Nov 04 2014

The Primeval Code

Conspiracy theories, pseudoscientific belief systems, and urban legends are fascinating in that they provide a window into culture and the human psyche. Essentially these are stories that are disconnected from reality, and therefore represent common narratives, beliefs, and fears in the culture.

I recently came across a conspiracy theory I had not heard of before, the Primeval Code, popularized in 2007 by a Swiss journalist, Luc Bürgin. Here’s the story:

Dr. Guido Ebner and Heinz Schürch, scientists working at the time for the pharmaceutical company, Ciba, discovered that if you expose seeds to an electrostatic field their ancient DNA will be awakened. Corn, wheat, even salmon will revert to a more primitive form, as if remembering their prior evolutionary states.

As a result the seeds grew into plants that resemble their more natural state, prior to human tweaking. Moreover, these primeval states were superplants. Corn grew with 12 ears per stalk, wheat was ready to harvest in weeks instead of months, the plants were naturally immune to pests and could grow without artificial fertilizer. They explain:

The Third World in particular could benefit from this method of cultivation that is both environmentally friendly and inexpensive. For “primeval cereals” from an electric field yield more than modern genetically engineered varieties and do not require fertilisers. Furthermore, it is completely natural and thus healthier. It can be grown by anybody at minimal cost.

The reaction of Ciba to this amazing discovery was to first patent the technology (in 1992) and then completely shut it down. They ended all research and suppressed the findings. Ebner and Schürch both died unexpectedly in 2001. However, Ebner’s plucky son, Daniel, has continued his father’s research. According to one source he has obtained the patent for the technology and made it publicly available.

The Narrative

The elements of this conspiracy narrative are all familiar. One large element is the naturalistic fallacy, the notion that anything “natural” is better, and intervention by people only makes things worse. Therefore the “natural” state of plants like wheat and corn must have been far superior to their current versions, the result of cultivation and now even genetic manipulation.

Further, there are easy solutions out there to complex problems, solutions that do not require any trade-offs and have no significant downside. All we have to do is get back to nature and all our problems will be solved.

In this specific case there is also an explicit anti-technology meme, with GMO being the target. This “primeval code” technology is presented as a natural alternative to “artificial” genetic manipulation.

Another common theme is that large corporations are necessarily greedy and evil. There are no practical limits to the blatant malfeasance they will commit if it improves their bottom line. In this narrative we even have an unholy alliance between Big Pharma and Big Agro.

Supporting the “corporations are evil” meme is the notion that technological advances are always disruptive and unwanted. Companies want to maintain the status quo, and will suppress any discovery that significantly alters the status quo because it will threaten their profits.

Good narratives require a hero and a villain. “Big Whatever” is always a convenient villain – impersonal, powerful, and self-motivated. The hero is therefore frequently the opposite, the lone maverick bucking the system. The plucky researcher who dares to tell truth to power and risk their careers, or even their lives.

Reality

Of course this entire narrative is utter nonsense from beginning to end, but that never stopped a good story.  The biggest hole in the story is the notion that primitive versions of crops, like wheat and corn, were superior to modern cultivars. This is the demonstrable opposite of the truth, and doesn’t make any kind of sense. The ancestor to corn was not supercorn, but teosinte, a small, hard, and barely edible grass. 

It also makes no sense that generations of farmers, working over thousands of years, cultivated varieties that were inferior, with lower yields and longer growing times.

The notion that organisms contain the genetic code of their ancestors is also absurd, although there is a kernel of truth here. Evolution often occurs through the turning off of genes. Those genes are still present in the genome, just not functional, and so can be theoretically turned back on.

However, nonfunctional genes are not protected by selection from random mutations, so they degrade over time. Turning back on an inactive gene, therefore, usually results in a highly mutated protein, not a perfect reversion to an older state.

Also there are many kinds of genetic changes that occur through evolution that are not the turning off of genes. Active genes mutate, their prior states completely lost to the current genome.

In short, all the information necessary to make an ancestor is not preserved in a modern genome.

The idea of using a static electric field in order to change gene expression has been studied. In one study, for example, applying an electric field accelerates differentiation but reduces proliferation. Differentiation, in a way, is the opposite of reversion to a primitive state.

The other elements of the conspiracy narrative are likewise nonsense. Companies generally exploit technological advances to open up new revenue streams. They don’t suppress them to maintain old ones.

Further, no company has the power to suppress research around the world. If the “Ebner-Schürch effect” were real, that would have profound implications for genetics. This would be reflected in genetics research, and the effect would have been discovered independently. Especially now that the idea is out there, and even open source, why aren’t labs around the world replicating this amazing effect?

Scientific discovery does not occur in a vacuum. Any practical application such as this (or a “cure” for cancer, cold fusion, burning water, or whatever) would be built upon a mountain of basic science research. When a discovery is ripe, it is going to happen, and often occurs almost simultaneously among various labs, all working off the same community of research.

Conspiracy theories, however, tend to be based on a quaint notion, centuries out of date, of the lone scientist making advances far ahead of the rest of the scientific world. This idea is good for storytelling, but it’s not reality.

Like with free-energy claims, skeptics can be instantly silenced with a convincing demonstration. (The key word there is “convincing.”)

Conclusion

The Primeval Code appears to be a fringe conspiracy theory without much traction, but it reflects many of the common elements of the generic conspiracy narrative. It’s one of the more scientifically absurd and easy to disprove, and therefore it is a useful example to expose the narrative itself.

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