TERJE TRAAVIK AND N55 EXCHANGING


Terje Traavik is Professor, Dr. philos. and scientific director at GenØk-Norwegian Institute of Gene Ecology (www.genok.org)
The exchange is based on a conversation that took place at the Norwegian Institute of Gene Ecology (GenØk), Tromsø, Norway, November 20, 2002, and includes a comment by Tewolde Berhan Gebre Egziabher, Director General of Ethiopiaís Environmental Protection Authority. Tewolde Berhan Gebre Egziabher was chief negotiator for the developing countries (except for Argentina, Uruguay and Chile) at the Cartagena Protocol and received the Right Livelihood Award in 2000 (the ĎAlternative Nobel Prizeí, awarded by the Swedish Parliament) for his work for biodiversity.


N55:
Science is about making right assertions. Right assertions represent objective knowledge. Objective knowledge is something that canít be denied meaningfully, if we want to talk rationally together. Objective knowledge can be knowledge about facts or knowledge about logical relations. Patenting, for example, the human genome or a new type of medicine, is to claim ownership of objective knowledge and thus of knowledge about facts and logical relations. This ownership means that other persons must pay to use objective knowledge, or that other persons are not allowed to use it at all. By claiming a patent to objective knowledge, we also say that some persons can use logical relations and facts and some can not: Here we have a person, who should be treated as a person and therefore as having rights, but this person is not allowed to use logical relations or knowledge about facts. It does not make sense to claim ownership to objective knowledge. If we try to defend ownership to objective knowledge using language in a rational way it goes wrong. The only way to defend ownership to objective knowledge is to use power and force. No persons have more right to use logical relations or knowledge about facts than other persons, but concentrations of power use force to maintain the illusion of ownership of objective knowledge.
By ignoring that there is no logical foundation for ownership, one looks away from our possibilities to distinguish between right and wrong. Then the game is free for social conventions and power games. By taking language seriously and respecting that which we cannot disagree about, logic, we have the possibility to find ways of organizing, which are not based in ideological concepts or power interests.

The recent developments within biotechnological areas, like the mapping of the human genome, have generated much debate about the patenting of genes and living organisms. Among those engaged in this debate are the researchers at GenØk (Norwegian Institute of Gene Ecology), an independent research foundation located at the campus of the University of Tromsø, Norway. They claim that organisms and genes are discoveries, not inventions, and therefore not patent-able. They also warn against the unrestrained use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and conduct research projects aimed at establishing facts about possible harmful effects, which they claim up till now are about as well-documented as those of Thalidomide, DDT or dioxins were, when they entered the markets in the 50s and 60s. Reliable research on the effects of modified DNA on human health and the environment is made difficult by the fact that independent research facilities and independent institutions are increasingly rare, mainly due to the massive economic interests in the "life sciences" sector. Is this correct?

Terje Traavik:
Yes. As one of the few critical voices among molecular biologists, I have been traveling extensively during the last years to give lectures. This is because I have contemporary experience of the methods and strategies employed in genetic engineering. In these speeches, I often say that one of the greatest risk factors of genetic engineering is that 95% of all professionals in this field work directly or indirectly on the premises of the industry, while only 5% work independently, and this percentage is decreasing. People from, for example Monsanto attend, and they dispute almost everything I say, except this assertion, of which I have no documentation. This automatically tells me that the situation is even worse. This is a general democratic problem, because on the day we have 100 and 0%, reliable advice will be unavailable to the citizens, politicians and society as a whole. Therefore, society itself must ensure that at any time, on all technological fields, there is basic research and knowledge available that matches the industryís activities. Otherwise, we are entering a truly dangerous situation.

The transnational corporations do not regard it as their responsibility to conduct research related to risks and side effects. Nobody would trust their results either, with regards to what has happened in the pharmaceutical field, where research is financed by the producers, and where unwanted results are not published, because it is stated in the contracts that the reports must be approved by the financing institution before they are published. This problem is now appearing in the field of genetic modification. Here we are talking of one of the most important fields in the near future: Independent American financial analysts estimate that by 2025, 70% of industrial economy and 40 % of the total economy, worldwide, will be based on genetic engineering. This development is totally outside of political and democratic control. And it will change the world completely. Those who promote this have no insight in ecology, they donít think in holistic terms, and it is also not their job.

GenØk points at a long list of possible, theoretical risk factors, which are not clarified. Researchers have to ask themselves the same question as we faced many times during the last century, and to which we often gave the wrong answers: If there are scientifically grounded assumptions of hazards, should one go ahead, and start reacting only when the problems arise, or should one follow the Precautionary principle: advance slowly and change those processes that might cause lasting damage. The reason why GenØk exists is that we give the last answer to this question, which can only be answered by integrated, gene ecological approaches. Research ought to be conducted independently and according to the Precautionary principle - defending what you think you know, is not scientific. But what actually happens, which is terrible to observe, is that many of our colleagues spend more time and effort defending what they think they know, than attacking the unknown.

So, besides the potential beneficial effects of genetic engineering with regard to health, environment and resource management, there are a number of hypothetical hazards in connection with GMO applications. A number of known biological and ecological processes may contribute to persistence and spreading of modified genetic material in contexts which may have detrimental consequences. It is therefore important to clarify whether the level of knowledge at any given time is sufficient for reliable risk assessment.

This is the theoretical foundation for GenØk. In addition we undertake a number of practical experiments. One of these is the first really comprehensive feeding experiments in animals with genetically modified plant materials - from Bt-transgenic corn in this case. Similar experiments are now to be carried out in fish. Furthermore, we are running projects investigating environmental effects of genetically engineered vaccines, and the effects and faith of genetically engineered DNA constructs and plant material in a simulated aquatic ecosystem. And last, but not least, we are performing research on the ethical aspects of genetic engineering applications. At the moment our staff of approximately twenty contains molecular biologists, classical ecologists and bio ethicists. Later on this year, we will have our first philosopher.

N55:
Is it difficult to get financing for these experiments?

TT:
Generally speaking, the answer is "Yes". But then again, Norway is a special country, and in this respect, special in a positive meaning. My colleagues in other countries are astonished that GenØk, an institute so obviously in opposition to mainstream research and several established institutions, receives funding on the National Budget. This is unthinkable in most countries. So, although funding for this kind of projects is difficult, we are in a favourable situation here in Norway. We get funding from the Norwegian Research Council and the Norwegian Cancer Society, while the university formally employs some of our staff, and also gives us access to infrastructure, facilities and scientific equipment. Norway has been one of the decisive agents in achieving international agreements regulating trade and transfer of genetically modified organisms and constructs over national borders. The Cartagena protocol1 of 2000 would not have been made without the contribution of Norway. The projects are undertaken here, backed by a panel of fifteen to sixteen researchers of which some are situated in other countries, some in Norway. Among the most active are colleagues at New Zealand Institute of Gene Ecology.

Gene Ecology is a term invented by us. This year I was invited to give a talk at an international molecular biology meeting where, for the first time, "gene ecology" was the title of one of the sessions. The term, which is holistically conceived, shows that we think of genes as things that utterly affect are affected by their environments. That my genes in no way are limited by being inside my cells. This underlying idea of GenØk has now broken through and become accepted.

N55:
Habitual conceptions play a decisive role in how people conceive of the world. And they become very powerful when held by large groups of people or whole societies. This is one thing to be aware of when working both in the fields of art and of science, because we have to be on the edge of habitual thinking, using known terms and existing language to describe things that have not yet become part of customary views. Sometimes customary views are right, and sometimes they are not. A part of any critical practice is to try to use logic to distinguish. Express right postulates and expose wrong assertions. For example, by exposing uncontested dogma in science.

TT:
The feeding experiments contest one of the main beliefs that is held by biologists, namely that foreign DNA does not survive in the intestinal tract of mammals, but is destroyed during digestion. We have shown that large amounts of DNA survive in the intestines, and we are now studying the effects of this. Normally, the organism has a way of excreting foreign DNA so that it does not influence its functioning. However, the structural and chemical changes accompanying insertion of foreign, modified DNA into established chromosomes may, unpredictably, lead to unpredicted changes in the contents and metabolism of cells and organs. This could cause immunological distortions, allergies or cancer. Furthermore, foreign genes may be taken up by intestinal bacteria and give them new and unwanted characteristics, for instance resistance to antibiotics. In our experiments, rats are being fed corn made transgenic with a Bt-gene (from the bacterium Bacillus Thuringiensis, making the plant produce its own insecticide), and a control group is fed the original unmodified corn.

I used to wonder why the industry was so fiercely opposed to labeling of food that contained modified material. After all, if GMOs are as harmless as they claim, it would be no disadvantage for them to have a little label on the products. But, after a while, I realised the real reason: No labeling means that it would also be impossible to identify a control group of people that have not been eating GM food. Nobody believes people will drop dead after GM meals, or that new acute diseases will evolve. But there are reasons to postulate that GM food/feed consumption, in predisposed individuals, may speed up processes leading to chronic diseases that are already present in the populations. Hence, if everybody eats GM food the causal relationships will be impossible to prove.

In other projects we seek to disclose whether gene promoters may "infect" mammals through their food/feed. In most GM plants the transgene is under the control of the 35S CaMV (cauliflower mosaic virus) promoter. The promoter enables the gene to express itself in the cell. So far no systematic investigations of the 35S CaMV in authentic mammalian cell cultures, or animals, have been performed. "Authentic" in this connection means cell types that the promoter/transgene may encounter after consumption of GM food/feed. We plan a series of transfection experiments with CaMV promoter-driven expression of reporter genes.
We also investigate a number of theoretical risks connected with GM vaccines. To ask questions concerning the health and environmental safety of vaccines is a tough job, because vaccines are really considered the "Holy grail" of medicine. However, experiments of mine during the 80s and 90s indicated possible harmful side effects of several of the new types of vaccines, which are now being promoted by the WHO as great stuff. In principle they are great stuff, but again, precaution, and adjustments according to scientifically based risk assessment, is required. We have already proved that some of our hypotheses are right, and these results are now in the process of being published. We cannot announce a warning before these results are published; otherwise we will be accused of breaking written and unwritten rules of the scientific community. In any other context, one would be deemed unethical if one did not forward a warning - but in science, if one becomes aware of problems relating to ecosystems or health, one is condemned as unethical if one advances a warning without prior publication in a so-called ďpeer-reviewedĒ scientific journal. The transnationals and their scientist followers claim that this is necessary to secure "sound science". However, this does not apply to their own claims of GM safety, most of which are based on assumptions and unqualified extrapolations! The so-called "Pusztai-affair"2 illustrates what kind of dangerous forces you challenge if you oppose this system.
Two years ago the Nobel Prize winner Joseph Rotblat3 wrote an editorial article in Science, suggesting a kind of Hippocratic Oath for scientists, just as there is one for doctors. He argued that scientists can no longer claim that they have no responsibility for what their results are used for. The article ought to have caused heated discussions in scientific as well as in political circles, but it has instead been wrapped in the most deafening silence! This is telling of how deeply this problem is rooted in the scientific world. Many would claim that politics and science are not connected, which is babble. Everything we do can have political consequences, and we make our choices about what to do, and how to do it, from our total environment.

So, in addition to building this ethical arsenal, we spend a lot of time constructing new biological model systems for performing basic gene ecology experiments as well as risk-associated research. The fields we come from, genetics, molecular biology and virology, are very reductionist traditions. It sometimes seems as if the main motivation for many scientists is to get publishable results, so that they can have their grants approved and the students can have their PhDs. They are so remote from reality that they do not seem to mind if their experiments take place only one single location in this world, namely in their tubes and totally unnatural cells.

Consequently, we are aware that the results we can expect from the accessible laboratory approaches may not have any relevance whatsoever to the complex ecosystems that we are a part of. We are therefore attempting to create model systems simple enough to enable reproducible results, and at the same time complex enough to provide solid foundations to say something about, and further examine, reality.

We assemble components in the laboratory in such a way that the model resembles an ecosystem or food chain. At the moment, we develop a simple aquatic ecosystem, starting with bacteria and green algae, phytoplankton, which is feed for zooplankton that in turn feeds all kinds of creatures. Although we deliberately simplify this into three steps and ignore everything else, it is enormously complicated to make the model reproducible.
However, we see no way around such approaches, if we want to make contributions to understanding of fundamental laws and interactions of the real ecosystems. We need accepted model systems, otherwise the view that progress and new technology will solve the problems as they arise, will continue to dominate. It is high time we realize that when the ecology decides the limits, it wonít help, no matter how much technology you pour in.

N55:
In the debate about GMOs, ethical arguments are often misused. New treatments and crops are introduced with the argument that this saves lives. The ethical assertion that we have to do what we can to save lives is often applied to small groups of wealthy people, thus pushing certain results. Rights are defined in certain ways that only apply to certain persons. In this climate, it must be difficult to be the ones who say stop and wait, because you will be regarded as counter productive, cruel and backward.
TT:
Yes, and questioning progress and technology, our new religions, is a priori considered uncreative and negative. However, it is surprisingly difficult for "smart" people to conceive that know-how and methods related to risk assessment and technology related problems is a field that can be commercialised in itself. Or - maybe not so surprising if you take into account that we are raised in a culture where questioning "Technology" will automatically be considered uncreative and actually close to blasphemy or a mortal sin! However, it slowly seems to dawn upon, at least some, people that more creative ability may be required to challenge mainstream science, than to stay within the mainstream, where one is only competing on time, not on creativity and originality. As the North Norwegian proverb states: "Only a dead fish goes with the flow!"

N55:
It is important that people who have expertise say these things and that you are able to produce facts.

TT:
Many grassroots organisations and NGOs say the same as we do, and often in a better way. However, at conferences, it is what we say, that is noticed by industry and other professionals that disagree with us, because they can not overlook our competence or label us as mere dilettantes or "Luddites".

In science, contrary to "the laws" in many other fields, it is the critics that have to prove the dangers, not the proponents that have to prove that their planned activities imply no harm.
This happens even though the Precautionary principle (PP) is part of the legislation for most industrialized countries, except the USA, and is now also entering international treaties like the Cartagena protocol. The phrasing may differ between the PP versions, but the common main message is: protective measures must be taken whenever there is reason to suspect serious hazards, even though final scientific proofs do not exist at the moment. Or, in other words, "absence of evidence is not evidence of absence!" To us PP is a practical, ethical, but also a productive scientific road sign: it stimulates critical thinking, questions and new hypotheses.
Genetic engineering proponents argue that to demand and wait for such evidence will represent hurdles to science, economy and progress, etc. This is nonsense. The economic progress in a particular field may slow down for a period, but the enhanced chance of avoiding hazards and risks will give increased credibility and prohibit expenses from wrong decisions and applications. The only ones that have anything to lose by implementation of the PP are the vast conglomerates of transnational GE corporations. No one else.

N55:
But these forces dominate the discussions. Concentrations of power, lobby groups, corporations, etc., have enormous influence. In the US, in the worldís most powerful nation, you see a huge lack of democratic influence, which is scary. Genetic engineering is the fastest growing sector in the economy, propelled by, among other things, Intellectual Property Law, which enables patenting of genes. An underlying assumption in this is that human activity is basically profit-driven. Apart from fundamentally not respecting persons, this notion severely challenges the integrity of researchers and the respect traditionally connected with science.

Science is done by persons and has to do with other persons. A person can be described in an infinite number of ways. None of these descriptions can be completely adequate. So we canít define exactly what a person is. But, what we can do is to point out necessary relations between persons and other factors, which we have to respect in order not to contradict ourselves and in order to be able to talk about persons in a meaningful way. For example, it makes no sense to refer to a person without referring to a body. If we say: here we have a person, but he or she does not have a body, it does not make sense. Furthermore, there are necessary relations between persons and the rights of persons. Persons should be treated as persons and therefore as having rights. If we deny this assertion, it goes wrong: here is a person, but this person should not be treated as a person, or: here is a person, who should be treated as a person, but not as having rights. Therefore, we can only talk about persons in a way that makes sense if we know that persons have rights.

If a scientist is a person, and therefore concerned with the rights of persons, and this scientist for example is changing the genetic properties of food that is crucial to other persons, he or she is taking on a decisive responsibility. So it is clear that a scientist should first and foremost be concerned with the rights of persons. If one removes ethical aims from science, other aims, and arbitrary justifications like private curiosity and economic motives will dominate.
If science is also about respecting personsí rights, and therefore about ethics, it follows that scientists must try to conduct ethical behavior and try to respect the rights of persons. We know that concentrations of power do not always respect the rights of persons. If one denies this fact, one gets: Concentrations of power always respect the rights of persons. This is not in correspondence with our experiences. Therefore, the most important task of scientists must be to seek to respect the rights of persons, and this implies considering in which ways they are contributing to the growth of concentrations of power.
If one can show that ownership of knowledge is illogical and does not respect the fundamental rights of persons, it becomes clear that the aim of the patent system is not to protect the rights of persons, but to protect profit interests and the interests of concentrations of power.

TT:
GenØk has proposed a number of arguments against the patenting of genes and GMOs as stated in the TRIPS treaty (WTO)4. Some of our arguments are based on the simple fact that the way industry now seeks patents on genes would be equivalent to Roald Amundsen claiming a patent to the South Pole. Most pending patents concern discoveries, not inventions. Claiming patents to genes that 4 billion years of evolution brought about, is insane. However, opponents are often silenced by the opportunities to make fortunes.

There have been attempts at buying us as well. All kinds of business and industry have approached us with offers, saying that we share an interest in securing future generations, and they only want a small sticker in return, advertising their support of food safety and environmentally friendly research. However, people are psychological beings, and no matter how many guarantees of independence you have written down on paper, emotionally and psychologically, you feel dependent on those who sponsor you. Therefore we have been chaste like catholic virgins and kept completely clean in this regard. And we were right in doing this. Initially, financing looked impossible, so we actually had prepared a brochure aimed at companies asking for sponsorships. For some reason, the brochure was never finished, and in the meantime, I was at a conference where it suddenly became very clear to me: Bang! I have to stop this. Because the greatest capital we have internationally, is our indisputable independence of any kind of external interests.
It has also become very clear that where IP rights are an obstacle to sustainable development in the third world, independent research in the developed world will be able to balance that. This could become a very important resource.

N55:
Arguments against patenting genes and GMOs are of different sorts. One is that IP law accelerates the introduction of new GMOs into the environment and markets, another that IP rights halt the research, because this limits researchersí access to each otherís results, which goes against the tradition of sharing knowledge as soon as possible.

TT:
Yes, sharing knowledge was, and is still, the ideal - but practice is quite another case! I think that nobody has more clearly warned against "the unholy marriage between Big business and Science" than Erwin Chargaff, who, in my opinion, deserved the Nobel Prize at least as much as Watson & Crick Ltd. Let that statement be my official celebration of the 50th anniversary of the DNA helix.5
And there are other, very good arguments for transparency and sharing of knowledge, which have to do with what we call "omitted research". If you leave research to business and market forces, a lot of important research will be left behind, if there is no immediate profit or revenues to cash in. Several diseases and needs that could be remedied using genetic engineering are not being touched, and this is serious, first and foremost for the third world. Malaria is a classic example, and there are many others.

My position is that the distinction between inventions and discoveries, which has been there since the start of patenting, can still be applied in meaningful ways. However, patenting a method of detecting genes, or using sequences of genes to create processes or products, represent borderline cases, for which you canít make general rules but must make assessments case by case. Sometimes the inventive elements will be strong enough to justify patents, but this will not affect other applications of the gene, in which case it is okay by me. What is not okay is the way it is used now: the first to sequence a gene being supposedly able to patent the gene and its applications. That is sick.

Very recently the Norwegian authorities chickened out and complied with European Union IP laws. In reality, WTO rules may soon dominate everything else. The EU is yielding to American pressure, and ethics and principles are blown away by the threat of trade restrictions. So far, important differences have existed between the TRIPS rules of WTO and the legislation that the EU tries to develop. Originally, the difference was greater. But still, you cannot patent gene sequences per se in the EU, only applications of gene sequences.

N55:
What is happening is that persons work for the interests of concentrations of power, instead of working for the fundamental interests of persons. This is stupid and irrational, but we allow it to happen because there is a lack of ability to distinguish between what is right and wrong. We know a lot of what we shouldnít do, if we want to be able protect the rights of persons. One thing we obviously ought not to do is concentrate the means to produce food in the hands of a few private corporations. The gap between what one rationally knows ought to be done, and what actually happens, is growing. Still, the reality of this gets blurred in a discussion of different advantages and disadvantages. This is basically a struggle about control over resources and basic necessities. This seems not to be sufficiently clear to many, obviously because most of us are involved in working for concentrations of power on some level. So it is difficult to see how things could be changed at the moment on a broader scale.
TT:
I think a lot about how I can contribute to making trends and processes develop in alternative directions. In the 60s and 70s, I was the first to join demonstrations. Compared to the efforts, the results were minor, because we were naive with regard to where decisions with long-term effects were made, and how to build alternative power houses. I was in doubt whether to become a democratic, but radical, socialist politician, or a scientist. Now I have been politically homeless for a long time, while I have achieved a certain competence, which I can apply to the same visions of a better society and a healthier Mother Earth that I always held. So I consider myself lucky.

How does one transform this into practice? I am convinced that the best way is to influence, and sometimes even change the minds of, fellow citizens as well as decision makers in various ways. For example, I am very proud that the Norwegian Minister of International Development, Hilde Frafjord Johnson, has provided a grant of 3 million Norwegian Kroner for our Genetic Engineering Biosafety Capacity Building Package, which is specially tailored for target groups in underdeveloped countries.
In addition, we will make a series of articles in Aftenposten [major newspaper in Norway], which will be read by people with power. At any given time, I have about ten PhD and master-of-science students who are under my supervision, and who in turn influence others. And we talk about mutual influence, not brainwashing. This is how I have to think of it, and I feel privileged and humble for having been given such opportunities in life.
You canít do much alone in the short term, but the effects of the things we do at GenØk may be great. Many people my age have abolished all kinds of idealism, and although they are highly verbal and skilful, they are often cynical and have in a way given up. I feel lucky because I am able to use my competence to change things in the directions that I have always thought were right.

N55:
Specialization is a very strong factor in society. Still, language is something we have in common. When we talk rationally together, we refer to facts and use logical relations. We know that there is a logical relation between persons and personsí rights. When we use language, we first and foremost ought to try to respect personsí rights. As people specialize within a field of knowledge, they learn to master a part of language. This language can give the power, for example, to change the genetic properties in important food plants or to cure diseases. Language is used in a rational way in order to produce certain results. The problem is that while it is perfectly possible to master language within a field and thereby become capable of affecting our surroundings in a decisive and irreversible way, one can do this without necessarily being conscious that one should first and foremost seek to respect the right of persons, when one uses language. We allow this behavior because social conventions tell us that it is perfectly normal and that it makes a lot of sense. The different ideologies can satisfy personsí needs for their activities to be meaningful by telling us that what we are doing is for a greater, common good, or that it is good for the economy or for other reasons beyond our control. We obtain instant rewards in the form of personal and economic advantages, professional satisfaction, and so on, but it happens by using the violence that is inherent in not trying to respect the rights of persons.


Instead of being driven by curiosity and the need for knowledge of a certain issue, we are forced to find an area where we can specialize. Lacking other possibilities to find a way of living, one has to fill a function designated by different concentrations of power (states, corporations, etc.). These concentrations of power possess the infrastructural, knowledge or legal resources to exploit knowledge through patents/ licenses, and capital necessary to continue their different kinds of production, and the means to deny other persons or groups of persons access to the same resources. The real generalists in the western world are the corporations, which are able to change from one kind of production to another, keeping ownership of tools and resources of diverse kinds, and operating within any kind of specialized language, in any country in the world. Their human material is exchangeable, as their economic power enables them to offer the satisfaction of not only the fundamental, but also created needs, of the specialists they need in order to keep going. These concentrations of power are the real survivors and are outside of any democratic control.

It seems that you at GenØk are able to step over the trap of specialization, because you keep sight of and work directly with the general effects of your field of specialization.

TT:
In this respect, we are ahead. A new paradigm in biology is on its way. It is now widely recognised that the reductionist approaches have served us well in some respects, but are inadequate in other respects. We see only tiny fragments of reality. We need new model systems. I believe a lot of young and talented people will approach science, not to get a degree, but to contribute to increasing our knowledge, while maintaining respect, of the interactions and the intricate interrelationships in nature, because this is what we know too little about. This will happen in the years to come. More people who combine scientific curiosity with clear ethical, and more eco-centric views, will enter science. And that is bound to be good.

In the end, this is a question of what kind of society and ecosystems we have and want. At GenØk, we often discuss the difference between anthropocentric and eco-centric positions. If you have the former, you get one kind of society. If you have an eco-centric view, which views humans as parts of intricate ecological interrelationships, you get a totally different society, and you get totally different individuals, on all levels ranging from patterns of behavior to ethics. These opposing views will eventually result in two different earths. That is clear.

N55:
Your view of the future is optimistic, but puts a strong demand on education.

TT:
And people who get education or who are in other ways privileged, owe it to the other passengers of this still green little spaceship, irrespective of species, to share their insight and knowledge. Itís as simple as that.

N55:
As artists we work on the edge of the productive field and also on the edge of any well-defined area of knowledge. In a way, we are on the edge of most things. This is in many ways a privileged position. With this privilege follows responsibility, which becomes obvious if you get public attention. What we are saying about the ethical responsibility of researchers absolutely applies to artists too. What we are doing in our work is to try to find ways of living with as small concentrations of power as possible. This means that we consider this level in relation to what we do, and is an integral part of how we appear in public situations.

TT:
Often artists and their art find the weak spots in our intellectual armour by sending a message via the heart to the brain while a common politician or a scientist is aiming directly at the brain. You trigger two different sets of receivers. Artists have an advantage there, which of course can be used in a wrong way.

N55:
One could apply what you call "omitted research" to what we do, in a general sense, because we try to investigate and create consciousness about things that one otherwise wouldnít notice: which ways of living we donít try out, what houses we donít live in, what technology is not employed, etc. It is a kind of research into forgotten areas or areas outside of commercial or political interest.

TT:
Yes, and in the end, the extension of your questions will be: Can it really be true that there are no other alternatives than those pointed to by mainstream science and the conforming society? The answers may open our minds to existing alternatives, or make our brains creatively seek new alternatives. That is dangerous from the establishmentís point of view.

N55:
And from ideologiesí point of view, because ideologies have the "answers" to how society is supposed to look. That which we donít know, which is at the edge of the established knowledge and that which we know, is not formulated, by definition, and therefore it is in a way weak, and in another way, the strongest thing we have. We know what we know only on the grounds of what we donít know. What we donít know becomes something we have to defend all the time, as a precious domain.

TT:
Then we have exactly the same starting point. To any good scientist, the driving force should be what you donít know. However, itís not like that any longer - and that is tragic for science and for society. Many scientists would rather defend their position than attack the unknown. It is clear that, exactly as for artists, being a researcher is an almost impossible life situation, because most people who are established in professions, want to be able to measure their success and they even expect to be able to say to themselves "take a holiday, now youíve done a real good job," as if the job had been defined. As an artist or scientist, however, you can never be content, because you will be concerned with what has not been done or what you donít know, and even if others say: "damn, youíre good," you know it isnít true.
But in contrast to most other people, we have chosen this for ourselves, and we enjoy a freedom no other professionals can even dream about. So, it is up to the individual to evaluate the advantages and disadvantages - if you want to be a pet dog to society, or if you want to keep on being a dangerous stray.

N55:
Is a politically concerned researcher generally considered a suspect scientist? Does your political engagement make you less credible in many peopleís view?

TT:
I often say to people, donít believe in me, because Iím not being objective, I am very engaged in what I am doing. Donít believe me, but listen to me, and make up your own opinion. Or, as a proverb: "Show me a neutral and objective scientist, and I will show you a really incompetent one!" It is a pity that the English language does not sustain the rhyme of "Videnskap" (Science) and "Lidenskap" (Passion) that we have in Norwegian and Danish! If you realize and accept these simple realities, you have the opportunity to compensate for your subjectivity, flaws and biases. But if you really conceive of yourself as objective and neutral, you are really dangerous, because you have lost that possibility!

N55:
But, though what you are saying is not free of subjective valuations, you still claim objectivity when you refer to the facts and the ethical judgements that you use. For example, one logically has to accept the existence of theoretical risks related to GMOs. And one has to accept facts derived from reproducible experiments. Also, when you speak of ethics, you speak about the decisive importance of personsí rights, and thus you speak of things that we canít disagree about if we are to speak rationally together. If we try to speak of persons as if they had no rights, it makes no sense. Here is a person, who should not be treated as a person, or, here is a person, who should be treated as a person, but not as having rights.

Therefore, underlying the different discussions and conflicts regarding the implementation of GMOs and the ethical responsibility of scientists, there is a level where things are not a question of differing subjective opinions and economic interests, but where things are simply right or wrong. An increased awareness of this level could help, but only if one is prepared to respect logic. Respecting logic seems not to be what corporations are about. However, it is what science is about. Therefore, one ought to stress this when confronting profit interests or other arbitrary interests. Logic is the strongest weapon that persons have towards power and concentrations of power. If there is no objectivity, we are left with subjective opinions and power games.


Tewolde Berhan Gebre Egziabher:
I cannot simply let pass a stimulating discussion. Thank you for your e-mail of 23 October 2003. I will join in the discussion as the third person that I am and comment on the first question posed by N55 and the responses made by Terje as well as on the last comment by N55.

1. Question 1: I now understand what is meant by "language" in this question. But I had to first think. I have always seen language as a bridge to cross and meet others, not as an implement to wound or kill them with, though, of course, I have always known that we can do that as well with language. In Ethiopia, we speak of "words that break oneís bones".

Nevertheless, the tools we use in our relationship with Nature are not always decisive and irreversible. Fortunately, irreversibility is rare, I think. Unfortunately, it stays put and thus necessarily adds up. It is this cumulative nature of irreversibility that may, and looks as if it will, eliminate us.
When I say "us", I am referring not only to persons, but even more so to other living things. Just as we humans are helpless without other living things, so are our rights meaningless without their rights. Most societies explicitly or implicitly realize this; and they shape their "development" attempting to internalise its implications. I suppose that it makes sense, even if simply because those that do not have probably been, by simply narcissistically focussing on themselves, destroying so much of Nature that they will have eliminated also themselves. This fact is inescapable to an observer who visits the ruined city of Ephesus. Though this realization hit me in Ephesus, I now always feel it when I visit my ancestral city of Axum, only some 30 km. away from where I was born, and when I visit many other ancient sites.

Is globalization making an Ephesus of the whole world? Is this aggressive culture of delusion into self-destruction implicit in the mastery of macho Man (hopefully not including motherly woman) over Nature dictated in the Book of Genesis and thus motivating Judaism, Christianity and Islam? Or is it only Western European of the last 500 years? I wonder.

That is why corporations, the generalist "concentrations of power" are NOT "the real survivors". I think that they may well be a temporary puff of a dying culture, a sore spot on a bogus democracy of a section of humanity. I believe that survival would require a democracy of living things, not a democracy of a section of a species. I see the present national claims of democracy to be no more than an oligarchy in human terms, and an out and out destructive dictatorship in life terms.

Finally - I hope that N55 is right that "you at GenØk are able to step over the trap of specialization." It seems to me that the trap is woven out of the relationship between what we know and what we do not know. We cannot help but act only according to what we know; and, by definition, we cannot help but fail to know what we are doing to what we do not know. I know that GenØk is one of the best in realizing this dilemma, and we should all try to emulate it. But I am still personally left groping in the dark. May GenØk be the candle that has been lit to show us the way out!

And Terjeís response shows at least an attempt to become the needed candle. Whether its light will be bright enough, the future generations will tell. What I can say is that, within the limitations set by the vastness of the unknowable owing to the short span and limited capacity of human life, that is all that can be attempted.

2. The rest of the discussion between you two is excellent. It elicits no additional comments from me.
3. Last comment, by N55: I would love to believe, but I am not convinced, that "Logic is the strongest weapon that persons have towards power." I would like to think that, at least in the long run, this is true. But, it seems to me that logic, not propelled by power, remains invisible to those in power. That is why I think that we should be motivated by logic, but we should also unite to give it the necessary propulsion. I think that that is the way we can now take. I fear that it might even be the only way that we can ever take if we are to have any impact. We need to work together towards a global propulsion of logic to stem this oligarchic globalisation.

Any suggestions on how this can be done?

Otherwise, we will each feel, as I always feel, that we are stray dogs, not at all effective. Of course, I know that we cannot be pet dogs to present day society if we act true to the dictates of life. But we must act true to its dictates if life is to continue. So long as we are alive, we should have no option but to keep trying.
And I would like you to know that I find it easy to keep trying in the presence of young people like you who both think, and want to act.
Please do not get discouraged by our inaction and laughable attempts at action. With age, it seems to me that the body keeps getting heavier than the mind. That is why we look forward at you all our young people towards the future from which we must pass and in which we hope you will continue more responsibly than we did.


Notes:

1 The Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity adopted a supplementary agreement to the Convention known as the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety on 29 January 2000. The Protocol seeks to protect biological diversity from the potential risks posed by living modified organisms resulting from modern biotechnology. It establishes an advance informed agreement (AIA) procedure for ensuring that countries are provided with the information necessary to make informed decisions before agreeing to the import of such organisms into their territory. The Protocol contains reference to a precautionary approach and reaffirms the precaution language in Principle 15 of the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development. The Protocol also establishes a Biosafety Clearing-House to facilitate the exchange of information on living modified organisms and to assist countries in the implementation of the Protocol. ď www.biodiv.org, Convention on Biological Diversity.

2 Arpad Pusztai lost his job at Rowett Institute and was accused of fraud, after publicly warning of consumption of GM food, following his experiments feeding GM potatoes to rats.

3 Joseph Rotblat (1908-2000) physicist, participated in the development of the nuclear bomb (the Manhattan Project) until 1944. Founder of the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs. Received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1995.

4 TRIPS: The World Trade Organisationís (WTO) Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights.

5 Erwin Chargaff, biochemist (1905-2002), discovered the base-pairing regularities or ďcomplementarity relationshipsĒ of nucleic acids, that along with Rosalind Franklinís (1920-1958) X-ray diffraction pictures of DNA led to the discovery of the double-helix structure of DNA. Francis Crick (1916-) and James Watson (1928-) presented the structure of the DNA molecule in 1953, for which they received the 1962 Nobel Prize in physiology/medicine (together with Maurice Wilkins).



Back to manual for DISCUSSIONS



Back to manuals
Back to HOME