Saturday, August 22, 2015

Are humans also genetically modified organisms?

Not many days go by without GMO appearing in my Facebook feed.  Almost always, those are to oppose GMO (like here.)  Ironically, those comments are from friends who are otherwise trained in the sciences and in technology, and champion other scientific ideas that typically generate controversies--the GMO-opposing friends often post worrying about global climate change, and make snide remarks on the strange American fixation on denying evolution.

I have struggled to understand why people oppose GMOs even when an overwhelming majority of scientists around the world support GMO. I have blogged about this issue in the past, but it continues to be incomprehensible. So, here I am again on why people oppose GMO even though science says it is safe;)
negative representations of GMOs are widespread and compelling because they are intuitively appealing. By tapping into intuitions and emotions that mostly work under the radar of conscious awareness, but are constituent of any normally functioning human mind, such representations become easy to think. They capture our attention, they are easily processed and remembered and thus stand a greater chance of being transmitted and becoming popular, even if they are untrue. Thus, many people oppose GMOs, in part, because it just makes sense that they would pose a threat.
"intuitively appealing" is the key idea here.  Before we continue on with the GMO, think about that "intuitively appealing" again.  A narrative of a creator who created life is "intuitively appealing" and, therefore, people have a tough time letting go of it.  To think that the sun goes around the earth is "intuitively appealing" because, after all, we see that happening day in and day out.  To think that women are dirty because they bleed every month is "intuitively appealing."  To think that people who don't look like us are inferior is "intuitively appealing."  It is an endless list of "intuitively appealing" aspects of life, right?

Rational thinking and science are all about eliminating that "intuitively appealing" explanations.  Of course, we continue to refer to the sun rising and setting, but we also know that it is merely a part of the idiom.  Yes, there are societies that continue to shun women, especially during their "periods" but most of the world operates otherwise.  As I often remind students, education itself is all about questioning the "gut instinct."  If we lived by our gut instincts, you think we would have developed a protocol to eliminate smallpox, which required us to knowingly inject a mild version of that disease into our systems?

Yet, in the case of GMO, quite a few people--even the scientifically trained ones--vehemently oppose it.
Intuitions about purposes and intentions also have an impact on people’s thinking about GMOs. They render us vulnerable to the idea that purely natural phenomena exist or happen for a purpose that is intended by some agent. These assumptions are part and parcel of religious beliefs, but in secular environments they lead people to regard nature as a beneficial process or entity that secures our wellbeing and that humans shouldn’t meddle with. In the context of opposition to GMOs, genetic modification is deemed “unnatural” and biotechnologists are accused of “playing God”.
I suppose we should remind the GMO opponents that wiping out smallpox is "unnatural" and "playing God."  Ebola?  Hey, it is just nature that doesn't want us to live.  We humans are not like birds and, therefore, for us to fly is so "unnatural."  Space exploration is to intrude on the gods up in the heaven.  Speaking into the air and my father responding to me in real time from the other side of the planet is so "unnatural" and almost like we are gods with such abilities.

Oh well ... for now, my gut instinct directs me to go eat and I don't care whether it has any GMO in it ;)

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