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June 28, 2000


Debate 2000'0629 a: Advice to Mae van Ho from Tony Jackson: Keep


Dear friends,

Many years ago I heard Mae van Ho discussing evolutionary theories with
Ernst Mayr in a Seminar in Zurich, and ever since then I have been much less
enthusiastic about her autopoietic views, since she was defending those
views in a rather fanatic way and also with some strange arguments such as
the following: She showed nice colour slides of an experiment to let a
tomato plant grow as long as ever possible, the tomato grew into something
like a tree.
This experiment Mae van Ho took as a proof that if only you succeed to grow
a tomato plant nearly indefinitely, you will get something quite different
from a tomato plant and genes are not so important and subject ot
environmental influence and change. When I replied that the tomato is
belonging to the genus Solanum with numerous big tree species, such as
Solanum punctulatum etc., she was not that much impressed.

Still I am sure that we will see in the coming years more evidence of
developmental constraints on a molecular level. Also it has to be stated
that Darwin himself had some doubts on whether mutation (he called it
variation) and selection would be the only driving forces of evolution. (see
new insert in preface in his last edition of the Origin of Species).

Taken from
AgBioView - http://www.agbioworld.org, http://agbioview.listbot.com

Thanks go to Tony Jackson (a.p.jackson@bioc.cam.ac.uk) for this important




It's a curious fact that some of the most prominent opponents of GM
technology are also deeply hostile to the neo-Darwinian theory of
evolution. For example, much of Mae-wan Ho's book "Genetic Engineering:
Dream or Nightmare?" is actually an extended critique of neo-Darwinism and
its supposedly malign influence on biology. Mae-wan Ho is a professional
biologist who works in a respected academic biology department, so for this
reason her views certainly deserve attention. Go to:
http://www.i-sis.org/paris.shtml and read "The End of Bad Science and
Beginning Again with Life". Here you will find a succinct account of her
position, and she is certainly ambitious:

"I intend to show you how neo-Darwinism has been invalidated within science
itself, as an explanation of how life on earth has evolved and is

Really? If this is true it's important. Indeed if she's right it would be
one of the biggest things in biology since, err, Darwin. But in truth,
Mae-wan Ho's article - like much of her book - is more a silly rant aimed
at grotesque straw men. But it's important to read what she says. We have
to understand where she's coming from so that we can put her views on GM
technology into a broader perspective and also get a measure of her
peculiarly flexible attitude to facts and evidence.

Any plausible theory of evolution has to explain the origin of adaptations.
The conventional view is that natural selection filters randomly generated
genetic variation and cumulatively preserves that which is adaptively
useful. By contrast, Mae-wan Ho advocates a variant of Lamarckian
"inheritance of acquired characteristics" repackaged for a modern audience
in the shinny language of molecular genetics. As evidence, she makes a big
deal about the so-called "fluid genome" - the idea that genes can move
around both within and between genomes. But despite what she implies, there
is no contradiction here with neo-Darwininsm. In fact all the mechanisms
mentioned in her article, from transposons to horizontal gene transfer, are
discussed in good undergraduate textbooks of evolutionary biology. Other
claims in her article are similarly false. Time is too short to give an
exhaustive list, but to give just a few examples in no particular order.
She misrepresents the Central Dogma of molecular biology; and I completely
fail to see any connection between reverse transcriptase and "genetic
determinism"; neither do I know of any evidence to support her claim that
antibiotics specifically induce the de novo creation of resistance genes in
bacteria. More fundamentally, she has set up a crude caricature of
neo-Darwinism that bears little resemblance to the theory as understood by
contemporary evolutionary biologists. In particular, she doesn't seem to
understand (although it is hard to believe) what the theory means by
"random mutation". Mutations are random only in the sense that they are not
inherently biased in adaptive directions. They can be non-random in other
ways and the overall mutation frequency may indeed vary depending on
environmental conditions. The examples of so-called "directed mutations" in
bacteria are real enough and raise some interesting questions. But careful
research has gone a long way to unravel the mechanism and so far there is
no reason to believe that this phenomenon requires a radical rewriting of
neo-Darwinism (see for example:


To claim otherwise is disingenuous.

Perhaps something deeper is going on. For example, one of her major worries
seems to be the supposed moral danger of neo-Darwinism. Starkly she says:

"It (neo-Darwinism) reinforces a worldview that undermines every single
moral value that makes us human."

There is an irony here, for although she claims not to be a creationist,
this quotation could have been lifted verbatim from innumerable right-wing
Christian fundamentalist tracts. But mainly - and here we finally get to
the connection between neo-Darwinism and genetic engineering - there is the
accusation that both neo-Darwinism and GM technology are "reductionist" and
"mechanistic" and thereby promote a mentality that encourages us to
dominate and control Nature, rather than acknowledge Nature's
interconnectedness. But again, I think she has set up a caricature of
reductionism rather than the more subtle approach actually used by real
biologists in the real world. Surely, the working assumption that complex
biological systems can be explained in terms of simpler underlying
components and principles and that these can be isolated experimentally
makes progress possible. I accept that this pragmatic reductionism may not
be perfect, but it is laying bare the innermost workings of the cell in
wonderful detail. By contrast, the "holistic, organic perspective" favoured
by Mae-wan Ho sounds warm and cuddly but is empirically sterile and veers
perilously close to Prince Charles-style mysticism.

I would argue that neo-Darwinism is the reigning orthodoxy simply because
it organises a mountain of data into a powerful explanatory framework. But
to Mae-wan Ho this cuts little ice:

"It (neo-Darwinism) is nevertheless still perpetuated by the academic
establishment, if only because it serves so well to promote genetic
engineering, a technology that has the potential to destroy all life on

Such a paranoid conspiracy theory - that there is a reactionary
"establishment" who conspire to frustrate the brave maverick and even
imperil the whole planet - is of course a diagnostic feature of crank

And what are we to make of her closing comments?

"Even more remarkable is the message from quantum theory: that we may be
inseparably entangled with one another and with all nature, which we
participate in co-creating. In other words, the universe is an entangled
whole consisting of organisms that are themselves wholes. From my own work,
I have shown that the organism is so perfectly whole that it approaches
quantum coherence: a state of both maximum local freedom and global

I am not a physicist and I have no idea what this is all about; certainly I
would like to hear from any physicists who can enlighten me. But I cannot
escape the thought that an inappropriate appeal to quantum theory is yet
another common theme in crank science.

So to summarise. With an apparently straight face, Mae-wan Ho would trash
one of the most successful theories in all science and replace it with
vague Lamarckism, a mushy everything-is-connected-to-everything-else holism
and something to do with quantum theory. And she expects her scientific
peers to take her seriously?

Dr. Tony Jackson
Department of Biochemistry,

Prof. Dr. Klaus Ammann
Director Botanical Garden,
University of Bern
Altenbergrain 21
CH - 3013 Bern, Switzerland
Tel. +41 31 631 49 37
Fax +41 31 631 49 93