The Null Device

Dawkins on GMOs

From his recent book of essays A Devil's Chaplain, Richard Dawkins on genetic engineering, and why (some) public opposition is more based on superstition than fact:
What, then, of the widespread gut hostility, amounting to revulsion, against all such "transgenic" imports? This is based on the misconception that it is somehow "unnatural" to splice a fish gene, which was only ever "meant" to work in a fish, into the alien environment of a tomato cell. Surely an antifreeze gene from a fish must come with a fishy "flavour". Surely some of its fishiness must rub off. Yet nobody thinks that a square-root subroutine carries a "financial flavour" with it when you paste it into a rocket guidance system.

Which suggests that people intuitively understand biology in terms of Aristotelian essences; i.e., a fish is a fish because it has the quality of fishness, and there's a strong gut feeling that natural organisms aren't merely the sum of their DNA, but are natural because they carry Mother Gaia's blessing in their essence or something like that, and You Can't Tamper With Nature. Which is interesting as a study in psychology (much as "naïve physics" is), but when it comes to policy-making, it comes down to legislation-by-disgust, which is never a good thing.

(An insight: the difference between "natural" and "artificial" is whether someone knows or once knew how it was made.)

Dawkins, of course, doesn't dismiss all concern about genetic engineering; any sane scientist would agree that there needs to be sufficient testing for unintended effects. However, that's a far cry from the burn-down-the-laboratories attitude of some of the more ludditic doomsayers; which, Dawkins argues, given the popularity of such views in the Green movement, could hurt the Greens' credibility on other issues.

And as heated as opposition to genetic engineering is, it could be a storm in a teacup compared to the upcoming row over nanotechnology.

There are 8 comments on "Dawkins on GMOs":

Posted by: Ritchie http:// Fri Feb 14 05:13:18 2003

Hmm... I think Dawkins is a brilliant scientist - I remember reading 'The Selfish Gene' 12 years ago and being blown away by it (particularly impressive was his ability to communicate fairly subtle concepts to an 18-year-old school dropout) - but I noticed his arguments in defence of science tend to have a straw-man flavour.

Also, he seems to feel the need to fight the loonies - not realising that the rest of the world knows they're lonnies, and is ignoring them anyway.

Posted by: acb Fri Feb 14 05:19:23 2003

I wouldn't say they're just loonies. Look at mass hysteria over genetically modified foods (despite the fact that all proteins synthesised by the genes are known, and the foods can be proved to be safe for consumption). And look at the knee-jerk global ban on human cloning. The arguments (against tampering with (nature/God/things man's not meant to know about) have an air of the torch-wielding peasants about them, and they're not confined to fringe lunatics.

Posted by: gjw Fri Feb 14 06:24:50 2003

It's because opponents of genetic engineering have been using labels like "Frankenfoods" for years, conjuring up images of bizarre, horrorshow stuff. Then there's the fact that the public, and the activists, simply don't understand genetics. There's opposition to canola oil from GM canola plants - why on earth, when oil is just hydrocarbons, with no DNA or proteins present? Standard scientific ignorance.

Posted by: gjw Fri Feb 14 06:31:37 2003

It's the intellectual property issues that scare me more; the famous case of the farmer who was sued by Monsanto because some of their cultivars bread with his plants (

Posted by: Graham Fri Feb 14 06:52:27 2003

Monsanto. *sucks air throught teeth*.

Posted by: Graham Fri Feb 14 06:59:26 2003

Richard Dawkins is a firebrand; advocacy is his thing. And frankly, given the rise in obscurantism over the past few years, we need people like him more than ever...

Mind you, as Gummo Trotsky pointed out last week, from which I referenced the link, Richard Dawkins doesn't understand computer programming nearly as well as he understands biology.

Posted by: Ritchie http:// Fri Feb 14 12:05:25 2003

I didn't mean to give the impression that all opponents of genetic engineering are loonies.

What I meant was when you defend an idea in the public arena, its kind of a waste to address only the weakest and most easily dismissed attacks - the public will do that for themselves.

Posted by: acb Fri Feb 14 12:15:34 2003

Well, Dawkins acknowledged that one has to be cautious with new technologies, which is consistent with the non-loony arguments. (Note: I consider all "genetic engineering is wrong/must be banned" arguments to fall into the "loony" camp.) I don't think there is a gap between what he agrees with and what he decries.

The issue of genes as intellectual property is a separate issue from whether genetic engineering is in itself wrong.