The Problem with DNA Barcoding:
a commentary by Richard Katz
The old wisdom that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts is disregarded by the latest the trend in academic and scientific circles to use DNA sampling for plant identification and classification. To their credit, Malte C. Ebach and Craig Holdrege have challenged this thinking in a letter, “DNA barcoding is no substitute for taxonomy,” published in the April 7, 2005 issue of Nature journal. (Click here to read the full text of the letter.)
In their letter to Nature, Ebach (morphologist and paleontologist at the Buffalo Museum of Science) and Holdrege (founder/director of the Nature Institute and author of Genetics and the Manipulation of Life) argue that identifying species by “DNA barcoding” — electronic scanning of select DNA sequences of living organisms — is not a valid substitute for true taxonomy, the identification of a species by examining the properties of a full specimen. The authors are concerned with the diversion of funding and research from taxonomy to this new technology, which promises to bring botany into the cybernetic age by making species identification as quick and easy as a supermarket clerk scanning the barcodes of your packaged goods. In their most telling statement, they remind us that “the work of taxonomists provides knowledge of the organism, not a few possibly unique nucleotides.”
The Organism: Parts and Wholes
In this statement, Ebach and Holdrege strike at the heart of the matter. What we are “gaining” in efficiency by DNA barcoding is at the expense of the knowledge of the organism, of life itself.
What is an organism? Can it be adequately defined by the genetic “programming” embedded in its DNA? An organism is a living being that consists of many parts, organized to constitute a whole. The components of an organism derive their meaning and identity from their participation in the larger identity of the organism. A human hair cannot be understood apart from the body of which it is a part. A leaf cannot be understood without knowledge of the plant to which it belongs.
A living organism expresses its identity in the way it organizes its various parts, how it relates to its environment, how it grows, and through its form, color, movement and sounds (if animal or human). Reductionist science that says that a living organism is nothing but a DNA sequence has myopic vision that has lost sight of the whole wondrous landscape that is life.
The Cybernetic Model of Life
Science has a nasty habit of using the latest technology as its model for explaining life. During the industrial age, living beings were seen as complex machines. In the cybernetic age, living beings are regarded as biological computers, with DNA as the hard-coded biological chips that determine the function and form of living systems. But such a model ignores the fact that genetic material is subject to context. It depends upon, as much as determines, the organism and environment in which it operates. Craig Holdrege, a leading researcher into the limits of genetic determinism, writes in the recent issue of InContext:
“One of the most widespread misconceptions concerning the nature of genes is that they have a defined and fixed function that allows them to operate the same in all organisms and environments. We have the picture of the robust gene determining all the characteristics an organism has. And this gene will do the same thing in a bacterium as in a corn plant or human being. It doesn't care where it is. The gene carries its set of instructions with it wherever it goes and strictly carries out its duty. ... It's somewhat ironic that precisely within the last ten to fifteen years—the period in which genetically modified crops have been developed and commercialized in the U.S. and some other countries—a wealth of research on genes in relation to environmental effects has been carried out, showing that genes are anything but automatic instruction programs immune to their context.”
In short, living organisms are not computers programmed by DNA chips.
For the full article, see “Genes Are Not Immune to Context, Examples from Bacteria, by Craig Holdrege in In Context. See also Logic, DNA, And Poetry, by Steve Talbot in NetFuture. Both publications are available one web site of The Nature Institute, a rich offering of resources for the science of life.
Why Morphology Matters
Taxonomy has its origin in the study of morphology, the form expression of a living organism. If we view taxonomy as merely a way of arranging species in a convenient system of classification, much as library books are arranged on a shelf, then why not use a more efficient method like DNA barcoding? However, if we agree with classical botanists, going back to the Greek Theophrastus, that taxonomy is a way of understanding the real characteristics of living organisms, then efficiency is not the criteria we should use for our method of study. What matters is that which gives us the best understanding of the true nature of living organisms.
If we understand that living beings are more than their physical structures, then morphology takes on a new significance. When we take off the materialistic blinders of reductionist science, we can see that living beings are formed by invisible life forces (vital force, etheric formative forces), and that these are, in turn, shaped by soul qualities. Therefore, morphology, the physical form and manifestation of a living being, is the visible expression of the forces and life and soul that define living beings. This “secret” was understood by Paracelsus, when he spoke about the “signatures” of plants which revealed their healing properties, and by Goethe, whose artistic temperament allowed him to capture the “gesture” of a plant or animal as a clue to the organism’s unifying character. This gesture typically repeats itself in various parts of the plant.
For example, we can see the linearity of the leaves of the lily echoed in the shape of the sepals and petals, and again in the leaf-like structures enclosing the bulb. The three sepals and three petals form a six-pointed star, a shape characteristic of the whole Lily Plant Family (Liliaceae) and representative of the alchemical union of fire and water. We see this polarity in the plant in the contrast between the round, wet watery bulb below, and the fiery flowers with their stamens full of orange pollen.
The moist bulbs nurture the young plant, reminding us of the watery origin of life, or the watery womb that nurtures animal life. Such observations are not mere flights of fantasy, but true insights into the nature of the Lily, as revealed through its morphology. Such characteristics translate into healing properties we can observe in flower essences made from various lilies, which all deal with themes of feminine nurturance, and balancing receptive water qualities with active fire forces.
The Commodization of Life
DNA barcoding grows out of the assumptions of genetic engineering, that life can be reduced to simple components, which can then be engineered to produce a desired result. With typical human hubris, we assume that the Creator has made living organisms in the same mechanistic way that we manufacture products, and all we need to do is scan their DNA “barcodes” and we will identify these biological commodities and assign them to the proper place in our industrial system. Nature is far more mysterious, and far more sacred, than such a narrowly utilitarian approach allows.
We know that scientists will continue to study the genetic content of living organisms, and this study adds to the available information about the structure of living matter. But let us not confuse information with knowledge or understanding. To know living organisms is to establish a relationship with them; and relationships are only possible by sensing, feeling and thinking beings, not by barcode devices. What is at risk here is not only a true understanding of Nature, but the possibility that in making living organisms into mere commodities, human beings will lose their own souls.
For further discussion of the topic of nature science, please see "The Living Science of Nature," in Calix: International Journal of Flower Essence Therapy Volume 1. The article includes a historical overview of botanical science, contrasting the reductionist approach with the holistic science pioneered by Goethe, using the example of the Pine.
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