no special public safety precautions are needed. Because leading government authorities believe this, the government has rejected calls by a small group of new-thinking scientists to license and label genetic experiments that result in food sold to the public.


This seems to be similar to the Mendel's experience with the state exam: outmoded way of thought are taken by government licensing authorities as the official canon. The brilliant Mendel was flunked, just as the scientists pleading for a conscientious review of genetic engineering are rejected.


The leading scientists whose views are being rejected are not a fringe element; they are professors from Harvard, MIT, Berkeley, and Stanford who have banded together to form the Council for Responsible Genetics. They are joined in their effort by scientists representing the three major organizations that advocate on behalf of consumers: the Consumers Union, the Environmental Defense Fund, and the Union of Concerned Scientists.


Now, let us compare Mendel's experience of publishing without recognition with the issues of genetic engineering in the United States today. Mendel' s immense and ground-breaking discoveries [what were they?] were wholly unappreciated by the scientific community of his time. Reading other papers in botanical journals of the same era, it is clear that most articles and most research was concerned with improving crop output. Much of this was accomplished by collecting and classifying plants and by experiments in grafting and breeding. Results were seldom measured against controls, and there were no carefully measured norms; anecdotal evidence was popular. Mathematical tables were nonexistent in botany journals. [how were his discoveries/conclusions different?]


Today, the dominant voices in a wide range of genetic engineering fields are proclaiming that a great future industry will be born based on gene manipulation. Great fortunes, massive international markets, and a proliferation of startup enterprises, we are told, are just over the horizon. Researchers are seeking federal grants and private funding for the future of genetics. Extravagant promises are made for new foods, new medical cures, and the ability to predict and avoid genetic problems. These promises are made on the simplistic premise that genes are the direct cause of biological outcomes, including plant attributes, animal behavior, and serious illnesses. In fact, a conference was called a few years ago to investigate the genetic causes for crime.


This scientific environment is very similar to the one faced by Mendel. All the scientists in his field were focused on promoting farming, and they ignored the core nature of reproduction as scientifically measured. [can you rewrite the last part of the previous sentence? "Mendel's scientific measurements, which established the nature of reproduction"? Is that what is meant? But "nature of reproduction" doesn't seem right&emdash;] Today, the promotion of industry has elevated a simplistic view of genetics to a level of national hysteria. Almost every week, the announcement is made of the discovery of a new gene that is tied to some serious illness or bad behavior.


The careful scientists in the field today are the modern Mendels. Unheard, they meticulously explain that genes are much more complex, redundant, and unpredictable than the popular press release suggests. The government ignores them. No legislator has introduced a bill to support them. No efforts are visible to slow down the pell-mell rush to subsidize the new industry. Caution has been thrown to the winds.


Genes do play a vital role in life. The simplistic notion that there is one gene for one result is wrong. In the case of most genes for vital cell functions and the development of a living creature, genes are very redundant. One, supposedly critical, gene can be removed and many cells and most creatures will survive without it. Similarly, supposedly critical genes that cause a specific result, say the color red in flowers, can be observed in situations where the nutrients or temperature are changed and none of the flowers are red. Most significantly, less than 2 percent of all serious illness can be tied to a specific gene. The remaining 98 percent are due to multiple interacting genes or are not genetic in nature at all.


Mendel spent much of his life struggling with the Austrian government over taxes. The issue in his day was the government's efforts to bring the formerly independent monasteries under national control to help pay for the large army, the ostentatious public buildings, and the pompous ceremonies that were part of a large imperial empire.


Today, the American government has a policy of making American business the dominant commercial power in biotechnology in the twenty-first century. To accomplish this rather imperial goal, every effort is being made to use public funds to support genetic engineering, and every effort is being made to eliminate public resistance and opposition to the new products of genetic engineering and to assure unbridled experimentation on the public and the environment.


The resistance to genetic engineering in America today parallels the resistance of Mendel's Eastern European monastery in the 1870s. The monastery was concerned with helping poor people, and with upholding morality and strengthening the social fabric of a traditional society. The opponents of unbridled genetic engineering point to each of the same concerns today.


Genetic engineering in agriculture and medicine will probably increase the wealth of large corporations and wealthy elites at the expense of small farmers, small business, the poor, and much of the third world. Genetic engineering of food and genetic testing for predicting medical conditions are already violating fundamental moral principles in America. Experimental genetically engineered food is being sold to Americans without labels or warnings. The American consumers are unwitting guinea pigs. Gene testing is growing in use, and already many innocent people have been refused medical insurance for no valid social reason. Serious ethical concerns have been raised by many people, yet no governmental action has been forthcoming.


Like Mendel, who tried to prevent the government of Austria from bending his monastery to its will, a few courageous Americans are resisting their government's unbridled support of genetic engineering at the expense of serious moral, health, and social considerations.


In genetics, it would appear that in many ways the life of Gregor Mendel may have foretold the fate of genetic engineering in late-twentieth-century America.


&emdash;Michael Phillips,  [add date]