Hostility to Genetically Modified Organisms is Lazy and Misguided, by Scott Merlino

Hello dear readers!

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been absorbed in getting ready for a gallery show of my quilts and other sewn objects Between that and holiday preparations, birthdays, and so forth, I’ve been neglecting my writing (and missing it too!)

So in the meantime, until I get more time to write again, I thought I’d share this deliciously provocative, well-written essay on genetically modified foods that I just came across. It’s by Scott Merlino, who taught the epistemology class I took a couple of years ago. Deeply informed in the biological sciences and in philosophy, Merlino presents our current state of knowledge on the subject within an orderly and logical argument in favor of GMOs and their life-enhancing and life-saving potential.

Here it is, mirrored (unmodified) from the philosophy blog Cave of Reason. I’m curious to know what you think:

Hostility to genetically modified organisms is lazy and misguided

by Scott Merlino

“Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works. Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it. Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things.” – Douglas Adams, The Salmon of Doubt (2002)

Every week thousands of people protest genetically modified (GM) organisms, and not a few vandalize research sites where GM crops and animals are developed or tested. Many European countries and regions of Asia, Africa, South America, and Australia ban some or all GM products. Greenpeace, for example, has a zero-tolerance stance towards GM. However, co-founder of Greenpeace Patrick Moore now advocates ardently for GM crops for humanitarian reasons: GM remedies for dietary deficiencies save lives.

GM refers to any organism whose genotype has been altered and includes alteration by genetic engineering (GE) and non-genetic engineering methods. GE refers to changes in the genetic constitution of cells resulting from the introduction or elimination of specific genes via molecular biology (i.e., recombinant DNA) techniques. All GE is GM, but some GM is produced by GE and some GM is not.

GM corrects micronutrient deficiencies endemic where rice is a staple food. Vitamin A provides humans with an essential nutrient for vision, growth and reproduction; its deficiency is a public health problem in more than half of all countries, especially in Africa and South-East Asia. The World Health Organization finds that over 250 million people suffer from vitamin A deficiency and over 1 million die each year from it. Diets low in vitamin A produce over 300,000 irreversible cases of blindness annually, mainly in children, half of whom die within a year. Most of these people live in poverty, their diet is mainly a daily ration of rice. Lack of vitamin A also compromises immune system integrity and thus increases the risk of severe illness and even death from such common childhood infections as diarrhea and measles.

Wild rice grains contain a negligible amount of beta-carotene, a key metabolic vitamin A precursor. In the 1990s, molecular biologists Ingo Potrykus and Peter Beyer designed the “Golden Rice” cultivar by inserting two additional genes into the rice’s DNA, thereby producing beta-carotene in the grain. The presence of beta-carotene, which makes kernels of corn bright yellow, also makes Golden Rice grains yellow. Beta-carotene derived from Golden Rice converts to vitamin A in humans.

If GM organisms such as Golden Rice can save human lives, then why are so many people upset? What exactly is it about GM rice or GM in general that people oppose? As many see it, GM is (a) unnatural, (b) untested, (c) unsafe, or (d) over-industrializes agriculture. This last concern is important, especially to proponents of sustainable agriculture, but it is not an objection to GM as such, it is an objection to when, how, and to what extent we should use GM cultivated crops. I won’t address this issue here, but see this 2001 Economic Impacts of Genetically Modified Cropsreport. Each of the remaining three objections warrants serious consideration, because they are popular and thus undermine much that such technology offers. What interests me is both how weak each objection is and how little available evidence counts for (and against) each.

Suppose that someone accepts GM for crops such as Golden Rice but not for others. It is difficult, then, to sustain an objection to either GM or GE in general. To be sure, GM is mostly used so far to design into massively cultivated crops traits such as selective herbicide or insect resistance. Objecting to this use of GM or GE amounts to objecting to the specific traits produced, not the method by which such traits were produced. But if one objects to specific GM traits, then GM is not the problem, and we change the subject from whether GM is acceptable to when it is unacceptable. This is another conversation worth having, but it is a different issue. Again, either one objects to GM, in general, or specific GM traits. One need not reject GM, as a process, out of concern for any potential unintended, bad consequences of specific traits that GM (either GE or non-GE) produces. We don’t reject a whole technology simply because we because fear some of it products.

(a) Is GM unnatural? Yes, and so what? As I see it, one cannot oppose GM organisms produced by non-genetic engineering, since this amounts to a rejection of traditional/conventional agriculture, which was invented by our ancestors at least 10,000 years ago who cultivated plants and domesticated animals to suit their needs and wants. Cows, sheep, goats, pigs, sheep, horses, corn, wheat, rice, soybeans, and potatoes have all been genetically modified via selective breeding. We don’t reject all or even most human agricultural manipulations of these species, so we don’t reject all GM organisms. Of course, all GM is unnatural, but then all artificial selection is unnatural. Civilization depends upon artificial selection. We are living in and dealing with the consequences of human interventions (or expressions) of the natural order already. We innovate, observe consequences, and alter our ways so as to avoid the most demonstrably negative outcomes – this is nothing new.

What about genes moving from one species to another? Non-deliberate gene flow is possible when GM crops are grown in areas where interspecies contact occurs with non-GM crops or weedy species. It already happens in nature in wild populations, and in cultivated crop plants resulting from conventional selective breeding. However, rice species, and species, in general, with their different genotypes, have significant reproductive isolation, which makes them unlikely to hybridize with each other.

To be fair, there is something more specific to which many GM opponents object, namely genetic engineering (GE), which is a kind of GM. So, to call these GM techniques unnatural distinguishes molecular techniques from conventional plant and animal hybrid production methods such as outcrossing, crossbreeding, and inbreeding. GE is essentially biotechnology applied to genes. But we already accept such technologies in medicine. Since the 1990s, gene therapy researchers have been using “genes as medicine” in treatments for cystic fibrosis, diabetes, cancer, and even enhancing musculoskeletal tissue regeneration or inhibiting disease progression in brain disorders, stroke, and traumatic brain injury. Creating novel gene combinations in organisms is not without possible perils but this is a reason for careful design, controlled observations and tests, and above all vigilance. So many unfortunate people stand to benefit from such genetic engineering that it is inhumane and anti-science to block such innovations from fear alone.

(b) Is GM untested? No, even a superficial literature search reveals that GM products and consequences have been and continue to be subject to peer-reviewed, controlled, tests designed to reveal likely hazards to human health and the environment. People voicing this objection need to overcome their intellectual torpor and do their homework on this. I recommend starting with the 2004 National Academy of Sciences “Safety of Genetically Engineered Foods: Approaches to Assessing Unintended Health Effects,” (2004). And the most recent 2013 systematic review of tests published in the Critical Review of Biotechnology concludes that “scientific research conducted so far detected no significant hazards directly connected with the use of genetically engineered crops.”

(c) Is GM unsafe? Possibly, but that a process or product is possibly unsafe is a good reason for us to proceed with caution, and never a rational reason to forego research, development and testing, especially when profound improvements in human health and welfare are demonstrable. It is quite difficult to prove that something is safe, especially when people disallow or destroy research facilities. But tests for actual unsafe consequences have been done (see above).

Further, when studies designed specifically to detect adverse effects find no statistically greater risks using GM, opponents overlook or deny these results. In the US, FDA approval requires that each new GM crop be tested. If a new protein (trait) has been added to the genome, the protein must be shown to be neither toxic nor allergenic. The European Union invests more than €300 million in research on the biosafety of GM organisms. After a decade of research its recent 2010 report (p.16) concluded “GMOs are not, per se, more risky than e.g. conventional plant breeding technologies.”

Yes, some investigators conclude that some GM organisms are unsafe. But few published studies survive expert scrutiny. One spectacular case worth reviewing fully is the 2011 Seralini studyalleging that herbicide-resistant corn caused cancer in rats. Its problematic experimental design and low statistical power provoked this 2012 European Food Safety Authority review.

By the way, one cannot assert consistently that GM is unsafe or dangerous and untested in the same breath, since the only way we may reliably show that any specific GM is a danger or unsafe is by testing under controlled conditions. If there is no such test, then there is no evidence that GM is either safe or unsafe. Speculation, anecdotes, and poorly designed studies that fail peer scrutiny will never satisfy burden of proof requirements even if they satisfy the lazy among us.

Scott Merlino
Senior Lecturer
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State

Review / critique: Frans De Waal’s The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism Among the Primates

I’ve just finished Frans De Waal’s excellent new book, which is a combination of a popular science exploration of primatology and the origins of human morality, and a critique of the ‘New Atheist’ movement. De Waal, a nonbeliever himself (as a scientist, he finds the question of whether or not God exists ‘uninteresting‘), nevertheless finds the confrontational style of the New Atheist movement ill conceived, counterproductive, and probably futile.

Anchoring the themes of his book is a series of reflections on Hieronymus Bosch’s famous triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights. Traditional interpretations of the painting, De Waal writes, are generally based on the view that human beings, ever since the ‘fall’ of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, are naturally wicked, prone to cruel and hateful behavior, and it’s only by straining hard against our sinful nature that human beings can hope for redemption by adhering the moral code provided by God through religion .

De Waal has a different interpretation, seeing the painting thorugh the lens of his own understanding of human nature. His lifelong study of primate behavior, especially of bonobos and chimpanzees, reveal a tendency to prosocial behavior that strongly resembles human morality in many important ways. De Waal concludes that not only does morality predate religion, since it’s rooted in the same social instincts we share with our cousins the great apes (as well as other social animals), but it’s most accurately viewed as a key component of human nature. Based on modern findings of human psychology and evolutionary biology, ‘It is now widely assumed that we are designed in body and mind to live together and to take care of each other, and that humans have a natural tendency to judge others in moral terms. Instead of being a thin veneer, morality comes from within.’ (De Waal, p 42).

Image Source:’s painting, De Waal thinks, actually reveals his humanism, the idea that the human race is naturally good and worthy of admiration in it own right. The figures frolicking in the garden in the center panel enjoy the best that the world has to offer, especially the joys of one another’s company. The figures being punished in the hell of the right panel, revealingly, are not being punished for sins against religion. Rather, they have trangressed the moral laws pertaining to just and fair treatment of one another, such sins as greed, gambling, and cheating, and those pertaining to the proper care and comportment of our own bodies, such as gluttony and drunkenness.

In this, De Waal agrees with the bonobo (in this book, the bonobo represents the naturally moral side of all social creatures), the humanist Bosch, and the atheist: human beings are moral beings, and ‘sins’ are those tendencies and behaviors which lead individuals to act against the interests and moral codes of the group. He provides a wealth of evidence, from his own years of fieldwork, experimentation, and research, that prosociality and morality are natural phenomena without which human beings and their social cousins would fail as a species. Morality originates as an evolutionary adaptation, giving us the ability to transcend our individual limitations, to thrive as a species through cooperation, sharing, and mutual protection.

However, De Waal has found himself disturbed by the militancy (as he sees it) of the so-called New Atheist movement: their rhetoric that disparages religion, calling for its immediate demise, ridiculing it as entirely outdated, useless, stupid, and destructive, and for their ‘dogmatic’ God-denial, and their tactics of anti-religious propaganda and political activism. He quotes A.C. Grayling, who compares militant atheism to ‘sleeping furiously’, asking: ‘What does atheism have to offer that’s worth fighting for?’ (De Waal, p. 84) He finds that the New Atheist movement shares this with religious fundamentalists: they both misunderstand the origins and nature of religion, which originated and still functions as an evolutionarily useful social tool, encoding and helping to enforce moral behavior.

I found De Waal’s book a refreshing and entirely approachable summary of the best of our current knowledge of human psychology, evolutionary biology, and animal behavior. I also admire the evidence of his knowledge and understanding of philosophy, which he applies to and compares with the findings in his own field. He admires Hume, the prosocial moral philosopher, and both agrees and disagrees with Kant: the moral law is indeed within, as Kant says, but altruism is not confined to those behaviors that are devoid entirely of self-interest, as Kant defines it. It’s actually a good thing that altruism, though it does carry a personal cost, also benefits the altruist, as De Waal sees it: it firmly grounds altruism as a natural product of a human nature that is more social than selfish. (This is not to say that human nature is not selfish as well. It’s rather that we have methods of making sure selfishness does not run amuk and result in mutually assured self-destruction of the human species.) All in all, De Waal offers a compelling and persuasive view of the natural origins of morality and that the good rules human nature more than the bad.

It’s De Waal’s critique of the New Atheist movement and of atheists overall with which I find myself only in partial agreement. I do agree that too many prominent atheists refuse to publicly acknowledge that religion appears to be a product of natural adaptations, and a historically (and prehistorically) useful one at that. Many other atheists, however, do acknowledge this, notably Daniel Dennett, who De Waal sometimes lumps in with the New Atheists, though he does give Dennett some credit for his view of religion as a natural phenomenon. (De Waal, p 94) I also agree with him that an overly confrontational attack-oriented approach is unlikely to be overall as effective as a more humanism-positive, common-ground seeking approach, based on what we know about human psychology and belief formation (Kahneman, Haight, Ariely, and others have done extensive work on this recently; even in antiquity, Aristotle revealed how well he understood this aspect of human psychology).

But contrary to De Waal, I think that atheism, as a movement, does have some important things to offer. When he criticizes atheism as lacking in substance or utility since it’s an ‘anti-‘ stance, he fails to account for the historical abusive and destructive applications of religion. As well as promoting good behavior and bonding within groups, it’s also been used to persecute out-groups of religious minorities and non-believers, to oppress women, children, and the poor, to prop up and protect corrupt regimes and clergy (dictatorships and absolutist monarchs, the sale of undulgences, murderous popes, rapist priests), and as a justification of cruel and oppressive practices (the institution of race-based slavery, the punishment of heretics). There are plenty of ‘anti-‘ groups and ideologies that have plenty to offer precisely because they arise out of opposition to destructive or morally repugnant institutions, belief systems, and natural forces: the abolitionist movement (anti-slavery), the feminist movement (anti-oppression of women), various organizations that combat disease (anti-AIDS, anti-cancer, etc). To ignore what the atheist movement as a whole has to offer is to ignore the history of how and why the atheist movement originated, and that it’s generally united in humanism-derived values and goals (equal social and political rights and protections for non-believers and religious minorities, for example). In his blanket dismissal of atheism as ideologically empty, De Waal fails to adhere to the same standards of applying evidence and history to this issue as he does for the rest of the scientific and philosophical issues he discusses in his otherwise excellent book.

Work Cited:

De Waal, Francis. The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism Among the Primates, 2013.