Interview with Mae-Wan Ho
From genetics and GMOs to quantum biology and cosmology
(A longer version in Spanish is published in issue 61 of La Fertilidad de la Tierra, June 2015)
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A graduate with honors in Biology and Chemistry, with specialty in Genetics, expertise in Quantum Physics and Cosmology, a pioneer in researching the health effects of GMOs and the quantum properties of water, promoter of organic agriculture and local food and energy systems, prolific writer of books and scientific papers, and last but not least, artist, Mae-Wan Ho surprises one with the versatility of her knowledge, her unbridled and amusing spirit, and her yearning to unravel the secrets of Life and the Universe. Besides being a prestigious scientist, she is co-founder of ISIS (Institute of Science in Society) in Britain, which aims at reclaiming science for the public good, making it an integral part of general culture.
Starting at a young age, Mae-Wan (born in Hong Kong, 1941) felt drawn to solving the mysteries of the Universe, while in the grip of a rigid convent-school educational system. This did not prevent her from pursuing a brilliant professional career as a scientist, although she never betrayed her integrity. For more than twenty years Mae-Wan has been challenging scientific dogma in fields as diverse as genetic engineering, evolution theories, the physics of living organisms, medicine, and much more. Her comprehension of the consequences of genetic manipulation and the importance of developing self-sufficient food systems led her to get involved in the field of agroecology where she has so much to offer.
ISIS, the institute that she co-founded, provides accessible and reliable scientific information both for the general public and legislators, and promotes a sense of social and ecological responsibility, aiming ultimately at reclaiming truth and beauty in Science and Art. At ISIS, they believe that Science should serve public good. In the words of doctor Ho, “Once we fully embrace the implications of the quantum revolution in western science and science as reliable (indigenous) knowledge of nature that enables us to live sustainably with her, science for the public good is taken for granted, it will be like second nature to us.”
Monica: Given that science is the unbiased study of the Universe in its diverse facets, why is there such substantial disagreement among scientists when evaluating the consequences of GMOs implantation, the effectiveness of homeopathy or sustainable agricultural systems, or the crystalline properties of liquid water, to name a few examples of controversies existing at the moment?
Mae-Wan: This is a very deep question and a good place to begin. In line with indigenous cultures all over the world, I take it for granted that we are deeply embedded in nature, which is the source of our sustenance and inspiration. To us, science is reliable knowledge of nature that is true to nature, and enables us to live sustainably with her. Authentic knowledge requires a passionate total involvement with nature, a love of nature that engages body and soul,mind and spirit. To really understand nature, a scientist needs to have the sensibility of the romantic poet and the artist’s feeling for wholeness and coherence.
Modernist Western science, in contrast, is predicated on separating the knowing being from nature, which can only be known from the outside, via ‘objective knowledge’ of the rational mind divorced from feeling or passion. From this sterile modernist perspective, knowledge is easily manipulated and shaped by prejudices and self-serving interests. It is also singularly unable to deal with the science of the organism that encompasses water homeopathy, and sustainable agriculture, because it sees everything in terms of machines with decomposable parts.
Monica: What does it mean that conventional science is reductionist and mechanistic? How does this paradigm affect the way science understands the Universe, Life, and food production?
Mae-Wan: Conventional western science is premised on rejecting interconnected nature as a whole. It can therefore only attempt to understand nature piece-meal, as a gigantic machine, by reducing the whole to its parts. Paradoxically, when it reached the limits of mechanistic reductionism, quantum physics turns up to tell us in no uncertain terms that nature cannot be reduced. The knower is irreducibly entangled with the known, and we are all, from fundamental particles to people to stars and galaxies, all inseparably entangled with one another. Even more fundamentally, quantum physics is telling us that nature cannot be understood as a gigantic clockwork machine assembled from decomposable parts; instead nature is an organism par excellence, in which part and whole are mutually entangled and inseparable, and can only be understood with the sensitivity of an organism. Western science has redeemed itself in the quantum revolution, but most practitioners do not know it yet, and neither does western society at large. I wrote an article entitled “Towards an indigenous western science” many years ago (https://www.academia.edu/11844982/Towards_an_Indigenous_Western_Science_Causality_in_The_Universe_of_Coherent_Space-Time_Structures), which attempts to spell out the implications of quantum physics for science and society.
Monica: Is “science for the public good” an achievable goal? How can we make it?
Mae-Wan: Once we fully embrace the implications of the quantum revolution in western science and science as reliable (indigenous) knowledge of nature that enables us to live sustainably with her, science for the public good is taken for granted, it will be like second nature to us. And by public good, I don’t mean just being ethical, useful, and ecological, I also mean being inspirational.
Monica: What’s ISIS’ role in bringing science closer to society? Why this mission?
Mae-Wan: ISIS’ role is to bring science into society, as part and parcel of general culture. On a practical level, we provide critical, accessible and reliable scientific information to the public and policy makers, we promote social and ecological accountability, and above all, we aim to recover truth and beauty in science as in art. We have several in-house artists including myself.
Monica: As a geneticist, can you tell us about the consequences of eating genetically modified foods for human health?
Mae-Wan: When I first warned about genetic modification (GM) twenty years ago, there were already many uncontrollable, unexpected effects found in genetically modified organisms (GMOs): deformed plants and animals, unexplained toxins and allergens. This highlights the mismatch between a mechanistic, reductionist mind-set that presupposes genes determine functions in linear causal chainsso theycan be changed one at a time without affecting anything else and the organic realityof circular causation in the ‘fluid genome’ where the functions of genes are inextricably entangled with one another and with the environment in complex feed forward and feedback loops that can mark and change the genes themselves. I said this mismatch was the greatest danger of GM then(see Genetic Engineering Dream or Nightmare, ISIS publication), and it remains so now 20 years later when there is abundant evidence of harm from GM.
Whenever and wherever scientists independent of the biotech industry carry out feeding trials in the laboratory, they find liver and kidney problems in their animals, stunting, birth defects, excess deaths, infertility, tumours, and cancers, confirming what farmers have been experiencing themselves and witnessing in their families and their livestock, and doctors have been documenting the illnesses in people living near GMO fields for years (see Ban GMOS Now, ISIS Report). In the United States, where there is still no labelling of GMOs, the government’s own data show a marked deterioration of public health, with dozens of diseases rising in parallel with the sharp increase in GM crops and glyphosate herbicide use (see Marked Deterioration of Public Health Parallels Increase in GM Crops and Glyphosate Use, US Gove, SiS 65). The causes of harm from GM feed and food are diverse: they certainly come from glyphosate herbicides used with glyphosate tolerant GM crops; glyphosate has just been recognized as a probable carcinogen in the World Health Organization’ latest evidence-based assessment (Glyphosate â€˜Probably Carcinogenic to Humansâ€™ Latest WHO Assessment, SiS 66), and has numerous other toxicities including endocrine disruption. Harm can come directly from the transgenes incorporated, or indirectly through new proteins and nucleic acids created as a consequence of the insertion of transgenes. Furthermore, the synthetic GM DNA inserted is unstable and can jump around the genome of the GMO to create more harmful effects. Most of all, the GM DNA can jump into the genome of all species of organisms interacting with the GMO, as for example, animals including humans eating the GMO. GM DNA jumping species is called horizontal gene transfer. It is a main route for spreading antibiotic resistance genes (contained in most GM DNA) making infections untreatable, and for creating new viruses and bacteria that cause diseases. GM DNA inserting into genomes can also wake up dormant viruses and activate cancer-causing genes.
People may find it paradoxical that practically all the processes employed by human genetic engineers in the laboratory to create GMOs are actually used by the organisms themselves in their everyday life, and this natural genetic modification is absolutely necessary for survival. The important difference is that the natural genetic modification carried out by the organism themselves is precisely orchestrated and context dependent in a very fine grain way. It is negotiated by the organism as a whole in relation to its environment. In contrast, artificial genetic modification is crude and imprecise, without regard to context and cause a lot of collateral damage. That is the main reason why artificial genetic modification can almost never be safe (see Why GMOs Can Never be Safe, SiS 59). The new breed of ‘synthetic biologists’ are promising precise genome editing as the way forward in artificial genetic modification, but off-target effects continue to dog the most sophisticated attempts so far.
Monica: Is organic agriculture one of the solutions to climate change? Can this productive system react better to climate change effects?
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