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.
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?
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
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
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.
Is it difficult to get financing for these experiments?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
It is important that people who have expertise say these things and that
you are able to produce facts.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
Your view of the future is optimistic, but puts a strong demand on education.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Is a politically concerned researcher generally considered a suspect scientist?
Does your political engagement make you less credible in many peopleís
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!
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
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
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.
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).
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