Evolution, genetics and society
By Ian Sanders
"Organic Life beneath the shoreless waves
Was born and nurs'd in Ocean's pearly caves;
First forms minute, unseen by spheric glass,
Move on the mud, or pierce the watery mass;
These, as successive generations bloom,
New powers acquire, and larger limbs assume;
Whence countless groups of vegetation spring,
And breathing realms of fin, and feet, and wing.”
(Erasmus Darwin, The Temple of Nature)
The problems posed by genetic science are philosophical as well as ethical and spiritual.
The aim of this article is to explain the philosophy underlying current genetic research, and correct
misconceptions held by public, media, industry and scientists. In particular I wish to consider the
role of genetics in plant and animal breeding, and in human health.
The origins of evolutionary theory
To explore how this philosophy arose; it is necessary to go back to the beginnings of
evolutionary theory. I refer throughout to evolutionary theory, rather than Darwinism, because I
believe that the Theory of Evolution owes as much to Lamarck, Wallace, Lyell, Blyth (who began
writing a paper entitled The Origination of Species) and Erasmus Darwin (grandfather of Charles),
as it does to Charles Darwin. Similar ideas had been circulating for decades at least before the
publication of The Origin of The Species. At best, Charles Darwin could be credited with
discovering the mechanism of evolution (natural selection of random mutations), but even this is
debatable1. Evolutionary theory arose out of a range of scientific and social theories, which were
current in Victorian England. This paradigm continues to influence politicians, the media, and the
biotechnology industry, even though many (possibly most) evolutionary biologists rejected it long
Progress and evolution
One implicit assumption that was tagged on to evolutionary theory was the idea of progress.
The Victorians were great believers in progress. Britain had been the first country to industrialise,
and by the time of Darwin, was ruling much of the world. It was easy for certain Britons to believe
that white Europeans (and especially the British) had proved their superiority over other races. The
fact that the average working class Briton had a lower standard of living than the average Australian
aborigine was conveniently ignored, as was the tendency of empires to rise and fall. The industrial
revolution had actually caused a decline in average living standards, which was not totally reversed
until the twentieth century. The medical profession had grown into a wealthy and respected industry
during this time, but of all their remedies, only smallpox vaccination significantly increased life
expectancy. Improved sanitation increased life expectancy in the latter half of the 19th century3, but
this should not be regarded as progress, rather as the solution to a man-made problem: It was
industrialisation and the consequent growth of overcrowded cities that had created the outbreaks of
cholera, dysentery etc.
The idea of social progress combined with the concept of “The great order of being” as
proposed by Pope, in which all species have a place in a hierarchy of life, and both ideas coloured
evolutionary theory. Evolution was seen as “progress up” the hierarchy of life. The ape King Louis
expresses this idea in The Jungle Book: “I’ve reached the top and had to stop, and that’s what’s
botherin’ me”. The misconception is a subtle one: Evolutionary theory does not state that humans
are “descended from apes”, rather that humans and apes share a common ancestor. Modern day
apes are the cousins of humans, and therefore have been evolving on the earth for precisely as long
as humans, whales, elephants, sharks, fungi, plants and bacteria. DNA analysis has raised the
possibility that modern day chimpanzees could be descended from early humans. This does not
mean that they “regressed”.
The majority of organisms on earth are simple: bacteria, algae, moulds, protozoans etc.
Every species of vertebrate (mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish) has at least one unique
parasite. Parasites and hosts follow each others evolution. The human tapeworm has no gut, no
internal organs, just a long body, adapted to living in the human gut, soaking up pre-digested food.
It has been evolving as long as we have, yet remained simple. Sharks have changed little since the
time of the dinosaurs, because they have not needed to.
Evolution has no direction. Species can become more or less complex, more intelligent or
less intelligent, faster or slower, stronger or weaker depending on the environment in which they
are living at a particular time. Organisms may remain apparently unchanged for millions of years,
or they may evolve in ways that are not immediately obvious to us: subtle changes in their
biochemistry for instance. To paraphrase Stephen Jay Gould, life is not a ladder, it is a tree. Looked
at in this light, there is no hierarchy of nature, and no such thing as a “primitive” or “advanced”
organism. This obviously creates ethical problems: If humans are not “more advanced” than other
organisms, how can killing animals for meat, or using animals in medical research be justified?
Worse still, if vertebrates are not “more advanced” than insects, bacteria or plants, must we all
adopt the extremes of the Jains, who go naked to avoid killing fleas on their skin and don’t even kill
whole plants for food? The Jains are in any case attempting the impossible. Their immune systems
kill microbes and parasites every day. Personally, I feel that rather than trying to cut ourselves off
from nature for “moral reasons”; we should be more aware of our position within the food chain
and try not to upset the rest of the chain.
The concept of progress is misleading for another reason: Technological change (which may
or may not be “progress”) is happening far more rapidly than human evolution could possibly
occur. Evolution by natural selection requires generations for the smallest change to occur. Only a
handful of evolutionary changes can be shown to have occurred since the dawn of civilisation, e.g.
the ability of some races to tolerate raw milk and alcohol. In contrast, major social and
technological changes can happen within a few years. Richard Dawkins has invented the concept of
“memes”: units of social inheritance such as ideas etc. that are reproduced and spread by word of
mouth, books, and telecommunications4. Memes, he suggests evolve like genes, only much faster.
Ironically, by this logic, the meme concept is itself a meme, albeit a rather unsuccessful one! The
meme is an elegant attempt to link evolution and social change, but there are still clear differences
between the two: evolution creates new forms from old ones. The human hand has evolved from the
same limb that gave rise to the bat’s wing and the dolphin’s flipper. New aircraft are not built from
pieces of old aircraft, and the designs are often radically different from anything that has come
before. Stephen Jay Gould, suggested that the best analogy for evolution in human technology is the
widespread third-world practice of making sandals out of old car tyres! Another example is the
canoe, the basic design of which is found all over the world, whether made from a hollow log, from
birch bark, or from animal hide on a wooden frame. This could be seen as analogous to convergent
evolution, the process by which unrelated species in similar environmental conditions evolve to
closely resemble one another, e.g. the wolf and the thylacine, or Tasmanian wolf. Car-tyre sandals
and birch bark canoes are rarely cited as examples of human progress!5 6
Charles Darwin was heavily influenced by Lyell’s idea of gradual change over millions of
years (gradualism), and he rejected notions that evolution might occur in sudden leaps (punctuated
equilibrium). Prior to Lyell geologists had believed that fossils of extinct animals were creatures
which had died in the great flood, or in a series of catastrophic floods, of which Noah’s flood was
only the most recent (a belief known as catastrophism). Many scientists and clergy doubted the
literal truth of Genesis long before Darwin. Ironically in recent years, the idea of punctuated
equilibrium in evolution has gained a lot of support. Recent geological research has shown that
numerous times, life on earth has been nearly eradicated by catastrophic events, such as meteorite
impacts. Gould suggests that there is a considerable element of chance in evolution: When a large
meteorite hits earth, whole classes of organisms can be wiped out, leaving a few survivors to
diversify and fill the available niches. If events had been even slightly different, the dominant
animal life on earth might have resembled giant woodlice! Ironically the catastrophists are being
Darwin also coined the term “survival of the fittest” which has proved very misleading. By
“fittest”, Darwin meant “best suited to survive”. Survival of the fittest means therefore “survival of
the survivors”, a tautology. Physical fitness is a result of lifestyle rather than of genes, and is
therefore not inherited. If evolution is seen as a process of diversification, rather than a “race to the
top” the idea of constant, desperate life and death struggle becomes less valid.
It is the idea of evolution by blind chance that appears to conflict most strongly with
Christian teaching, as it seems to rule out the need for a creator. However, creation can be viewed
as a continuous process, from the creation of the universe until now. Those on the extremes of the
debate (insisting either that the world was created in 6 days or that everything in the universe is the
outcome of blind chance), seem to have a very narrow concept of what “creation” and “God” are.
One side insists that life is the inevitable result of a particular set of conditions, and natural laws,
without questioning how those conditions and laws came to be the way they are.The other side
clings rigidly to a set of metaphors from another era: the thunder god, who creates man from clay.
Darwinism and Genetics
Modern genetics is said to begin with the research by the Austrian monk Gregor Mendel
into breeding of sweet peas, which concluded that there were “units of inheritance” for traits like
plant height and flower colour. Mendel’s “units of inheritance” are what we would call genes.
Darwin had read Mendel’s work, but failed to see its significance. Mendel’s work was rediscovered
in the early twentieth century, but since then, even with the discovery of DNA structure in 1953,
genetics has not made any great improvements to our lives.
Mendelian genetics in medicine
Mendelian genetics has made it possible to examine family trees, identify certain hereditary
diseases and then advise couples whether or not to have children if there is a risk of those children
inheriting the disease. This only works if the disease has been identified as hereditary, and the
couple is aware of the risks. This approach is unlikely to be useful in preventing most hereditary
diseases, simply because there are so many hereditary diseases in the world. The average person is a
carrier for about 6 (usually rare) fatal recessive genetic diseases. These diseases will never be
expressed unless two people carrying the same disease have children together. Even if everybody
kept detailed family trees, and consulted a geneticist before having children, it is unlikely that this
would prevent many children from being born disabled, as so many diseases would remain
undetected. Adultery would of course create further complications. The best advice any geneticist
could give would be not to marry anyone who is known to be a relative. Ironically Charles Darwin
married his cousin, Emma Wedgewood!
To these small benefits of Mendelian genetics should be added the problems created by
eugenics. Eugenics was invented by Francis Galton, another cousin of Charles Darwin. Galton was
an eccentric who attempted to apply contemporary evolutionary theory to human beings. For
example he noted that couples who were romantically linked, tended to lean towards one another,
whereas couples who were not leaned apart. By placing pressure sensors under the legs of dining
chairs, he hoped to measure the physical attraction between guests at his dinner parties! Galton
suggested that human beings should be “bred” for desirable characteristics such as intelligence,
physical fitness and good looks. The premise of eugenics is that humans have been progressing as a
result of natural selection and that this process needs help if it is to continue.
His ideas became increasingly popular during the early part of the twentieth century, and
were enthusiastically adopted by the Nazis (but did not end with them). One popular idea was that
people with “low intelligence” had more children and therefore, (assuming that “intelligence” was
genetically based) the world would soon be overrun with stupid people. Sterilisation of the
“mentally ill and retarded” was one consequence of eugenic thought, and this continued in Sweden
until comparatively recently. The other side of eugenics was “positive eugenics” the idea that as an
alternative to sterilising or murdering the “genetically inferior”, people with “good genes” could be
encouraged to have more children. Margaret Thatcher supported this policy with tax breaks and
benefits for academics to encourage them to have more children.
The problem here has still not been resolved. Eugenics has largely gone out of fashion,
except among extreme far-right groups, but the problem remains: Do humans obey the same natural
laws of genetics as animals and plants? If so, then eugenics is essentially correct, and serves the
greater good, however abhorrent it appears. If humans do not obey these rules, then why not? Why
should humans be shaped solely by nurture, while other organisms are shaped by nature?
The environments in which humans live have changed massively in the last few thousand
years (a very short time in evolutionary terms). New evolutionary pressures present themselves to
humans every generation: new environments, new diseases, new diets, new lifestyles, new types of
social interaction etc., and so humans will have difficulty adapting. Who knows what abilities we
will need in 10,000 years time? If a gene slightly increases the likelihood of a twenty-first century
human being mentally ill, alcoholic or having a low IQ, can we say with any certainty that this gene
does not and cannot provide any benefit to humans under any circumstances, now or in the future?
It should be remembered that such genes increase the likelihood of people developing a trait such as
alcoholism, that only a tiny minority of (say) alcoholics will have this gene, and it is probably
misleading to view it as a gene “for” alcoholism at all. Very few cases of “genetically determined
alcoholism” are likely to be observed in strict Muslim countries. There is no reason to believe that
genes for personality traits conflict with ideas of free will.
What relevance would the ability to score highly on IQ tests have had to our stone-age
ancestors? Research has shown that Australian Aborigines have better spatial memory skills than
Europeans. Until recently, the aboriginal lifestyle required them to navigate for miles, find sources
of food and water etc. in what appears to us to be a featureless landscape. Given many generations,
humans could evolve who were perfectly suited to modern urban life. Currently this environment
seems better suited to rats and pigeons than humans. Darwin’s concept of “fitness” means nothing
by itself, unless reference is made to the environment in which the organism lives. Organisms have
adapted to live in virtually every environment on earth. The nature/nurture debate is based on an
Many genetic disorders can be cured by conventional medical techniques (gene therapy has
been largely unsuccessful so far). The hereditary disease phenoketylnuria can be cured if children
with the disorder keep to a diet low in the amino acid phenylalanine. Congenital deformities can be
corrected by surgery, hormone imbalances with hormone therapy etc. There is no reason why a
person with a gene “for” alcoholism should feel that they must drink themselves into the grave, or a
person whose particular gene/environment combination have predisposed him to violence, cannot
chose or be helped to avoid committing violent acts. Rather than attributing undesirable behaviour
to genes, or the environment (and thereby seemingly excusing it), all that can really be said is that
human behaviour is unpredictable and everyone has a different personality. Christians have
traditionally stressed the importance of teaching and religious instruction to guide people away
from sin, but have never denied that different personality types exist or that different people are
exposed (and predisposed) to different temptations.
Plant and animal breeding with the aid of Mendelian genetics
It is a widely held view that modern genetics has allowed scientists to improve crop plants
and domestic animals, and thus help to feed the world. This idea needs to be scrutinised carefully.
To begin with it is not clear how much modern plant and animal breeding owes to Mendel and
Darwin. Since the dawn of agriculture, farmers have been using their healthiest animals for
breeding and their healthiest crops for seed. In addition a lot of “breeding” would have occurred
unintentionally: animals and plants which were genetically unsuited to the conditions in which they
were grown, would naturally remove themselves from the gene pool, by dying before they reached
maturity. Admittedly the precise processes by which traits were inherited was not understood.
Farmers in the seventeenth century would mate cattle in front of a white wall if they wanted white
calves. The story of Jacob, Laban and the speckled goats describes a similar belief. It is likely that
this belief arose because many farm animals do not breed true for coat colour. White goats can be
carriers for a gene that causes a speckled coat.
By the time of the agricultural revolution, however, most of the techniques of modern plant
and animal breeding were already in use in some form. Farmers were crossing different breeds of
livestock to obtain hybrid vigour in the offspring. Prize bulls and racehorses were being intensively
inbred to produce “thoroughbred” animals.
After WW2, modern genetics was applied to crop breeding. Fertilisers, insecticides,
fungicides and herbicides had become available. The resulting changes in agriculture became
known as the green revolution. New varieties of cereals and other crops were produced. It was
firmly believed that through the application of Mendelian genetics, crops could be improved and
made higher yielding. Results seemed promising at first. Crop yields rose, but the new crop
varieties were only high yielding under certain conditions. Many of the cereal varieties had been
bred into dwarf forms, the logic being that dwarf cereals would transfer more of their energy into
producing grain and less into producing a long stalk. This meant that they were unable to smother
weeds effectively, and so herbicides were required. In a similar way, they needed high inputs of
fertilisers, and pesticides, because the new varieties lacked the ability to grow in soil without high
levels of readily soluble nutrients. Also, the crops had been bred in the presence of pesticides and
fungicides, and consequently the crops lacked natural disease and pest resistance. The use of
herbicides that killed broad-leafed plants ensured that the new cereal varies needed to be grown as
monocultures. In many parts of the world, cereals were traditionally grown as intercrops. For
example, rows of cereal were alternated with rows of beans. The result is that yields of the
individual crops are slightly reduced, but the total yield of both crops is high.
Attempts were made to breed disease resistant crop varieties. The approach was to identify
plants with genes for pest and disease resistance. Mendelian techniques were then used to see how
the resistance genes were inherited, and a strain was bred with these genes. It was not possible at
that time to know the precise DNA sequences involved, but the Mendelian techniques allowed
inferences to be made about the genes involved. Production of F1 hybrids was increased. These are
the first generation resulting from a cross between two inbred varieties, for example, a high yielding
variety with poor disease resistance and a low yielding, hardy variety with good disease resistance.
The resulting crop is highly uniform and has the best characteristics of both parents: disease
resistance, and high yield. Seed can’t be saved from F1 hybrid crops, because the resulting plants
do not breed true, much like Laban’s goats, they would be a mixture of genetic types, many of
which would have one or both of the undesirable traits (low yield, low disease resistance) of their
It was believed that if all farmers were pursuaded to grow these “improved” crop varieties,
then the pests and diseases could be eradicated. The problem was that the disease resistance didn’t
last. Within a few years, the new crop varieties succumbed to new strains of disease and to pests. It
is now suspected that some plant diseases are in competition with one another, and that many
diseases may be living on our crops, but their effects are barely noticable because they are
suppressed by other diseases. When one disease is temporarily eradicated, another takes its place.
The plant breeders’ response to this has been to produce more “improved” crop varieties, but the
new resistance rarely lasts long. Governments and the EU produce lists of “approved” crop
varieties, which must have been through an expensive trials period to test their yield and
performance. Growing unapproved crop varieties is discouraged or forbidden. The long term effect
has been a massive reduction in the genetic diversity of the worlds crops, as farmers who have
traditionally saved their own seed, switch to green revolution “improved” crop varieties. Around
40% of the crop varieties in existence in 1945 are now extinct.
Despite all of the effort into improving crops and improving farming methods, farmers now
lose a higher percentage of their crops to pests and disease than they did in 1945, and expenditure
on pesticides has increased accordingly.
A similar approach has been applied to the breeding of animals. Mendelian genetics was
used to breed faster growing animals, producing more meat, milk and eggs. Animals are now rated
for “genetic merit” a measure of their growth rate, productivity and disease resistance, and their
breeding is described as “genetic progress”. Hybrid animals are commonly produced, and artificial
insemination means that one male animal can fertilise thousands of females. Increased international
trade and subsidies has allowed farmers to buy in high protein feed such as soybeans to feed to
animals. Intensive animal production units have replaced traditional mixed farms. Previously
animals had been valued for their ability to produce something of value (i.e. meat, milk, eggs, wool,
etc) from something of no direct use to humans (i.e. grass or waste food), while producing manure.
Now they are increasingly seen as a source of a single product. One consequence of this approach is
that animals have been bred with a requirement for a rich diet. Dairy cows fall victim to mastitis,
lameness and a host of other illnesses if their diet isn’t adequate. Some dairy cows now convert
over a 1/3 of their body protein into milk protein every day. The principle result of dairy cow
breeding programs has been extremely large cows with huge appetites. Veterinary bills, use of
antibiotics etc. have all increased.
The genetic basis of pest and disease resistance
In the long term, these attempts to improve crop and animal disease resistance using modern
genetics have been largely unsuccessful. Paradoxically this is because the plant breeders have failed
to grasp the implications of modern evolutionary genetics.
Pest and disease resistance in plants and animals can be seen as a low-level war between a
pest or disease and the plant or animal. The plant or animal evolves a genetic defence against the
pest or disease. Often this is a chemical that kills the pest or disease. This creates a situation in
which there is strong evolutionary pressure on the pest or disease organism: Only a tiny minority of
the pests or diseases will be able to attack the plant or animal, but these will quickly spread as soon
as the necessary evolutionary jump has been made. The plant or animal will then be under similar
evolutionary pressure to evolve new defences. This raised a question for evolutionary genetics:
Insects can be born, grow up and reproduce in a few days. Bacteria can go through many
generations in a single day? How then do oak trees, humans and other long-lived species evolve fast
enough to keep up with the diseases and pests? One possible answer was the Red Queen hypothesis,
formulated by Leigh Van Valen10.
According to the Red Queen hypothesis, long-lived organisms are “running just to stand
still” (like the Red Queen in Alice through the Looking Glass). Any defence against pests and
disease which the animal or plant is born with will be obsolete by the time the organism reaches
maturity, as the pests and diseases will have developed a counter mechanism. Sexual reproduction
ensures that the genes coding for various aspects of the defence mechanism are swapped around
every generation, creating radically new and different defences, by mixing old ones. Long-lived,
multicellular organisms are more likely to reproduce sexually than short lived and unicellular
organisms. Crop plants, which are produced, asexually, e.g. potatoes, often suffer from serious
By analogy, imagine a village plagued by burglars. All of the houses are kept locked at
night, but every year some of the houses still get burgled because ingenious burglars found a way to
pick or break the lock. Some locks are stronger or less easy to pick than others, and there are many
types of lock: padlocks, combination locks and electronic locks for instance. Now imagine that the
local police visited the village, observed that this year, houses with a particular type of padlock
were less likely to be burgled. The police tell everyone in the village to get this type of padlock on
their doors. The following year the burglary rate drops dramatically, but the year after, one of the
burglars returns with an improvised lockpick and manages to burgle most of the houses in the
village, defeated only by a few of the locks. The police conclude that everyone in the village should
obtain locks that are precise replicas of those on the few secure houses. Two years later, virtually
every house in the village gets burgled. The most important thing about locks is that they are all
different. The villagers should have used as many different types of lock as possible and change
them every year.
Returning to animal and crop defences against disease, the best strategy for plant breeding is
to encourage as much diversity as possible, so that new crop or animal diseases or pests won’t
suddenly spread around the world in a single growing season. Breeding programs should be
decentralised and farmers should be actively encouraged to save seed. Research has shown that
planting a mixture of genetically-diverse rice varieties increases yields by 89% and reduces disease
There is another reason for encouraging diversity: every farm has a different soil, different
climate, different pests and different farming methods. Centralised plant and animal breeding
programs cannot hope to produce varieties suited to all these different conditions. The environment
also varies spatially, and wild plants often form genetically distinct subpopulations adapted to local
When an “improved” crop variety performs poorly, this is usually attributed to a shortage of
the right nutrients in the soil, or to the farmer’s failure to use the right pesticide. In other words, the
environment must be modified to suit the “improved” crop.
One effect of the green revolution that is not often mentioned is micronutrient malnutrition.
As has been mentioned, the green revolution caused many people in the third world to switch to a
diet consisting almost entirely of cereals. In addition to this, many of the green revolution crops are
now known to be low in trace elements such as iron and zinc. The massive problem of zinc, iron
and vitamin A deficiency in the third world is almost entirely due to green revolution crops and
farming methods7 8. Common, tropical edible weeds such as mustard and bathua used to provide
many small farmers in the third world with their vitamin A requirements, but herbicide use has led
to their eradication. When the total yield of animal products, annual crops, fruit, edible weeds etc. is
considered, many traditional third world farms yielded 20 tonnes of food per hectare, and in
addition, the wide variety of crops grown provided security in the event of one crop failing. The
most intensive cereal monoculture struggles to produce 10 tonnes of grain per hectare8.
The problems that the plant and animal breeders set out to solve have, by and large, got
worse. Yields have improved, but it is not known how much of this can be attributed to the
breeders. As I have tried to show plant and animal breeding has not actually taken much notice of
recent developments in evolutionary genetics, and in any case, the basic philosophy of modern plant
and animal breeding was in operation before Darwin, Mendel, Watson and Crick. Plant and animal
breeding has changed over the last century, but generally this change has been a move towards
greater centralisation, fewer crop and animal varieties, and greater use of hybridisation. None of
which can really be attributed to any of the aforementioned scientists. Plant and animal breeders
still act as though they believe that a perfect plant or animal could be produced if all of the
“inferior” genes could be removed from the gene pool, and replaced by “superior” ones. This
“superiority” is meaningless if the environment in which the species are bred is not considered. The
result has been inbred plants and animals bred for farming systems, which have in turn been
modified and homogenised to suit the crops and animals. These farming systems are often
expensive, polluting and unsustainable (meaning, by definition, that they will have to change in
future), but the loss of diversity makes future breeding of crop plants more difficult.
Genetic engineering and cloning
Press releases about new genetically modified crops or cloned animals, usually say
something to the effect that “Scientists believe that genetic technology/animal cloning will result in
new crop/animal varieties which will feed the world, resist all known diseases, cope with
drought/saline soil/pollution etc.”
“Scientists” in this context invariably means molecular geneticists, or more likely public
relations or marketing executives interpreting the latest discoveries in molecular genetics.
Often this is simply a high tech version of the old Mendelian methods: identifying genes for
high yield, disease resistance etc. using molecular techniques (DNA sequencing etc.) and then
breeding them into new animal and plant varieties. The basic philosophy remains the same, but the
technology is more sophisticated.
More recently has been the promise that genes from a wide range of organisms can be
artificially introduced into crop plants and animals, in order to “improve” them, the so called
genetically modified or genetically engineered (GE) varieties. Molecular genetics is hailed as the
solution to agricultural problems, to medical problems, and to political and social problems such as
world hunger. However, the molecular geneticists often seem remarkably naïve about these issues.
Golden rice (so called because of its yellow tinge) is a GE strain of rice containing genes from
daffodils. Golden rice contains additional vitamin A, iron and zinc, and has been hailed as a
solution to the micronutrient malnutrition problems of the third world, by the Rockerfeller
Foundation. Much has been made of the problem of blindness caused by lack of vitamin A. What
has not been mentioned often is that this is a man made problem (as explained earlier). Ironically,
the Rockerfeller Foundation played a large part in creating these problems during the green
revolution! Golden rice doesn’t actually contain much available vitamin A. An adult eating a
balanced diet (so as not to get other forms of malnutrition) could reasonably hope to get about 5%
of the recommended daily dose of vitamin A from golden rice. In this respect, “golden rice” is a
fairly poor source of vitamin A, compared to green vegetables9. It should also be remembered that
the object of the genetic engineering was to put extra vitamins and minerals into white (polished)
rice. Brown (wholegrain) rice already contains vitamin A, along with a wide range of other
vitamins and minerals, but these are removed when the rice is processed into white rice.
Genetic engineers believe that they can overcome natural limits to evolution, (which almost
certainly exist) by “redesigning” plants and animals with new genes. This is theoretically possible,
but there is little evidence that it can be achieved in practice. The most widely successful
application of genetic has been herbicide resistant crops. Here a plant is being bred for an
environment with large amounts of herbicide in it.
GE crops are sometimes presented as a solution to declining crop diversity, but traditional
crop varieties are becoming extinct far faster than the new, untested GE varieties can be developed.
GE crops are often common varieties with one new gene added, so the increase in diversity is not
great. Another problem is the trend towards patenting of genes, which has gone hand in hand with
GE technology. This makes seed saving illegal. The biotechnology companies have even developed
technology to ensure that seeds from GE crops will be sterile, or won’t grow effectively without a
Cloning farm animals, we are told will sort out disease problems “once and for all”. The
logic seems to be that sex is a problem in animal breeding because the “good genes” of one animal
have to be contaminated with the “inferior genes” of its mate. It is also claimed that cloning can
save endangered species. Cloning of animals is no quicker than natural reproduction and does not
address the main reason for present day extinctions, which is habitat destruction.
The same problems apply to the new genetic technology, as to the Mendelian techniques: it
is assumed that genes can be found which will provide high yields in all conditions, and disease
resistance now and in the future. The basic philosophy remains the same, but the technology is
The theory of evolution by natural selection states that all organisms have different sets of
genes that code for physical traits. Every generation, some individuals of a species reproduce more
than others, because their genes give them an advantage in their natural role and environmental
conditions (known as the ecological niche). Over time this ensures that organisms change and
diversify to fill the range of niches. Natural selection requires inherited variation and selection by
the environment (the physical environment and the other species with which the species in question
interacts). As we have seen, the selection pressures exerted by short-lived species (insects, bacteria,
fungi etc.) on long-lived species (multicellular animals and plants) are continually changing. The
concepts of “good genes” and “bad genes”, “high genetic merit”, “Evolutionary progress” etc. are
therefore not very useful, as genes are only good or bad for a particular environment, and no
organism is evolving “towards” anything.
Eugenics, Mendelian plant and animal breeding, genetic engineering and cloning all tend to
follow a model of evolution that emphasises “progress” but not diversity. All assume that evolution
will work better if it is guided by human intellect. It is clear that this is not “value free” science, and
the public are perfectly entitled to question the values of the scientists. When GE technology is used
to attempt to solve man-made problems, it is right to ask why the root causes of the problem are not
being addressed. When an agrochemical corporation engineers a soyabean for use with the
corporation’s own herbicide, we should ask if this is in our best interests. When anyone is labelled
as “genetically inferior”, and their genes treated as a burden to future generations, we should ask
who is doing the labelling, and what kind of society, they regard as “normal” for humans to live in.
When plants, animals and genes are patented, merely because a scientist has “read” their DNA, the
Christian view that all living things are God’s creation makes a lot of sense.
There is nothing wrong with seeking the truth through science, as long as it is understood
that the truth is never totally obtainable. Scientific theories begin as heresy and end as myth.
Leaping to conclusions from a young science like genetics is not wise. Technology depends on the
questions asked by the scientists, and the reliability of their conclusions. If the questioning is
biased, then the technology will not serve everyone. If the conclusions are wrong, then the
technology will not work. The job of scientists is to question the conclusions. The job of religion
and philosophy is to question the questions.
1 Charles Darwin, The Truth http://www3.mistral.co.uk/bradburyac/dar0.html
2 Desmond King-Hele. Doctor of revolution Faber (1977)
3 T. McKeown & R.G.Brown Medical evidence related to English population changes in the eighteenth
century Population studies ix (1955)
4 Richard Dawkins The Selfish Gene
5 Stephen Jay Gould Hens Teeth and Horses Toes
6 Stephen Jay Gould The Panda’s Thumb and other Essays
7 Hungry for a new revolution New Scientist 17th October 1997
8 Vandana Shiva Monocultures of the Mind
9 Vandana Shiva Address to International Forum of Organic Agriculture Movements, Basel 2000
10 Van Valen L. "A New Evolutionary Law", Evolutionary Theory 1, p. 1-30.
11 Mithen, R, Raybould, AF, Giamoustaris, A Divergent selection for secondary metabolites between wild
populations of Brassica oleracea and its implications for plant-herbivore interactions. Heredity 75 472-484
12 US patents US 5,777,200; US 5,847,258; US 5,767,369; US 5,689,044; US 5,654,414;
US 5,789,214; US 5,614,395; US 5,650,505 and US 5.804,693
13 New Scientist, 'Triumph for Diversity', 19 August 2000, p.21.