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 ;)



Mike Hoth said...

I often remind people who oppose GMOs that what they really oppose is the fact that somebody in a sterile, controlled laboratory is doing it. They're obviously fine with farmers from a time when the cure for disease was bleeding until you got better!
In reality, if you want to avoid all GMOs, you can't eat tomato, carrot, corn, wheat, cows, sheep, chickens, turkeys, yaks, dogs, cats, kale, cauliflower, cabbage, brussel sprouts, broccoli or kohlrabi. There are others in there as well, but I think that list gets the point across.

From, one of those nuts who argues that evolution is not truth.

Anne in Salem said...

Have you ever heard of the Food Babe ( She pretends to be a scientist and writes scathing posts about toxins in foods, among other things, and rallies her followers to petition companies to change their ways that she finds unacceptable. She appeals to the emotions, not to rational thought. For example, Starbucks should change its pumpkin spice latte because the caramel syrup is a class 2B carcinogen. Scary, right? She neglects to mention that coffee is also a Class 2B carcinogen. In April, a real scientist ( dragged the Food Babe over the coals for her pseudo-science and scare tactics; it is by far the best dissection of the Food Babe I've seen. See this article: It is really very funny, especially the vinegar part.

People believe what they want to believe as long as they don't have to think. Thinking takes effort, and as you know and rue, people are loathe to do it. You could tell them that GMO rice saved millions of Asians from starvation beginning in the 1960s, and all they'll hear is GMO, which equals bad.

How's the air in Eugene? It was smoke-filled in Portland and Salem by about 11:00 this morning. If only the tree-huggers would accept the science I have read that thinning forests and removing fuel (remnants of these fires in particular) would prevent these annual conflagrations.

Ah, yes. Dinner. Time for some tomatoes and cabbage that were probably engineered at some point, whether in a lab or in a field.

Ramesh said...

I wouldn't be so harsh on people at large who are fearful of GMO.

I believe that the GMO problem is one of communication. People in general will not believe something simply because it was asserted so by a scientist or published in an scientific journal. They need to be convinced by both rational and emotional arguments. Take the small pox example - we convinced the world at large although the concept of a vaccine is counter intuitive. BCG vaccine (against TB) was for long resisted in India - slowly and surely the government convinced the people (a great story there). The same thing can be done on GMO - in fact in some crops in India, that is indeed being done. Where the waters are being muddies is when private corporations (read big bad multinationals) try to propagate GMOs. There is an inherent anti large company feeling and therefore the instant surmise is that anything they do must be bad. At least in the Indian context, if Monsanto had not been at the forefront of the GMO debate, there would have been far less resistance.

Intuitive distrust is not always a bad thing - its what evolution has taught us to survive.

Having said all this, the fear mongers such as foodbabe (really ???!!!) ought to be guillotined.

Mike - What is kohlrabi ????? !!

Sriram Khé said...

The comments reflect the complicated views that the seven-plus billions hold ... An evolution-denying believer defends GMO; an uber-capitalist worries about Monsanto; an Oregonian advocates for cutting down a few trees ;)
My job in this rejoinder is to merely point out your respective contradictions and have you sort them out for yourselves ... hahahaha ;)

Yes, the "food babe" was in the news recently for many of the reasons that you bring up. You left out an interesting aspect of the food babe in this context when Ramesh and I are from India: the food babe is the daughter of immigrants from India ;)

Anne in Salem said...

Bite your tongue!! I am not an Oregonian. I live in Oregon. BIG difference.

Most read this past month