FEATURED: Beyond Biotechnology by Craig Holdredge and Steve Talbott [Vol. 1, #37]

September 27, 2008


“Our Food and
Our Idolatry of Science”

A Review of
Beyond Biotechnology:
The Barren Promise of
Genetic Engineering
by Craig Holdredge and Steve Talbott.

By Chris Smith.

Beyond Biotechnology.
Craig Holdrege and Steve Talbott.
Hardcover.  University Press of Kentucky. 2008.
Buy now from: [ Amazon ]

BEYOND BIOTECHAt Englewood Christian Church, we talk a lot about community, land and food in light of our Christian faith.  We have appreciated a number of books in the University Press of Kentucky’s heralded “Culture of the Land” series that contains titles related to the new agrarianism.  Thus, it was with great anticipation that I picked up this book, one of the most recent titles in this series.  My anticipation was heightened further when, in her book Distracted, Maggie Jackson referred to Steve Talbott as a social critic of a similar caliber to Jacques Ellul or Neil Postman.  A little more online research into the Nature Institute, for whom both authors work, served to pique my interest in Holdredge’s work and make me even more excited to read this book.  Suffice it to say that this book not only met my high expectations, but also – in its launching out into some unexpected directions – offered much more than I had anticipated.

            My only complaint about the book is that it perhaps sweeps too broadly and endeavors to cover too much ground.  Therefore, before going any further, it might serve us best to overview the trajectory of Holdredge and Talbott’s line of argument. In the first part of the book, the authors clearly and concisely introduce the practice of genetic modification in agriculture and the justifications that are given in defense of its practice.  Additionally, they begin to raise questions about genetically-modified foods and the widespread social acceptance thereof.  In the second part of the book, they overview the genetic science that undergirds the practices of genetic modification, highlighting recent genetic research that shows that the gene is an abstract concept that describes phenomena and not a specific entity that is “the definitive causative agent in biology” (69), as it is generally understood.  The gene, Holdredge and Talbott argue, has been taken out of its context; or in other words, genetic modification does not sufficiently take into account the organism in which the genetic modification occurs.  The book’s third section addresses this issue of defining an organism.  In the book’s fourth and final section, the authors propose a new way of doing science – based on the early nineteenth century scientific reflections of Goethe – that would more holistically examine natural phenomena in their context and thus steer clear of the bold projections of atomistic science that underlie genetic modification. 

Holdredge and Talbott critique the use of genetic engineering in agriculture on several levels.  First, they express concern that in contrast to traditional forms of breeding, “we can now manipulate living organisms much more efficiently and more casually than ever before” (5).  They also question whether bioengineered foods have been tested sufficiently.  One of the authors’ strongest arguments however is given in response to the frequent claims of the makers of genetically modified foods that their products are helping to solve world hunger.  In critiquing this claim, Holdredge and Talbott use the example of “golden rice” – a variety of rice that has been genetically modified to add beta carotene – to raise a series of questions:

1)     “If you grow the (transgenic) rice, can you deliver it to those who need it?” (18)

2)     “If you deliver the rice, will they eat it?” (19)

3)     “If they eat the rice, will it do them any good?” (21)

4)     “Who will grow [this] rice?” (22)

5)     “What will rice make of its golden genes?” (23)

They later conclude this argument stating:

“Feeding the world is not just a question of increasing yields.  When we believe it is, we divert our attention from the much broader social, political, economic and ecological issues influencing food production and hunger.  If we continue to live under the illusion that we will find a technological solution to world hunger, and if we set our hopes on such solutions and channel our money and energy into their development, we can be pretty sure that world hunger will only grow” (40).  The authors argue convincingly that genetically modified foods should be labeled as such by the FDA.

            In the second part of the book, the authors present a more detailed and even more compelling argument against genetic modification.  They maintain that the contemporary scientific understanding of the gene is much more mutable and contextually-dependent than popular renderings of biology would have us believe.  The gene is not a definitive element that can be manipulated with certain outcomes.  Thus, the authors argue that we should approach the gene with much more humility than is afforded by genetic modification.  The gene is a theoretical construct used to describe a particular set of phenomena that have been observed on the DNA level.  Genetic modification stakes its reliability upon a particular understanding of these phenomena – namely that the gene is an atomistic unit that can be adjusted to produce specific traits in the larger organism.  Such an understanding, however, is at best incomplete.  Thus, the authors question the ethics of manipulating materials that we hardly understand and plead for us to exercise reverence and humility toward the organism as a whole.

            The primary problem that Holdredge and Talbott have with genetic modification is that it is rooted in a science that isolates the gene from the larger context in which it exists, and likewise isolates the trait that a specific gene is said to control from the life of the organism as a whole.  Thus, in the book’s final section, the authors venture into philosophy of science, challenging the predominant atomism that breaks objects up into their smallest parts and seeks to understand an organism (for instance) as a collection of parts rather than as a whole.  In the book’s final chapter, Craig Holdredge proposes a new way of doing science that is based on the scientific reflections of Goethe in the early nineteenth century.  The metaphor that Holdredge uses to describe this new model of science is a conversation between an individual and nature.  This conversational model would better account for the context and would allow for the holistic perception of objects. Holdredge then uses his study of northeastern skunk cabbages as an illustration of how such an approach to science might work.  The content of this final section is the most complex in the book, and is seemingly tangential to the place where the book started in examining genetic modification in agriculture.  However, Holdredge’s notion of a conversational approach to science (which could easily be expanded to all sorts of knowing) is a valuable philosophical contribution and one that churches should consider as they seek to know one another and to know God together.

            This book should be read and discussed in our churches, for its multi-faceted critique of genetic modification in contemporary food production, as well as for the conversational model of knowing that it proposes in its final section.