07/20/2015 01:21 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Peter Saunders Interview (Part 2): Evolution and GMOs



Peter Saunders in Part 2 of our recent interview comments on why it's crucial to understand how evolution works in light of the ongoing genetic modification of organisms. He is a long-time critic of neo-Darwinism, particularly of the assumption of "one gene -- one character."

Peter Saunders is emeritus professor of applied mathematics at King's College London as well as co-director of ISIS, the British organization whose mission is "to reclaim science for the public good." His PhD is in theoretical astrophysics from the University of London, his BA in applied mathematics from the University of Toronto. He is the author of An Introduction to Catastrophe Theory; co-editor of the books Beyond neo-Darwinism (with Mae-Wan Ho) and of Theoretical Biology (with the late Brian Goodwin).

Suzan Mazur: Would you talk about why an understanding of how evolution works is crucial regarding the ongoing genetic modification of organisms?

Peter Saunders: [I]n neo-Darwinism there is this picture -- it wasn't true in the 1960s, but it wasn't so obviously false as it is today -- it's what geneticists themselves refer to as "one gene -- one character."

The thing about "one gene -- one character" is that if you ask neo-Darwinists, geneticists: Do you really believe this? They will say: Nobody could believe such a thing, it's stupid, let's be real. Then if you go and you look at the way they do their models and the papers they write and the theories they come up with -- actually they ARE assuming "one gene -- one character." And we know they are because we can see it in the modeling.

Suzan Mazur: That's remarkable.

Peter Saunders: Secondly, there's the article by Richard Lewontin 40 years ago where he tried to analyze how selection works if you don't assume "one gene -- one character," demonstrating that it's very hard to get the existing theory to work.

This is one of the big problems, the Modern Synthesis operates on the picture of a "gene" that "existed" in 1960, that in terms of its effect on the organism was wrong even then. But even the "gene" is wrong now. Ask a geneticist to define what the "gene" is and see what happens.

Suzan Mazur: And then there's the question of its origin. Would you touch on the hazards of genetic modification in light of what you just said?

Peter Saunders: The idea is that if you have an organism, say maize, and you want it to be resistant to a certain herbicide -- then what you do, consistent with the Modern Synthesis, is you find the "gene" that the herbicide resists in something else and you transfer it to maize. There you are. The only thing is that too depends on the 1960s thinking about the "gene."

What is that piece of DNA actually doing? Remember what they transfer isn't the "gene." It's a piece of DNA, which is not the same thing. You have to ask -- but what does it actually do? It doesn't actually block. What it does is it alters metabolism in the plant in such a way, which in connection with other things that are already in the plant, will cause it to be resistant to the herbicide.

The interesting thing is -- I remember once seeing a talk describing how mice had gotten into a corn storage shed and they'd eaten the non-GM corn and ignored the GM corn completely.

Suzan Mazur: That's fascinating.

Peter Saunders: But it isn't magic at all, the reason is the action of the "gene" was to block the metabolism at some point and at this point formaldehyde was thought to be created and then it was going to be destroyed. But the formaldehyde wasn't destroyed because the "gene" was blocked. Mice don't like formaldehyde.

Suzan Mazur: One good reason why we need to learn to communicate with animals.

Peter Saunders: It also tells you that if you think of the "gene" as for this or that or the other -- you get your evolution wrong. Frankly, people don't know what they're doing with GMOs.