Neil deGrasse Tyson Thinks GMOs Originated 10,000 Years Ago?
Of course not – he is, after all, a PhD – but he will let fans think that.
Neil deGrasse Tyson is an astrophysicist, Cosmos host, and is beloved for his sense of humor and putting complex concepts into layman’s terms. He is an Internet sensation as the subject of memes and is paid homage in YouTube video series like Epic Rap Battles of History.
After a talk, a French journalist asked Tyson – allegedly about genetic modification. Tyson told GMO critics to “chill out,” but had more to say about how we have always altered the world’s biology to serve us for tens of thousands of years.
There are major problems with the logic presented in this clip and his response to the backlash.
The genetic modification that Tyson is discussing is plant breeding and hybridization. And yes, plant breeding dates back thousands of years—about 7,500, not the 10,000 that Tyson claims—to when farmers in Mexico created maize by planting the earlier crop teosinte and selecting for desirable genetic traits over the course of centuries. More recently—for instance, in the case of Norman Borlaug’s world-changing dwarf wheat—scientists have achieved laudable successes with hybridization. This is what Tyson is rightly claiming success for.
But that’s not what the millions of people around the world concerned about genetically modified organisms are worried about. And it’s NOT what the questioner asked Tyson. He asked about transgenesis, a process put into use in the 1980s by big agribusiness firms like Monsanto.
Transgenesis, specifically, is the introduction of foreign genetic material into a living organism. Monsanto has most often achieved it by ballistic DNA injection or “gene gun,” which blasts genetic material into undifferentiated plant cells in a petri dish— this destroys most of the cells, but usually leaves some that have successfully merged. Transgenesis can also be achieved using liposomes, plasmid vectors, viral vectors, pronuclear injection and protoplast fusion. Monsanto’s current preferred method of transgenesis is using the bacteria Agrobacterium tumefaciens to infect plants with desired DNA traits. Transgenesis can even be used to insert genes that code for pharmaceuticals into living organisms. [Please do read more]
After the ruckus from the original video, Tyson took to Facebook to clean up the resulting “butt-hurt,” saying that this clip could not have addressed all the nuances of genetic modification – and, that he doesn’t speak French. “Everything I said is factual,” he wrote. So then he addressed some bullet points – with his opinions. And again, they draw from the same basis of the logic in the video.
Here is an excerpt from Mother Jones:
Tyson then goes on to address topics like the patenting of seeds (he’s basically okay with it); whether GMOs should be labeled (“Since practically all food has been genetically altered from nature, if you wanted labeling I suppose you could demand it, but then it should be for all such foods”); the role of monopolies in agriculture(“Monopolies are generally bad things in a free market”); and much else. You can read all of his thoughts here. Tyson concludes:
If your objection to GMOs is the morality of selling nonprerennial [sic] seed stocks, then focus on that. If your objection to GMOs is the monopolistic conduct of agribusiness, then focus on that. But to paint the entire concept of GMO with these particular issues is to blind yourself to the underlying truth of what humans have been doing—and will continue to do—to nature so that it best serves our survival. That’s what all organisms do when they can, or would do, if they could. Those that didn’t, have gone extinct extinct [sic].
“In life,” Tyson concludes his Facebook post, “be cautious of how broad is the brush with which you paint the views of those you don’t agree with.”
Again, this is still a deflection from the original questioner’s alleged concern – transgenics. For instance, GM plants and wild weeds are swapping genetic material, making the weeds unstoppable. That, and superweeds from pesticide-resistance are kind of the opposite of what we and crops need for survival. So, to pose a question about this does not warrant a “chill out” response. Also, it’s kind of ironic that he’s suggesting that if we don’t continue genetically modifying, we will go extinct. (How is that for the fear-factor?)
While his original brush stroke (“chill out”) was rather broad, now he has compartmentalized the valid concerns people have over the cascading ecological effects that gene transmission introduces – still on the basis of “it’s what we’ve always done.” (Which is not the type of science he proposes to believe in.)
He is a genius indeed to pull off this belief-bending paradigm creation, much to the glee of science-trendies who call themselves skeptics and rationals.
While collaborating with evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, Tyson once said:
Every account of a higher power that I’ve seen described, of all religions that I’ve seen, include many statements with regard to the benevolence of that power. When I look at the universe and all the ways the universe wants to kill us, I find it hard to reconcile that with statements of beneficence.
With a grim view like that, one could see where the urgency is coming from to defend man-made powers to manipulate forces of the universe. But then why put so much faith in the ‘beneficence’ of corporate monopoly? At other times (below) he has beheld in awe, the powers of nature.
However, it is his unrelated speech about science, evidence and questioning authority that are most interesting.
…Question authority. No idea is true just because someone says so, including me. Think for yourself.
Question yourself. Don’t believe anything just because you want to. Believing something doesn’t make it so.
Test ideas, by the evidence gained from observation and experiment. If a favorite idea fails a well designed test, it’s wrong. Get over it.
Follow the evidence, were ever it leads. If you have no evidence, reserve judgement.
And perhaps even the most important rule of all, remember you could be wrong. Even the best scientist have been wrong about somethings. Newton, Einstein, and ever other great scientist in history. They all made mistakes. Of course they did, their were human. Science is a way keep from fooling ourselves and each other.
Have scientist known sin? Of course, we have misused science, just as we have every other tool at out disposal. That’s why we can’t afford to leave it in the hands of a powerful few. The more science belongs to all of us, the less likely it is be misused. These values undermined the appeals of fanaticism and ignorance…..[emphasis mine]
Well, part of it depends on how big of a universe we are willing to live in. Some of us like it small, that’s fine, understandable. But I like it big, and when I take all of this into my heart and my mind, I am uplifted by it. And when I have that feeling, I want to know that it’s real. Not just something happening inside my own head. Because it matters whats true. Imagination is nothing compared with natures awesome reality. (source)
So then, are some questions more equal than others?
The divisiveness such comments in the video and Facebook response create is another reason to place principles above personalities – to, ironically, take Tyson’s advice and not worship authorities (or bodies of them, like the vague reference to ‘Science’).
Upper-right image source