Mae-Wan Ho is a scientist known, to me at least, for unproductive work: dissing GMOs and biotechnology and, especially, relentlessly attacking “neo-Darwinism”, the modern theory of evolution. Ho is also head of an unfortunately named organization; as Wikipedia notes:
Ho is the director of the Institute of Science in Society (ISIS), an interest group that campaigns against what it sees as unethical uses of biotechnology. The group published about climate change, GMOs, homeopathy, traditional Chinese medicine, and water memory.
In reviewing the organisation, David Colquhoun accused the ISIS of promoting pseudoscience and specifically criticised Ho’s understanding of homeopathy.
Colquhoun’s piece on ISIS, which appears on his site “DC’s Improbable Science,” says this:
At first sight, its theme of “science, society and sustainability” sounded right up my street. It seems to be predominantly an anti-GM, pro-organic farming, organisation. Although some of their contributors seem to be somewhat paranoid, there is much that I can agree with in what they say about that.
But they completely ruin their case by including quite barmy homilies about homeopathy (and here), water structure and traditional chinese medicine. There is also an amazing piece of sheer pseudo-scientific nonsense, “Homeopathic Medicine is Nanopharmacology” by Dana Ullman (though elsewhere on the site, nanotechnology gets a bad press).
Most of the nutty content seems to be written by the director of the Institute herself. Dr Mae-Wan Ho, who is listed as “Reader in Biology at the Open University” (that’s odd -no trace of her on the Open University web site). In fact some doubts have been cast on her biography. Wikipedia says “She is former head of the Bio-Electrodynamics laboratory at the Open University in Milton Keynes after either having been fired for incompetence or resigning because of personal reasons.” Whatever the truth in that may be, she clearly doesn’t understand homeopathy.
Be sure to look at the links on homeopathy, which are seriously nutty, suggesting ways that water could really retain a memory of molecules that are no longer in it.
Ho’s lucubrations on evolutionary biology, as revealed in an interview she gave to Suzan Mazur at PuffHo, are just as bad. The piece, “Mae-Wan Ho: No boundary really between epigenetic and genetic”, is replete with misstatements, errors, and distortions on the part of both interviewer and subject. Mazur, as you may recall, is a gonzo journalist driven by one Big Obsession: modern evolutionary biology is wrong and she’s going to show how rotten it really is. Mazur tried to win renown by reporting on the infamous “Altenburg 16,” a group of biologists who convened a meeting in Austria, originally intending to debunk the Modern Synthesis, but later retracted their claws and claimed only to “extend” the synthesis. The result of that meeting was an eminently forgettable symposium volume that sunk without a trace, leaving no perceptible influence on the field. As I wrote about Mazur’s reporting at the time:
Her thesis has been not only that modern evolutionary biology is rotten to the core, but that we evolutionists all know it and are desperately trying to cover up a crumbling paradigm. Her interviews with people like Stuart Pivar and my old boss, Dick Lewontin, are really funny: Mazur desperately wants them all to admit that evolutionary biology is bankrupt, no matter what they think. Instead of finding out what they think, she presses and presses them to agree with her. It seems that most of these hilarious interviews have disappeared from the internet, but you can get a taste of them here and here.
And that, more or less, is what she does with Mae-Wan Ho, pressing her to admit the intellectual vacuity of modern evolutionary theory. Ho, for her part, is more than glad to comply. It’s all an excercise in bad science, but since it appeared in PuffHo, the general reader might get the impression that there’s something to it. (If PuffHo would deign to pay its writers, I’d try to offer a corrective in its pages. As it is, the aggregator website delights in publishing misguided pieces by people like Jim Shapiro and Stuart Newman exposing the so-called weaknesses of evolutionary biology.)
Here’s some of Ho’s mistaken contentions:
Epigenetics invalidates the modern synthesis. In modern parlance, “epigenetics” refers to the modification of some DNA bases, usually by the attachment of methyl groups to them (“methylation”). Such modification can be important in evolution: modified DNA can act differently from unmodified DNA, for example in determining whether it produces proteins at all, or when and where that DNA is transcribed. All of the important epigenetic modification that we know about in evolution, however, is coded for by the DNA itself: that is, there are bits of the DNA code that say “allow other parts of the DNA to be methylated.” In that sense, epigenetics is not something that radically revises our view of genetics and evolution, for it’s something that some parts of DNA do to other parts of DNA, and those instructions have evolved by natural selection.
However, some epigenetic modification of DNA comes not from instructions by other DNA, but from the environment itself. Starvation or stress can itself act to methylate DNA. Indeed, in some cases, environmentally-induced methylation can be passed to the next generation, or even a few further generations (it eventually disappears). That observation has led people to speculate that epigenetics can allow a kind of “Lamarckian inheritance,” whereby the environment itself induces an adaptive change in the DNA that can then be passed on to future generation—the inheritance of an acquired characteristic. If this happened often, it would seriously revise our notion of how evolution works.
Unfortunately for the many proponents of “epigenetics as a driver of evolution,” like Ho, that doesn’t seem to happen. The epigenetic modifications of DNA induced by the environment don’t persist, for the modifications gradually fade away, sometimes by the next generation. Further, we know of not a single adaptation residing in an organism’s DNA that was induced by the environment and then persisted as a real genetic/evolutionary adaptation. The changes we see are temporary and largely nonadaptive.
Nevertheless, those Kuhnians eager to overthrow the modern view of evolution persist in touting epigenetics as a New Paradigm over and over and over and over again, ad nauseum. (See my many critiques of this tactic here.) One of these revolutionaries is Ho (spurred on by Mazur):
Suzan Mazur: Doesn’t epigenetics throw into question just how vertical the transfer of information is?
Mae-Wan Ho: Yes, exactly. We know, for instance, when we eat food nucleic acids can get into our cells. Also, there is a theory that our cells in the body keep sending out nucleic acids and one theory has it that it seems to correct the mistakes that other cells have suffered from mutations. . . .
Suzan Mazur: You’ve written that it does get into the germline.
Mae-Wan Ho: Yes. This is why the whole genome is a more radical concept than just epigenetics because there is no boundary really between the genetic and epigenetic .
The emphasis is Mazur’s here, not mine. And of course if you mean that epigenetic changes can be inherited over one or a few generations, then in that sense they are “genetic.” But that doesn’t mean that environmentally (as opposed to DNA-coded) modifications of DNA are important in evolution. And if they’re not, then there’s no problem for neo-Darwinism. Sadly, Mazur and Ho don’t like that conclusion (my emphasis in the following):
Suzan Mazur: The Third Way of Evolution is different from Altenberg in the sense that many scientists on the page are talking about replacing neo-Darwinism.
Mae-Wan Ho: It was really in the 1970s when I started thinking about this with Peter Saunders. We began criticizing neo-Darwinism, and wrote a paper: “Beyond neo-Darwinism: The Epigenetic Approach to Evolution.” That brought a lot of controversy. I was branded neo-Lamarckian, communist, Marxist, all sorts of things.
People found us too radical. They retreated because we were already saying in that paper — well, look, you might as well forget about natural selection because what does it mean “selection” when the organism keeps changing according to environmental conditions?
We now know that at the molecular level that is precisely what happens. There are these epigenetic changes that respond to the environment. . . .
I think the Modern Synthesis has got to be completely replaced, and unfortunately, those people who are very attached to neo-Darwinism won’t look at the evidence. A lot of them don’t know molecular genetics at all. Or like [Richard] Dawkins, they will say, I just don’t believe it. They’re not scientists.
Denis Noble is very interesting because he’s come to this, if I might say so, rather late. He’s right and has got the zeal.
People like Peter Saunders and I, who’ve been arguing about this since the 1970s, think things have moved on to such an extent in evolutionary science, and that the world beyond neo-Darwinism is so creative and beautiful, that we now don’t really care about trying to convince the neo-Darwinists.
What’s wrong with this? First, the ridiculous dismissal of natural selection based on the supposed epigenetic changes that are produced in DNA by the environment itself. But even those changes, if they were adaptive, would have to spread through a population via natural selection. There’s no way around natural selection, so we can’t “forget about it” even under Ho’s erroneous theory. But we needn’t even think about that possibility since there’s no evidence of permanent genetic and adaptive change in organisms induced by the environment.
Finally, it’s incorrect to say that those who criticize the importance of environmentally-induced epigenetics in evolution aren’t scientists. Among those critics are not just Dawkins (a scientist), but myself, Matthew Cobb, Doug Futuyma, David Haig, Joe Felsensetein, and others. We’re all scientists, too. And I reject the notion that none of us know molecular genetics. Besides, you don’t have to know much molecular genetics to see that there’s no evidence for environmentally-induced DNA modification playing even a minor role in evolution.
The DNA-centered view of evolution is wrong. This is an extension of the “epigenetics” paradigm, but also a favorite trope of ideologues who resent the notion that the DNA is a “master molecule.” Ho espouses a kind of nebulous “holism,” perhaps connected with her pseudoscientific views about homeopathy:
Suzan Mazur: There’s a debate about whether viruses are alive or not. What position do you take?
Mae-Wan Ho: The moral of all that is that this DNA-centered view is really completely mistaken and outmoded. There is no DNA determinism. DNA or RNA does not equal life. They are kind of like memory molecules but the memory gets rewritten.
Well, nobody thinks that DNA is absolutely deterministic in what traits you develop, but it’s damn important! And in some cases it is deterministic. If you have the sickle-cell gene in two copies, you get sickle-cell anemia, period. That’s not caused by the environment, and while it can be mitigated by medicine, it can’t be eliminated in any environment we know about. DNA is deterministic of many traits, in that you’ll develop a genetically coded trait no matter what environment you develop in. Ho is thus badly wrong when she says this:
[Mazur]: But what about the misunderstanding of how evolution works, that it’s gene-centered. Is this part of the reason why drugs to treat one problem can result in 25 side effects?
Mae-Wan Ho: Absolutely, yes. I think we have a completely obsolete medical system. It’s committed to this gene-centered approach. A lot of money has been spent on sequencing genomes, etc. They really have got to keep the myth going. They’ve got to say, well we’re going to find the genes that make you ill or predispose you to all kinds of illnesses. But they never can find them. This just goes on and on.
I don’t know if you’ve noticed but at first it was genomics and then transcriptomics, proteomics, epigenomics, etc. Because they don’t know what else to do. It’s really mind-numbing.
With cancer, for example, they keep sticking to this idea that it’s caused by gene mutations. Again, they’re chasing their own tail. That’s why we have such a horrible medical system. The best thing to do is to avoid it.
What? There are no genes that make you ill or predispose you to illness? I refer you to Online Mendelian Inheritance in Man®, an extensive catalogue of genetic traits, disorders, and diseases in humans. There are literally hundreds of them. Sickle-cell anemia, Huntington’s chorea, the breast-cancer genes BRCA1 and BRCA2, hemophilia, phenlyketonuria: the list is long. (Wikipedia gives a huge compilation.) In many of these cases we know not only the precise gene where the disease resides, but know the exact lesion that causes the disease.
But wait—there’s more. Woo!
[Ho]: For instance, if you take stem cells or cells in culture — you’re very careful to clone them, etc. — but as soon as you put them in culture you get chromosomal abnormalities, mutants.
Suzan Mazur: It’s the organism as a whole that’s keeping them stable.
Mae-Wan Ho: It’s the whole system. It’s almost like a field, a field that keeps both the field and the shape of the organism intact.
People have called it by different names. Developmental biologists have long referred to it as a morphogenetic field. It’s a holistic influence. I won’t go into the biophysics of it, but it can be thought of as a causal field. This is why neo-Darwinism cannot be enough, it cannot explain such things.
These “holistic causal” fields are produced by genes and are almost certainly the result of natural selection that acts to keep development on track and suppress those things that could throw it out of whack. Calling it a “field” or something “holistic” merely obscures this fact.
Young people are dispirited by the neo-Darwinian paradigm.:
Suzan Mazur: What is the danger of not replacing the gene-centered Modern Synthesis?
Mae-Wan Ho: The people who suffer most are the young people because they are bored out of their minds in today’s laboratories. There is no inspiration with neo-Darwinism, it dulls the mind.
I don’t know what universities are like in the US now, probably they have improved. But I stay away from universities because I find them so decadent and dispirited.
Suzan Mazur: They’ve become business and banking centers. Obsessed with expansion and real estate.
Young people bored out of their minds? I don’t know which students Ho deals with, but I don’t see young people who are left “uninspired” by modern evolutionary ideas. On the contrary: the journals are brimming with papers, new journals are starting up, we are training more students than we have jobs for, and students are beginning to use the largesse of DNA sequencing to study evolution, including the obsolete view that Ho calls “natural selection.” I suspect, too, that the reason Ho stays away from universities is not that she wants nothing to do with them, but the reverse.
The universe is conscious. Here we see Ho spouting views that could have been taken from the Deepak Chopra playbook:
Suzan Mazur: Do you have a definition for life?
Mae-Wan Ho: I would define it as a quantum coherent system. It is a circular thermodynamic system that can reproduce.
Suzan Mazur: How do you think about origin of life?
Mae-Wan Ho: I think there was an origin of life. If you look at water, which has been the subject of my research for a number of years — the physics of life depends on water in a very fundamental way. Water has all the characteristics of consciousness. It’s very sensitive, it’s flexible. It responds to light. Electromagnetic fields, etc.
Suzan Mazur: Have you commented about electrons and consciousness?
Mae-Wan Ho: It was Alfred North Whitehead’s idea that electrons had consciousness. Whitehead, to me, was a really important philosopher. He was also a mathematician. He had the idea that you cannot really understand nature except as an organism and with the sensitivity of the organism. To Whitehead everything in nature was an organism to varying degrees, from electrons, fundamental particles to galaxies. It’s a very beautiful idea actually.
Well, a beautiful idea is not a correct idea, and this one is just loony.
The consciousness of water, of course, plays right into her group ISIS’s approval of homeopathy. As for water and electrons having consciousness, well, I think the evidence shows that some kind of fairly complex nervous system is required for consciousness, and nobody has yet observed neurons in water molecules or electrons.
The fact that HuffPo publishes this kind of nonsense shows how pathetic that rag really is. They’ll publish stuff like this that is palpably wrong, just so they have something to fill their columns. It’s not just their fault, either. More blame goes to Ho and especially to Mazur, who thinks that Ho’s ridiculous ideas are somehow newsworthy.
There’s plenty of blame to go around, but the upshot is that the public is duped about the consensus among biologists. In that sense Ho and Mazur, driven by their ambition and their false view that they have a Big New Story that is suppressed by scientists, are guilty of misleading the public.