February 11th, 2003

World at Risk

Peter R. Wills

Biological systems display extraordinary dynamic complexity. They are integrated both within and across multiple levels in time and space. The highest level where intricate dynamic complexity is evident is the domain of global evolution. Entire species continually appear and disappear in a pattern extending over billions of years. The lowest level of dynamic complexity in biology is the domain of elementary biochemical and molecular genetic processes. These processes occur in microscopic cells, and take times as short as a millionth of a second to reach completion.

The authorities who assess the environmental and ecological impacts of genetically engineered organisms usually ignore the complex patterns of causation that are characteristic of biology. This is because no-one has sufficient scientific understanding of biological processes to analyse adequately or predict accurately change in complete systems of any size: cells, organisms, ecosystems or our planetary biosphere. As a result of this ignorance, releasing the products of genetic engineering into the environment puts the world of nature at risk of harm that we don’t yet know about.

Biological systems are characteristically hierarchical and there is a constant interplay between events at different levels. This interplay extends from the events that happen very slowly on a global scale right down to the most rapid events observed on a microscopic scale. A unique molecular event, like a mutation occurring in particularly fortuitous circumstances, can be amplified to the extent that it changes the course of evolution. On the other hand, the global environment, now moulded by aeons of biological activity, has been very influential in determining things that happen far more rapidly and on a scale smaller than we can perceive: the biochemical transformations of ordinary cellular metabolism.

To assess the effects of genetic engineering we must understand how biological networks operate. However, we must also keep in mind the fundamental limitations placed on our ideas and pictures of complex biological systems and their dynamic behaviour.

Some of the networks of interaction that we find at different levels of biological organization are, from the top down:

1. the evolutionary tree of life
2. ecological networks
3. the genetic control networks of organisms
4. the protein interaction network in cells
5. the metabolic network in cells

Summary   Levels   Assessing the Effects   Remote Causation   X

Thanks for the link to CALRESCO

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