Dr. Peter Wills informed me that there was a small mistake in the
transcript of his talk that I just sent out.
Here is the corrected version (The phrase "the last quarter decade" was
corrected to read "the last quarter century")
Brief Address to Wellington Forum on Genetically Modified Food
by Peter R Wills, Ph.D., Associate Professor, Department of Physics,
University of Auckland, Auckland, New Zealand
25 March 1999
Organisms are dynamic.
In fact everything that happens in biology is based on endless orderly
change, especially the flow of matter.
The natural patterns and regularities that we observe in biology depend on
the maintenance of processes of change.
This applies from the microscopic level of the cell - a teeming zoo of
molecular motion - all the way up to the biosphere - with its rich and
variegated spatially-differentiated ecologies.
How all of this works cannot be understood solely in terms of material
structure, whether we are talking about the proteins and DNA molecules in
a cell, or the individual organisms existing in an ecosystem.
The effects of a gene cannot be assessed by looking at the static
relationship between its sequence, the letters of the DNA message it
represents, and the characteristics of the organism to which it is
The meaning of a gene is determined by the context in which it is
expressed. It also contributes to that context.
So, when we swap a gene from one organism to another, we cannot know in
advance what all the effects will be.
We cannot know, not even in principle.
That is very important because ecological relationships and evolutionary
change rely on what is unusual, the innovation which arises as a result of
mutation or the establishment of new interactions.
The way this works is that events propagate through biological systems.
The variation created by genetic mutation and recombination is the most
elementary and fundamental way in which things propagate in biological
Three and a half billion years of evolution have given rise to only a very
few means of genetic information transfer and propagation.
These limitations have produced what we now call the tree of life.
The maintenance of boundaries between
constellations of particular genes in particular organisms is what keeps
species and their interactions in the relationships that constitute
Over the last few 10,000 years, intentional human actions, selective
breeding programs of ever- increasing sophistication, have coerced desired
changes from the game of roulette that reproduction plays with genes.
But the basic rules of the game have not, and could not by such means, be
In the last quarter century, as a result of what we have learnt in
molecular biology, we have started to break all of these rules.
No we make genetic transfers at will.
It is now routine to effect changes which could never be coerced out of
the billion-year-old processes which govern ecological interactions and
The type, speed and scale of genetic change now being undertaken will
affect the dynamics of biological systems, ecology and evolution, at their
Changes that cannot be assessed in advance will progressively propagate
through the biosphere.
The pattern of those changes cannot be expected to fit in with what we
The changes we are making will propagate with their own novel dynamics and
the outcomes will be far- reaching.
The only thing we can know with certainty is that we do not know, and
cannot in principle know, what the character of the ultimate outcome will
be, except that it will be different from anything that we are familiar
Using an analogy to stereotypical gender relationships, an analogy that I
think is fully justified here :
Mankind will be left trying to beat Nature at her own game, playing
according to rules that have been imposed with the express aim of
exercising unprecedented power over her. She will wait, and when she
speaks back in the new language which has been created for her, Mankind
will have already lost what would have been of the greatest value.
Richard Wolfson, PhD
Consumer Right to Know Campaign,
for Mandatory Labelling and Long-term
Testing of all Genetically Engineered Foods,
500 Wilbrod Street
Ottawa, ON Canada K1N 6N2
tel. 613-565-8517 fax. 613-565-1596
Our website, http://www.natural-law.ca/genetic/geindex.html
contains more information on genetic engineering as well as previous
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