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Scienceís Forbidden Question

by Craig Holdrege and Steve Talbott
(craig@natureinstitute.org, stevet@oreilly.com)

The sloth embodies slowness and brings slowness into its world. A cat-sized mammal, the sloth spends most of its time curled up like a ball in the crowns of South and Central American rain forests. As if to accentuate its passive nature, the creatureís fur soaks up rain and provides a habitat for algae, which gives it a greenish tinge. Living within a dense sea of edible leaves, the sloth can gather its meal with little movement. When it does move, it moves slowly. Hanging by its long claws and feeding on the surrounding leaves, it pulls itself along branches by means of the languid yet remarkably persistent force of its limbs. It is so much a part of the vegetative canopy that it becomes virtually helpless on the ground: its arms and legs cannot support its body weight, and it can only drag itself forward by sinking its claws in the ground and pulling.

The sloth itself, in turn, provides a habitat for a variety of mites, beetles, and moths, some of which live only in association with it. One of these moth species loses its wings and thereby its means of rapid flight from danger. It spends its days crawling through the forest of the slothís pelage. When the sloth descends to the forest floor to defecate, which takes awhile, this particularly slothful moth has enough time to crawl down off the sloth and lay its eggs in the freshly deposited excrement. So the slow sloth provides a habitat for a wingless and slow sloth moth. The inhabitation of the slothís fur by many other creatures may well be connected to its measured grooming activity during which, as ecologists J. K. Waage and R. C. Best have observed, sloth moths advance "in a wave in front of the moving claws of the forefoot, disturbed, but by no means dislodged from the host". Contrast this behavior with the fine, discriminating, and focused nit picking of monkeys and you get a glimpse into the character of the sloth.

The slothís gestation period of four to six months is substantially longer than that of similar-sized mammals. Young sloths nurse and cling to their mothers for up to six months, and researchers have found sloths up to seventeen years old in the wild, an unusually long life span for a small mammal. The slothís heart and respiratory rates are slow and, in a related expression of passivity contrasting with most mammals, its body temperature fluctuates markedly, reflecting changes in the daily ambient temperature. The sloth has considerably less muscle mass than other mammals its size and, characteristically, cannot shiver. (Shivering creates warmth through rapid muscle movement.) This combination of slow metabolism and lack of muscular activity fails to provide enough warmth to maintain constant body temperature. In a sense, the sloth does not close itself off from its environment as much as other mammals. It takes greater part in the ebb and flow of change in its environment.

The sloth is not only slow within the confines of its own skin; it radiates slowness out into the ecology of its habitat. Its hard and compact feces decompose over the long course of six months - slower than any other organic matter in the rain forest. Sloths are the most prevalent mammals in South and Central American rain forests; their feces serve as a significant fertilizer for trees, and the measured pace of decomposition of this waste slows down the otherwise rapid recycling of organic matter in the rain forest.

Even such a nascent understanding of the sloth, which fuller investigation only reinforces, reveals a creature that has its own integrity and coherence, a wholeness that lives in and through every part, a distinct nature. The animal speaks a unified language through its form, physiology, behavior, and ecology.

But who is there, doing the speaking? Do we have enough reason to speak of a distinct "being"? For many in the modern scientific community, the question cannot even be asked. While interminable debates go on among environmentalists and philosophers concerning why we should accept a responsibility of stewardship for our planet and how we can safeguard the "rights" of the diverse organisms with whom we coexist, scientists remain largely silent. But the debates will remain sterile as long as they hold themselves apart, lacking the courage to ask, and answer, the decisive question when we consider those other creatures: Is anyone there?

Is Anybody Home?

Imagine a biotechnologist wondering whether the sloth might be a good research tool for testing the efficacy of genes that enhance metabolic activity. Or another who wonders what causes the sloth to be slow; perhaps the animal could be mined for "slothful" genes for therapeutic use in hyperactive children.

To our knowledge, no such experiments are underway at the moment. But exactly this kind of reductionist and anthropocentric thinking, which operates in peculiar isolation from any profound understanding or concern for the nature of the experimental organisms scientists study every day, governs research laboratories around the world. Itís the sort of thinking that considers the organism to be a more or less arbitrary collection of potentially useful parts. This stance has led to the central motivating conviction of the contemporary biotechnologist: genes determine the organism; they are in this sense mechanisms of fate, predetermining the organismís way of being. Confronted with such mechanisms, we have little reason to ask, Who - if anyone - is there? What sort of being are you? What is our moral responsibility toward you? However, as the future of all life on this planet is given more and more into human hands, as science pushes further into the realm we once called destiny, this line of questioning is increasingly urgent.

We have all had the experience of opening ourselves to understanding other people - perhaps people we did not at all like on first encounter. The increased depth of understanding resulting from this receptivity, from this willingness to see others for who they are and to learn from them, is almost always dramatic. And it usually brings surprises. It is the same with any creature we get to know. (Ask the scientist who makes the "mistake" of befriending one of the experimental animals in the laboratory.) To shift from relating to others strictly as objects to developing personal relationships with them is to transform not only your feelings about the other creature, but also your understanding, which now grows out of a partly shared life.

As we do get to know other creatures, we will face plenty of questions. For example, we can be quite sure that some time in the human past wolves were domesticated. Was this a bad thing? It does not seem that a dog whose business is herding sheep or retrieving fowl has such a bad life. Nor do these dogs seem perverse additions to the planetís canine ranks, despite the ancient efforts to shape them to human needs. On the other hand, what about the monkeys given jellyfish-derived genes by researchers at the Oregon National Primate Research Center, so that they will glow green under ultraviolet light? Or the genetically engineered salmon produced by Aqua Bounty Farms in Waltham, Massachusetts - salmon designed to live within the artificial confines of fish farms, where they grow much faster than normal salmon, and achieve a greater size, while consuming less food? Or what about the "pharmed" goats created by the Genzyme Corporation in Massachusetts and Nexia Biotechnologies in Canada - goats whose genes have been engineered to make the animal a kind of factory for the production of pharmaceutical chemicals or other useful substances harvestable from its milk? Does such a goat have a bad life? To judge from immediate appearances, it continues doing all the things goats normally do, from grazing to butting to bearing offspring. Do we have any grounds for questioning the work of the genetic engineers who contrived what they view as a "living factory"?

The answer depends on whether there is anything in the character, or nature, of the monkey, salmon, or goat that suggests that our interventions are wrong or inadvisable.

Here, however, we run into two entrenched prejudices. One is the biologistís longstanding distaste for any talk of an organismís "nature". The fear among scientists is that such language smuggles into science the spooky notion of a ghost in the machine, an immaterial, mystical "essence" directing the organism from within. The language smacks of a being - a who - and we intuitively take beings to be very different from machines. Many biologists are far more comfortable with the view approvingly summarized by philosopher Daniel Dennett: all life is founded upon "an impersonal, unreflective, robotic, mindless little scrap of molecular machinery" - machinery in which, as he puts it emphatically, "thereís nobody home".

The other prejudice that hinders our capacity to value nonhuman organisms on their own terms is expressed in the more recent conviction that whatever nature the organism actually does possess is defined by its genes. In the 1950s, scientists began decoding the genetic structure of DNA and, with progressively greater sophistication, mapping the relations between sequences of nitrogen bases (elements of DNA) and sequences of amino acids (elements of protein). In this way they were able to picture the gene, consisting of hundreds or thousands of nitrogen bases, as a blueprint or program for production of a typically large and complex protein molecule. Because proteins are centrally involved in virtually every aspect of the organism, it began to seem as though DNA, with its full complement of genes, encodes a kind of computer operating system for directing the organismís development.

An operating system has the advantage that it can be conceived with immaculate purity as a fully determined, self-contained, controlling logic. It can be transported on a CD-ROM completely detached from any corporeal machine it is supposed to govern. Operating systems are compounded of clear-cut logic, are easily manipulable, and are free of undue complication introduced by physical reality. At the same time, they control the physical machine, and the control operates in a single direction: from governing logic to governed machine.

When genetic engineers manipulate an organismís genes, which they understand merely as the elements of a logical operating system, they have no standard by which to assess whether their actions do violence to the organismís nature. This isnít a problem for those scientists who deny such a nature exists. They are, in their way of viewing the world and mankindís relationship to it, simply exercising their godlike prerogative to impose their own arbitrary preferences upon the organism - that is all. In their conception of the world, the only way to judge whether one set of mechanisms is more morally justified than another is to weigh how well the overall machine serves the particular purposes for which we are inclined to employ it.

Genetic Flexibility

The defining - and extraordinarily limiting - question for science has long been, Does it work? Can you construct an apparatus that undergoes some reliable and predictable change? Devising such apparatuses is the beginning of technology, and technological usefulness is increasingly seen as the glory of science. Express any doubts about science today - about its narrowed, quantitative language of understanding, its preoccupation with mechanisms, its dismissal of the aesthetics aspects of understanding - and you likely will be met with the response, "But it works! How could it possibly be wrong? Look at all the amazing devices science has given us! Modern life is unthinkable without the overwhelming success of science".

But success in making things that work does not necessarily imply understanding, especially of living things. Trial-and-error - a method susceptible to an extreme degree of refinement and sophistication - can give us many things that work. Certainly, in one way or another, people can find ways to change how an organism "works". But how this success relates to a sound understanding of the organism itself is an altogether different matter. Anyone whose ideal of marriage is efficient manipulation of his or her spouse will learn soon enough that this is no path to understanding. In the case of genetic research, one can hardly argue that the likelihood of understanding is increased when researchers have little or no contact with the animals whose excised tissues and chemical isolates they employ in the laboratory.

The fundamental problem with belief in a genetic "operating system" is that there are no unidirectional lines of cause and effect between genes and everything else. The cell as a whole controls its DNA at least as much as the DNA controls the cell, just as the organism as a whole controls its cells at least as much as any group of cells controls the organism. All of which is to say that none of this is really about mechanisms of control at all.

It turns out, for example, that there is not always a simple one-to-one relationship between a gene and a protein. One gene, it now seems, can produce many different proteins, depending on complex processes orchestrated not only by DNA but also by proteins themselves. Moreover, one protein is not necessarily just one protein - not in any meaningful, functional sense. The role of a protein in the cell depends on which of various ways it folds upon itself, and these foldings are influenced by the immediate cellular environment.

But this is only the beginning. Through the still-mysterious process called imprinting, an organism may "turn off" a substantial portion of the genes inherited from one parent or the other - and it may reduce the effectiveness of many other genes. More generally, the process of epigenetic chromatin marking, or methylation, operates extensively throughout the genome. By this means the cell affixes "tags" - methyl-containing chemical groups - to various stretches of DNA, thereby modulating the activity of tagged genes. The modulation may go so far as to alter DNAís susceptibility to mutation.

Then there is the problem that 98 percent of human DNA lacks the coding that defines a gene. Because geneticists generally prefer well-defined logical mechanisms to the living reality of the cell, most spent a number of years dismissing this "junk DNA" as irrelevant to our genetic heritage. But the huge tracts of "junk" are now known to play a complex, cell-mediated regulatory role in how genes are expressed - that is, whether and how they function in protein formation.

On another front, new research is beginning to uncover a field of environmentally induced, or "adaptive", mutations. Back when everyone assumed that genes were in charge of the organism, the mutation of genes was ascribed to random processes. But now, in a dramatic departure from received doctrine, scientists have discovered that some mutations and mutation rates in bacteria depend on environmental conditions. For example, researchers in Sweden found that one strain of bacteria consistently produced different mutations, depending upon whether the bacteria were grown in a petri dish or injected into mice. In other words, different environments produced different mutations. "Mice are not furry petri dishes", as a research report in Science put it.

The prevailing view of gene-as-operating-system is increasingly beleaguered. "At the very moment in which gene-talk has come to so powerfully dominate our biological discourse", writes MIT science historian Evelyn Fox Keller, "the prowess of new analytical techniques in molecular biology and the sheer weight of the findings they have enabled have brought the concept of the gene to the verge of collapse". This series of developments challenges the general conviction that genes encode the controlling logic of the organism, and helps explain why we have yet to enjoy the widely advertised cornucopia of disease cures. As the Human Genome Project was reaching its climax in 2000, scientist Sol Hadden wrote in a letter to the editor of Nature that a look at the gene map of any species "reveals what looks like an explosion in a slaughterhouse. Where is the order we need, to make sensible rather than trial-and-error genetic manipulations?"

It is one of the more revealing paradoxes of modern science that molecular genetics, which is the poster child for the mechanistic approach to biology, shows the inadequacy of the operating-system approach. The question, Where is the controlling mechanism? has led geneticists back to the whole organism as the source of unity and coherence. At this point, it hardly seems radical to take up a different question about the organism: What sort of being do we find there?

Plastic Traits of a Recognizable Character

In the early spring of 1939 a male goat was born in Holland without forelegs. It passed its days in a grassy field, moving forward by jumping on its hind legs in a semi-upright posture. According to the Dutch morphologist, E. J. Slijper, who studied the goat, it moved much like a kangaroo, with both legs leaving the ground at the same time. It not only behaved rather like a kangaroo; it also grew rather like a kangaroo, with the changes penetrating right down into the form and articulation of its muscles and bones.

The bipedal goatís powers of musculo-skeletal adaptation are the same powers that produce, under more normal circumstances, the normal goat. What we take to be normal always reflects a common set of circumstances as much as anything else. Moreover, even unexceptional circumstances may yield forms that are far from fixed and predictable. In her book Developmental Plasticity and Evolution, Mary Jane West-Eberhard remarks on the extreme variability of vital organs such as the heart and stomach within normal populations: "Variants that might be considered monstrous pathologies if seen in isolation occur as part of normal development". If, for whatever reason, one part of an organism changes drastically, the other parts accommodate themselves to the new conditions without depending on genetic change.

So traits are plastic and what we actually see always reflects the organismís impressive powers of response to its circumstances. Doesnít it make sense, when we want to understand a particular organism, to try to understand these powers themselves, rather than some fixed set of determinants such as genes? Observation of this or that particular feature of an organism is important, but its significance lies in the fact that it has crystallized, under one set of circumstances, from a range of possibilities governed by an adaptive power. Such particulars speak of a living origin that, like all life, exhibits both integral coherence and adaptive plasticity.

The fact that traits are not definitively given does not mean the organism lacks recognizable character. Itís just that the recognizable character we find - the only such thing we could possibly find - is qualitative, expressive, and dynamic. Goats can, under extreme circumstances, develop certain kangaroo-like features. But goats no more become kangaroos than an eagle forced to live on the ground becomes a chicken. Even in their most radical adaptations, both goat and eagle give recognizable expression to their own nature.

To recognize that nature, however, requires us to step back from the immediately given physical object - the particular form of leg bone or spine, locomotion or grooming - and consider what is entire, what lives and moves as the result of a unique, qualitative, and adaptive shaping power working through the whole organism, adjusting part to part.

"Way of being" and "shaping power" - there is no need to make more of these terms than is justified by our current powers of observation. Let them remain as open as necessary. But neither is there any need to hamper science by deriding or ignoring the observations from which the terminology naturally arises. This means, among other things, not prejudging what sort of observation might yield fruitful results. It might be that asking about the nature of a creature is more like asking about the organic unity of a work of art than asking about the mechanical and external relations of the artworkís parts. In our brief description of the sloth we wanted to sketch a picture revealing some of the unique features of this animal - qualities so present throughout the whole that one can say, "Every detail speaks sloth". The same qualitative, imaginal approach can be brought to the entire natural world.

Conversation or Final Silence?

We can and do, as human beings, choose to modify plants and animals for human purposes. If this interaction is to be at all responsible, we cannot do this solely according to our own sense of utility. We must at least to some degree get to know the organism we are dealing with on its own terms - that is, by attending to how it expresses its unique qualities through its form, life, and behavior. Only then can we adapt our intentions to its propensities.

We do not need to choose between arbitrary manipulation on the one hand and the pretense that we can live without affecting the destiny of our fellow creatures on the other. No living organism can exist in perfect isolation. Between the detachment of cold manipulation and that of disconnection lies another option: responsible engagement. That is, we can enter into mutually respectful conversation with the other inhabitants of the Earth. Just as we unavoidably influence the people around us and are shaped by them, so it is with all creatures on the planet.

The idea that nature presents us with partners in conversation meets with strong resistance in many corners of society - not just scientific laboratories. Our intensifying history of scientifically-supported manipulation of nature, from wholesale habitat destruction to factory farms to the arbitrary shuffling of genes between species, is proof enough. How alien our fellow creatures now are to us is evident when, for instance, we breed poultry for outlandish aesthetic effects intended merely to tickle our fancies, or feed animal parts to herbivores to obtain the cheapest weight gain possible. In this last case, our surprise at finding we are driving some cows "mad" is a startling measure of our unwillingness to see the organism in front of us - to see its most obvious and characteristic qualities, its distinctive way of being, its given nature that requires our respect. It is hardly daring or unscientific to point out that the nature of a cow is to eat plants, not animal parts, cement, wood chips, and feces.

Yet given the apparent disinterest of scientists in what animals can tell us, it is no surprise that the cow itself has more or less disappeared from our scientific and commercial calculations. Nor is it a surprise that we can say little about the wisdom or folly of a pharmed goat or re-engineered salmon. We have spent a long time training ourselves to avoid asking the right questions. We have spent a long time averting our gaze from the living organism immersed in its own way of life.

This stance is no longer tenable, if only because genetic modification and various other technologies for intervening where nature and fate once ruled are now increasingly applied to human beings. The unborn whose genes are scanned; the elderly kept alive, at least physically, by ever more sophisticated machines; the seriously ill who receive experimental genetic treatments; the embryos rich in desirable stem cells - on every hand we are being given the opportunity to intervene in processes once reserved for "human destiny", just as we have long and unthinkingly altered the destiny of so many of our fellow creatures. And for ourselves, just as for earthís other inhabitants, our failure to ask Who is there? is already an answer - an answer that may prove a self-fulfilling prophecy: "no one".

ABOUT THIS NEWSLETTER

NetFuture, a freely distributed electronic newsletter, is published by The Nature Institute, 20 May Hill Road, Ghent NY 12075 (tel: 518-672-0116; web: http://natureinstitute.org). The editor is Steve Talbott, author of The Future Does Not Compute: Transcending the Machines in Our Midst (http://natureinstitute.org/txt/st/index.htm). Copyright 2007 by The Nature Institute. You may redistribute this newsletter for noncommercial purposes. You may also redistribute individual articles in their entirety, provided the NetFuture url and this paragraph are attached.

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