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Richard Dawkins talks about GMO crops

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For New Year’s Day, I’m republishing the top 10 articles I wrote in 2013. Well, actually top 9, plus 1 from 2012 that just keeps going.

#2. This article was published on 12 June 2013, and has had nearly 40,000 views. GMO’s cause so much unscientific drama, that when Richard Dawkins, a “saint” for the a lot of pro-science people, makes it known that being against GMO’s is anti-science, it causes the time-space continuum to break. 

Thirteen years ago, Richard Dawkins, noted secularist, author and evolutionary biologist, wrote an open letter to Prince Charles, noted promoter of pseudoscience and heir apparent to the British throne, about the Prince’s hostility to science. Even though the letter was written more than a decade ago, the salient points still ring true today:

…Sir, I think you may have an exaggerated idea of the natural-ness of ‘traditional’ or ‘organic’ agriculture. Agriculture has always been unnatural. Our species began to depart from our natural hunter-gatherer lifestyle as recently as 10,000 years ago – too short to measure on the evolutionary timescale.

Wheat, be it ever so wholemeal and stoneground, is not a natural food for Homo sapiens. Nor is milk, except for children. Almost every morsel of our food is genetically modified – admittedly by artificial selection not artificial mutation, but the end result is the same. A wheat grain is a genetically modified grass seed, just as a pekinese is a genetically modified wolf. Playing God? We’ve been playing God for centuries!

Wheat was domesticated around 11,000 years ago (but some forms of wheat may have been domesticated 25,000 years ago). Part of the domestication process was forcing it into tetraploidy (4 sets of chromosomes) or hexaploidy (6 sets of chromosomes). Corn was domesticated 7500-10,000 years ago in central America from a plant, still extant in that area, teosintes, which looks like grass. If you walked by a teosintes plant, you would probably not think it was corn.

Plants like legumes (peanuts, beans and other similar crops) incorporate Rhizobia bacteria in their roots to fix nitrogen from the atmosphere for nutrition for the plant. According to the Endosymbiotic theory of evolution, mitochondria and chloroplasts, important cellular structures for most organisms, were free-living organisms incorporated by other cells. In other words, genetic and cellular modification of organisms have been happening for billions of years. Unless you ascribe to the Naturalistic Fallacy, which states only natural things are “good”, the differences between human modification of the genome and so-called “natural” ones are nonexistent. 

But let’s continue with Dawkins’ letter.

The large, anonymous crowds in which we now teem began with the agricultural revolution, and without agriculture we could survive in only a tiny fraction of our current numbers. Our high population is an agricultural (and technological and medical) artifact. It is far more unnatural than the population-limiting methods condemned as unnatural by the Pope. Like it or not, we are stuck with agriculture, and agriculture – all agriculture – is unnatural. We sold that pass 10,000 years ago.

Does that mean there’s nothing to choose between different kinds of agriculture when it comes to sustainable planetary welfare? Certainly not. Some are much more damaging than others, but it’s no use appealing to ‘nature’, or to ‘instinct’ in order to decide which ones. You have to study the evidence, soberly and reasonably – scientifically. Slashing and burning (incidentally, no agricultural system is closer to being ‘traditional’) destroys our ancient forests. Overgrazing (again, widely practised by ‘traditional’ cultures) causes soil erosion and turns fertile pasture into desert. Moving to our own modern tribe, monoculture, fed by powdered fertilisers and poisons, is bad for the future; indiscriminate use of antibiotics to promote livestock growth is worse.

Once again, the Appeal to Nature logical fallacy has no meaning. Natural is not better, especially if the “natural” system was lost thousands of years ago. As Dawkins says, maybe some parts of agriculture need to be fixed, but if by fixing we actually mean “let’s go back to the way it was”, that’s a long way back, and it’s going to starve a lot of people just for a belief rather than science.

Incidentally, one worrying aspect of the hysterical opposition to the possible risks from GM crops is that it diverts attention from definite dangers which are already well understood but largely ignored. The evolution of antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria is something that a Darwinian might have foreseen from the day antibiotics were discovered. Unfortunately the warning voices have been rather quiet, and now they are drowned by the baying cacophony: ‘GM GM GM GM GM GM!’

Moreover if, as I expect, the dire prophecies of GM doom fail to materialise, the feeling of let-down may spill over into complacency about real risks. Has it occurred to you that our present GM brouhaha may be a terrible case of crying wolf?

And it’s crying wolf, when there is no evidence that the wolf was even here. That’s the worst part. There isn’t even a pretend wolf running around. Not even a picture of a wolf. 

Even if agriculture could be natural, and even if we could develop some sort of instinctive rapport with the ways of nature, would nature be a good role model? Here, we must think carefully. There really is a sense in which ecosystems are balanced and harmonious, with some of their constituent species becoming mutually dependent. This is one reason the corporate thuggery that is destroying the rainforests is so criminal.

On the other hand, we must beware of a very common misunderstanding of Darwinism. Tennyson was writing before Darwin but he got it right. Nature really is red in tooth and claw. Much as we might like to believe otherwise, natural selection, working within each species, does not favour long-term stewardship. It favours short-term gain. Loggers, whalers, and other profiteers who squander the future for present greed, are only doing what all wild creatures have done for three billion years.

No wonder T.H. Huxley, Darwin’s bulldog, founded his ethics on a repudiation of Darwinism. Not a repudiation of Darwinism as science, of course, for you cannot repudiate truth. But the very fact that Darwinism is true makes it even more important for us to fight against the naturally selfish and exploitative tendencies of nature. We can do it. Probably no other species of animal or plant can. We can do it because our brains (admittedly given to us by natural selection for reasons of short-term Darwinian gain) are big enough to see into the future and plot long-term consequences. Natural selection is like a robot that can only climb uphill, even if this leaves it stuck on top of a measly hillock. There is no mechanism for going downhill, for crossing the valley to the lower slopes of the high mountain on the other side. There is no natural foresight, no mechanism for warning that present selfish gains are leading to species extinction – and indeed, 99 per cent of all species that have ever lived are extinct.

The human brain, probably uniquely in the whole of evolutionary history, can see across the valley and can plot a course away from extinction and towards distant uplands. Long-term planning – and hence the very possibility of stewardship – is something utterly new on the planet, even alien. It exists only in human brains. The future is a new invention in evolution. It is precious. And fragile. We must use all our scientific artifice to protect it.

Dawkins is making a critical point here. To make the earth better, to feed the people, to deal with “nature”, we actually have to behave against nature, because…

It may sound paradoxical, but if we want to sustain the planet into the future, the first thing we must do is stop taking advice from nature. Nature is a short-term Darwinian profiteer. Darwin himself said it: ‘What a book a devil’s chaplain might write on the clumsy, wasteful, blundering, low, and horridly cruel works of nature.’

Of course that’s bleak, but there’s no law saying the truth has to be cheerful; no point shooting the messenger – science – and no sense in preferring an alternative world view just because it feels more comfortable. In any case, science isn’t all bleak. Nor, by the way, is science an arrogant know-all. Any scientist worthy of the name will warm to your quotation from Socrates: ‘Wisdom is knowing that you don’t know.’ What else drives us to find out?

I know that some of the anti-GMO argument is based on poor evidence published in junk science journals with low impact factor. But a big chunk of the anti-GMO crowd has this belief that somehow the world was better 50, 100, 200 years ago. It wasn’t. I participated in a discussion where people were making a claim that cancers and childhood mortality have somehow increased over the past few decades. But, that’s just not true.

The doors have been opened to GMO crops 10,000 years ago. There is no way to go back in time, unless some of you know something that the rest of us don’t. We cannot possibly feed the world without specialized crops that can grow to be pest-restistent, drought-tolerant, or whatever we need. Science isn’t perfect, so there might be errors along the way, but in general, they will be minor mistakes, and the greatest thing about science is that it is completely self-correcting. If we “design” a corn that costs too much, we design a better one.

Genetic engineering is a fact of life. Millions of people are kept alive with genetically engineered insulin, that is the human insulin gene is inserted into bacteria so that factories can produce billions of vials of the important hormone. Without it, a Type 1 diabetic will die painfully and sadly within a few days. Before the 1980’s, insulin was extracted from pig pancreas, because it was close enough. But it didn’t work as well as human insulin. And there were all kinds of allergic reactions. If you want to go back in time to a more natural world, a child with diabetes would die. And that doesn’t seem like a good choice.

If, like Prince Charles, your argument is going to be based on Appeals to Nature or the Naturalistic Fallacy or the Nirvana Fallacy. Or if your argument is going to use terrible science that wouldn’t meet the standards of a high school science fair by publishing a paper about pigs being less healthy on a GMO diet, but it’s in a horrible journal because no respectable journal would publish such an incredibly bad study. Or if you’re going to use a strawman by bashing Monsanto 24/7. Well, then we’re not going to improve the world. We’re not going to feed the 10 billion people that will be on the planet in just a few years. Instead, by just yelling out that GMO’S ARE EVIL, with no evidence whatsoever, just makes most of us with a science background shrug our shoulders and proceed. As long as there’s no evidence that GMO’s are dangerous, as long as we need to feed people, we just move ahead. 

There are discussions that need to be a part of the GMO discourse. Biodiversity is one, but I’m not even convinced as of yet that that is an issue. Agriculture is not about biodiversity, it’s about maximizing the amount of food calories produced per acre. There are more efficient and, frankly, effective ways of protecting biodiversity. But screaming about how bad they are, well, that’s going to lead us nowhere.

There is a discussion that needs to be made about genetically modified crops. Richard Dawkins said so 13 years ago. Unfortunately, all we get are science deniers who keep saying “GMO’s are bad”, when there is a more nuanced and important discussion to be had. But it’s just so hard to deal with science denialist because, as Sam Harris once said:

Water is two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen. What if someone says, “Well, that’s not how I choose to think about water”? All we can do is appeal to scientific values. And if he doesn’t share those values, the conversation is over. If someone doesn’t value evidence, what evidence are you going to provide to prove they should value it? If someone doesn’t value logic, what logical argument could you provide to show the importance of logic?

It’s hard to have a rational discussion with the anti-GMO crowd. They don’t share our values in the importance of science and how to accumulate evidence. 

One more thing. There’s really no black and white to the GMO discussion. Except that one side keeps saying “it’s only black” leaving little room for those of us who think it’s white with some grey streaks here and there. Maybe someone will listen to Dawkins. Because Prince Charles hasn’t.

Note: Link to full text of the letter.

Comments (228)
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  • Rick

    I have the upmost respect for Mr Dawkings, but I think this is not accurate.

    GMOs safety is a topic without consensus, according to a recent statement by the European Network of Scientists.

    http://www.ensser.org/increasing-public-information/no-scientific-consensus-on-gmo-safety/

    • Miles Stockdale

      Well if a complete crackpot organization like ENSSER says there is no consensus, using their almost 300 signatures (which includes several people listed twice, many non-scientists, and very few scientists with qualifications that are actually relevant) then I guess there is no consensus.

  • Alex Norton

    So if gene mixing and gene modification are the same thing and we’ve been doing it for thousands of years, does that mean the Duggar family of “19 and counting” fame are genetic engineers? I wonder why universities like MIT and Columbia bother with degree programs in biological engineering if even the lowest IQ Walmart denizen is perfectly capable of achieving what biotech companies do in the lab with entire teams of scientists.
    It’s so difficult to have a rational conversation about this because on the one side you have the anti-science folks who rant about “big” scary pharma and biotech companies trying to poison us all (because polio and countless plagues never happened), and on the other you have the autoscience people who think all science is instantly and automatically good (because thalidomide, nuclear bombs, etc never happened). Both sides play off each other and get progressively farther from reality. We lost golden rice because of the autoscience side’s inability to assuage the fears of the public, and we lost sensible labeling because of the anti-science side’s inability to see the difference between engineering pesticides into potatoes and engineering vitamins and disease resistance into rice. Thanks, folks.
    Any clear thinking person can see that there’s more to biotech than rubbing two flowers together and magically getting a better one. Reaching into the genome and writing something in is a hell of a lot more complex than what you’re describing here, and consequently there are various places where it can go wrong. There’s *probably* no harm in engineering bt toxin into cotton, but you’d better do years of clinical trials before engineering it into something you expect me to feed to my kids.

    • http://www.skepticalraptor.com/skepticalraptorblog.php Skeptical Raptor

      Go argue with Richard Dawkins. But please film it and upload it to YouTube while we all watch you get your ass handed to you.

      See you’re using lame ass strawman argument about “pro science” people. Most of us accept evidence, not whiny logical fallacies and ad hominem arguments. Not only does the quantity of evidence matter, but the quality of it. Right now, there is no evidence saying it’s unsafe, unless you want to accept poor quality evidence. On the other hand massive evidence says it’s safe, and it’s in high quality journal.

      This is a wipeout. More or less at the level of the global warming science wiping out the right wing global warming deniers.

      • Alex Norton

        I can tell it’s an open and shut scientific case by the way you failed to address a single thing I said. I clearly stated that not all genetic modification is equal. “Genetic modification” is not the issue any more than “chemicals” in our food is an issue. It’s nonsense to suggest that the fact that genetic modification techniques in general have not been shown to pose a risk also means that inserting a gene for bt toxin into potatoes is automatically safe. Why not genetically modify them to contain cyanide while we’re at it, since that would be automatically safe as well. You make about as much sense as the people who think that “natural” means everything is automatically healthy. Don’t confuse parroting Dawkins and in-group confirmation bias with critical thought. Also, you might want to google the fallacies you’re tossing around. Good luck with your blog.

        • http://www.skepticalraptor.com/skepticalraptorblog.php Skeptical Raptor

          Blog’s pretty successful, considering I don’t advertise much. So thanks on that.

          You’re making up shit however. You’re making the assertion, please support it with real science not invented crap. And you’re not even very good at that.

        • Michael Fest

          Bt toxin is a protein that is only unsafe for a very narrow range of crop pests. There is no plausible mechanism that suggests the presence of the gene that produces it in any organism is harmful.

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    • http://www.lemonparty.org/ Some Guy Somewhere

      I think it’s odd that you use the phrase “inherent wisdom of the natural world” like such a thing exists. There are simply organisms that have found a niche, and others that die. The fact that we are now at a point that we can identify sequences in genetic code that make an organism more suitable to our needs and environment is indicative of considerably more wisdom than the organism that was lucky enough to survive to reproduce.

      The fact is, all biological material that we consume is genetically modified; unless you are one of those people that believes all living things sprang into being at the same time, every organism is pretty radically different, genetically, from what its ancestors were a scant few million years ago. Some food is healthier for us than others. Some of it is decidedly unhealthy… but for the most part, organism-based food falls into a pretty clear range of “food”.

      As for the doomsday clock scenario… one day, it is a certainty that humans will be extinct… but I don’t think our actions in the here and now, in this context, are predictably moving the minute hand closer or further to/ from midnight. Yes, we have more people, but we also have more ideas, more options, more infrastructure, more communication, more industry… to say that more food/ more population will be responsible for the destruction of the world is unfounded.

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