The fear of genetics

Ten years ago or so I had a meeting with members of the local community living in the vicinity of the university I was then leading, Dublin City University. They had asked for the meeting to express their concerns about the development of the university’s National Institute of Cellular Biotechnology. More particularly, they were concerned, as one gentleman expressed it, that we were up to ‘Frankenstein kind of things’. I guess he was thinking of Dolly the sheep, and was wondering whether we might take that a few steps further in our newly funded institute. I explained to him that what my colleagues were working on was diabetes and cancer. My visitors were somewhat reassured, but a small group remarked to me, as they were leaving, that GMOs (genetically modified organisms) were undoubtedly evil. Why, I asked. Because everyone knows they are, they replied.

A little later, in 2008, the then newly installed Irish coalition wrote into its programme for government that Ireland would be a ‘GMO-free zone’. I was appalled by this, as I felt it would convey a signal to others that Ireland would not be willing to engage in scientific innovation in some of the areas where that would be needed most and offered the most promise; and the Irish Times published a piece setting out my views. And now all this has been brought up again for me as the Scottish Rural Affairs Secretary, Richard Lochhead MSP, has announced that there will be a ban on growing genetically modified crops in Scotland. This decision has been criticised by a number of research organisations and universities and has been the subject of some media discussion. The Minister has assured his critics that there will be no ban on research carried out in controlled conditions, but the reality probably is that those seeking to do and to fund such research will not choose a location where the process is seen to be contrary to public policy. Innovation will go elsewhere.

In both nutrition and life sciences, scientific innovation has tended over the last decade or two to focus on genetics. This isn’t altogether new. Insulin, with which diabetes is treated and which has been around since 1922, is a GMO. A good deal of medical research has moved, over recent years, from chemical synthesis to biopharmaceutical remedies, and this trend is accelerating. The capacity to feed the world as the population continues to grow may come to depend on GMO research.

For those who are not expert in this field the available literature – or often, the propaganda – on both sides of the GMO argument is unhelpful, because both sides use ‘evidence’ that is not easily verifiable by the rest of us. But there are few signs of ‘Frankenstein kind of things’ damaging us or our environment. In any case, we need to continue to do research, and we should not place it into a setting of general suspicion that is not visibly evidence-based. The idea that innovation should exclude genetics is a dangerous one.

Scientific discovery and technological innovation has its risks and needs ethical oversight, but we must also remember that it has done more than anything else in human history to make possible the feeding of the hungry, the healing of the sick, and the combating of poverty. We should not abandon that lightly. By all means let us make sure that new experiments with GMOs are properly controlled and subject to appropriate safety checks. But let us not start with the assumption, without the need for any proper evidence, that this is a form of innovation to be opposed.

I strongly hope the Scottish government will re-consider its decision on this issue.

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12 Comments on “The fear of genetics”

  1. anna notaro Says:

    Perhaps the Scottish Government decision on this issue is not just due to a fear of genetics, as the title of this post implies but to a fear of something else, the clue is in that tainted ‘F-word’: Frankenstein. Jon Turney in his Frankenstein’s Footsteps (2000) rightly argues that the Frankenstein story governs much of today’s debate about the onrushing new age of biotechnology and synthetic biology. Frankenstein, as he puts it, is ‘the governing myth of modern biology’. In the concluding pages he also notes that the story has outlived its former usefulness and nowadays tends to foster a sterile polarization of the debate on new advances in the life sciences. I agree as far as the negativity of a polarized debate, and yet I believe that the usefulness of the Frankenstein motif cannot be dismissed, not yet at least. It might be the English literature scholar in me talking but forgetting Frankenstein would be a great loss, when tales become myths it means that they have touched us deeply, only by elaborating such myths we can hope to get any closer to grasping their symbolic significance.
    In fact, the Frankenstein myth is entwined with the most powerful of motifs, that of ‘playing God’. As Mary Shelley herself wrote in 1831 in the introduction to her Gothic novel Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus: ‘Frightful must it be; for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world.’
    Not surprisingly the ethical debate surrounding the birth of Dolly the Sheep in 1996 also turned largely on the prospect of ‘playing God’ and cloning humans.
    I would argue that just like the subject matter of Mary Shelley’s novel resonated with scientific ideas of the time (Erasmus Darwin’s views on the ‘spontaneous generation’ of life and Luigi Galvani’s ideas of using electricity to animate lifeless matter) thus reflecting deep anxieties spurred by such ideas, today’s use of the myth performs a similar function. Scientific advancements in the fields of genetics, synthetic biology, robotics (to name a few) put into question many of the culturally entrenched distinctions and demarcations that are constitutive of our symbolic order. Established boundaries between matter and information, life and non-life, nature and artefact, organic and inorganic are now becoming increasingly blurred. There would not be much point in banning ‘monsters’, they have a way of coming back to haunt us, better face them with a little courage and the comfort of an old tale.

  2. Yes, Anna Notaro, it’s populist posturing. Ferdinand understates the case: the Scottish Government decision was taken against the sated advice of, and has been publicly opposed by, an impressive coalition of science organisations and by its own science advisers.

    There are two types of genetic manipulation: relying on random mutations, and directed transfer of genetic material. The former has been practiced since the beginning of agriculture, and is now accelerated by inducing mutations with mutagens (no protests about that, BTW); the latter is what the fuss is all about. There are real concerns about such matters as cross-fertilisation, ownership of GMO brands, and how to balance the rewards of innovative research with the rights of users, but these are common to all new proprietary varieties.

    • anna notaro Says:

      Politicians often resort to ‘populist posturing’, however as I hope I explained above there is much more that affects public opinion on such matters, the ‘impressive coalition of science organizations’ must understand and engage with it instead of being dismissive, not least because science itself is not immune from its own myths, see the story of the rise of rationalism in Ancient Greece that eventually led to the entrenchment of a mythical ‘scientific worldview’ as traced in P. Feyerabend’s The Tyranny of Science.

      • I don’t see how clearly and publicly stating the scientific case for one’s viewpoint, and invoking one’s appropriate expertise, as scientists in Scotland have in fact done (see e.g, is being “dismissive”.And in encapsulating the scientific case, I took care to acknowledge the real and rational concerns shown by GMO opponents. If you think this is being dismissive, how do you suggest we engage non-dismissively?

        • anna notaro Says:

          The concerns regarding GMO are more complex and more specific than what you state as a matter of “balance the rewards of innovative research with the rights of users, ….common to all new proprietary varieties” that is what I was talking about in my first comment! For what matters, I am not in favor of the ban myself.

  3. cormacc Says:

    it’s a very interesting debate, with many parallels to the issue of climate change. What the issues have in common is that there is very little uncertainty within the scientific community, but a great deal of strong opinions amongst people who know little of the subject.
    In some ways, one could say it all boils down to whether society has confidence in the statements of scientists or not – far too often, the calm voice of science is lost in the din of pro- and anti-lobbies, cherry-picking facts to suit an argument. It seems to me this is the great danger of citizen science, facilitated by the internet.

    • Indeed but not so much the din of clashing views as the insulated echo chamber.

    • anna notaro Says:

      Sorry Cormacc while I get exactly what you mean I could not but smile at the ‘calm voice of science’ statement which reflects exactly science own mythology (a belief in rationality and objectivity) I referenced above, as if science was completely detached from other spheres of knowledge (for example the arts, see the ‘two cultures’ debate etc.). In academia we cling to a myth of objectivity, in academic writing we even advice our students to disregard subjective perspectives and yet we forget that like every myth objectivity is just an ideal. Postmodern critiques have challenged us to consider the extent to which social constructions may bias scientific assumptions or the conceptual framework of a scientific discipline. There is nothing to be gained by the ‘calmness of science, much more by its turbulence’

  4. James Fryar Says:

    The history of science follows the same pattern over and over again. As Cormac rightly points out, there are similarities between the public reaction to GMOs and climate change. The same is true of cloning Dolly the sheep, nuclear power, the first heart transplant, evolution, and so forth. Virtually every ‘controversial’ scientific issue is characterised by conformational bias on both sides, and, as Anna points out, ‘social constructions may bias scientific assumptions’.

    What surprises me is that we actually haven’t learnt the lessons of history. Every scientist on the planet knows that they are biased, emotional, and often operate on gut-feelings, guesswork, and intuition. Of course we pretend to the outside world that science is cold and rational but what we actually mean by that is that we hope that ‘the system’ weeds out the bias and opinion.

    This ‘system’ is where the debates need to happen and where the fights and arguments need to take place. For example, we now have about more than a century’s-worth of science leading to the conclusion of anthropogenic climate change. It is now beyond scientific doubt that our planet is warming and we’re responsible. Every scientist on the planet coming out and saying that will make no difference to the people who do not accept it. And the reason for that is because the argument isn’t about the science but about the ‘system’ – I don’t believe the scientists; they’re getting grants so they have to agree with other scientists; the peer-review process is preventing alternative evidence in the literature; it’s a means for liberal governments to increase taxes; it’s a way of forcing us to subsidize green energy; and so on.

    The same is true of GMOs. Conformational bias means large numbers of people will intrinsically argue for and against GMOs. The reasons will be personal but then the science will be cherry-picked to ensure they reach the conclusion based on evidence that they wanted to reach in the first place. Some will listen to the scientists and use the appealing-to-a-higher-authority-argument (‘I’m not an expert but what the experts say is …’ which, of course, assumes that experts are themselves not biased. This process, as we’ve seen throughout history, goes round and round in circles.

    To break the circle you don’t send more scientists out to give sound bites. You re-structure systems to include dissenting voices and force them to make decisions on specific issues. GMOs are not ‘yes or no’ – that binary mode of thinking is characteristic of fundamentalism. What we need is a ‘yes or no because …’ which is assessed on a per-case basis but by panels that include people that the public consider not ‘establishment’ figures.

  5. Vince Says:

    I’m sorry but I don’t think you’re correct here. I’ve seen the mayhem caused by thick arrogant imperialists bringing plants and then these natural survivors thrive in the new spot. The reality is we don’t darn well know the effects of GM anything. They haven’t been around long enough. And so what if a bunch of science bods can’t test on the ground, if they can’t work on paper I’m sure if needed some ground can be found to offshore it.
    Further, there’s a belief the Common Law always provides an answer if thing go awry. Tell that to the people dealing with Japanese Knot Weed. The NZers using aircraft to poison thousands of acres of furze. These are areas where judicial thought experiments tossing cash about is in the same oops of things after they’ve hanged someone.
    No, why the hell should Scotland jump off the bridge too just because the rest are stupid enough to accept bland assurances of safety.
    Plus, anyone notice the upswing in Type 2 parallels the general use by food manufacturers of GM corn in the form of HFCS in virtually any processed food. This by-passed the EU’s controls for it was a processed product.

    • Vince Says:

      Just for footnotes
      In the UK if your house has an infestation of the stuff you’ll have a bloody hard job getting insurance.

      • James Fryar Says:

        Vince, I agree with you to a point. Personally speaking, I have concerns about GMOs. Firstly is the phenomenon of reporting bias, which is particularly problematic in medical literature. This is where someone conducts a study but the results are negative or contrary to an established study. Since journals typically publish papers reporting something new (rather than papers that have attempted to replicate findings) often researchers simply don’t publish (or don’t pass the peer-review process) even though the negative findings could be important in assessing the effectiveness of treatments. The same almost certainly will happen and has happened with GMOs.

        Secondly, there is the issue of pressure from multinational companies. In the US there have already been cases where GMO companies have suppressed publications they were involved in when those studies gave unfavourable results.

        Then there is the question of environmental impact. One particularly worrying aspect is where crops have been modified to be resistant to particular insect pests. What has happened in the past is that other insect species have also been affected. That sort of knock-on effect is difficult to predict and it’s difficult to assess the ecological impact in the long term.

        And the final worry I would have concerns biodiversity. If every plant is essentially a clone, then that that reduction in biodiversity may mean failure of the entire crop if a particular disease or pest manages to infect them since the crop no longer has the natural variation that may allow some members to survive.

        However, I think there is a distinction to be made. I see no logical reason why a research group should be prevented from carrying out genetic modification in a lab environment for the purposes of studying or generating potential GMOs. Working things out in a lab and conducting fundamental research to investigate the possibilities and planting acres of crops to sell to the public (and everything in between) are very different scenarios. I think those scenarios are so completely different that judging them by the same criteria is nonsensical, as is applying a blanket ban on such research on the basis of fears that may not apply to the actual research being conducted. What’s wrong with allowing GMO research but stopping short of full scale trials? What’s wrong with lab-based research provided you don’t plant the GMOs outside?

        Japanese Knot Weed is a particular problem. No one suggest that we go out and plant more of it. But does a ban on planting it outdoors also imply that botanists can’t study it in the lab, develop means of combating it, or grow it in controlled environments?

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