New Bottom Line Volume 6.5 – What you see is what you get: DNA, Supersheep and the Patterns of Life

Feb 24, 1997

I still vividly remember the scene in Lindsay Anderson’s “O Lucky Man!” Malcolm McDowell’s picaresque hero, stumbles through the spa qua research institute where he is guest, or prisoner, bursts into a room, tosses back the covers from the bed, and exposes a quivering pig-man — the evident handiwork of his hosts — before leaping screaming out the window.

The image came to mind, unfairly but inescapable, as I read about the latest scientific triumph of our genetic future — Dolly, the Scottish ewe, the world’s first known clone of an adult mammal.

I find my usually opinionated self strangely unsettled and ambivalent at the prospect and promise of genetic engineering. My touchstone is anthropologist Roy Rappoport’s observation that “Knowledge will never replace respect in man’s dealing with ecological systems.” Lloyd Kahn summed it up more pithily with a book title, “Smart but not wise.” We are wading into powerful territory with limited knowledge, a sixteen year old with a learners permit being handed the keys to a powerful race car. On the other hand I would be less than honest if didn’t f I confess that I’d gratefully appreciate, not condemn, a genetically engineered drug that saved the life of a loved one.

But the real question may lie in a different dimension. Mark Twain once observed that “If your only tool is a hammer, you tend to see all problems as nails.” The technology of genetic engineering, in combination with the structural economics of modern capitalism in a free trade world, may feed a tragic myopia. For we are limited to what we know how to see, what we know how to sell. Patterns too subtle for the big or the hurried to notice, value too integral for the transaction-dependent to package and sell, may just lose out in the booming marketplace of the free trade world.

Wes Jackson notes an historic turning point in the biological sciences when molecular biology began to claim center stage from natural history in the early 1950s. To put too harsh a point on it, natural history was based on observation of patterns of behavior in larger contexts, molecular biology on intervention into patterns of structure in ever smaller contexts. There is profound wisdom in ecosystem level interactions, if we only remember how to look. But our focus seems to be pulled to the ever-smaller level at which our latest tools enable us to look, to the exclusion of the larger patterns.

Ecologists have long understood that the resilience of a system — its ability to maintain its identity and well being in the face of perturbation — seems to be correlated with its diversity, both of constituent elements and the richness of their interconnection; that ecosystem components display stacked functions–no element can be said to do just one thing (as is typical for mechanistic, designed systems); that there is an emergent functionality in ecosystems — behavior and performance that is a function of the interacting whole, not its individual components.

Yet genetic engineers invariably gravitate to the mechanistic strategy of creating corn with the ability to fix nitrogen, thus reducing fertilizer costs and impacts, while ignoring the more ecosystemic strategy of farming corn in rotations with clover and other crops that provide other benefits of fixing nitrogen, conserving soil, pest management, and more. We solve a problem in a simple way that engenders others.

Another concern, fortunately noted in some of the press coverage of Dotty, is the risk that our fascination with supersheep and supercrops, coupled with our ability to create them, will lead to a dangerous narrowing of genetic diversity. What farmer, after all, will not want the very best gene stock money can buy? But systems become increasingly vulnerable as their genetic diversity narrows. (To their credit, Monsanto encourages farmers who buy its pest resistant cotton to plant a certain acreage in traditional varieties, in order to preserve the evolutionary dance of crop, pests and beneficial insects. But the concern remains, since market pressures — felt as much by the growers as by the sellers — may overcome such caution.)

The challenge we face may be simply this: it’s easier to sell a thing than a process, easier to ship a product than to grow understanding. You can make money selling a patented organism that can be used in many regions. How can you make money selling techniques — especially techniques that must be highly localized, and that often depend on traditional wisdom that is steadily fading in the face of the growing global monoculture? Control Data tried and failed with Rural Venture nearly 20 years ago. Perhaps today’s information systems can better support the requisite variety. Perhaps not. In any case, we would do well to keep Rappoport’s and Kahn’s admonitions in mind.

(c) 1997 Gil Friend. All rights reserved.

New Bottom Line is published periodically by Natural Logic, offering decision support software and strategic consulting that help companies and communities prosper by embedding the laws of nature at the heart of enterprise.

Gil Friend, systems ecologist and business strategist, is President and CEO of Natural Logic, Inc.

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