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Puesta en la sabanaBefore us, pre-human creatures roamed the earth. For the best part of one million years these creatures used simple, unchanging, stone tools (1). Apparently, the thought of improving those crude instruments never crossed their minds; they were like birds building nests, having just an instinctive impulse to make something that was useful to them. At some point however, a divine spark lighted a wildfire in the brains of yet-not-quite-human beings; at that point, cultural evolution and modern humans were born. Humans are different from all animals because they have cultural evolution (2). Once it started, tools improved rapidly; throwing spears were created; cave art developed; we set off to conquer the world. Beyond any Hegelian myth, cultural evolution has always pushed humans forward: Palaeolithic hunting gathering was replaced by Neolithic farming; the Bronze Age superseded the Neolithic Age, and the Iron Age displaced Bronze; each step guided by cultural evolution.

Cereales, trigo, cosechaWhen humans created agriculture 10,000 years ago, they were not copying nature; they were consciously improving it. All our main crops are man-made (3). Humans created wheat, corn, and rice. Those crops didn’t exist before; distantly similar plants existed but wheat, corn, and rice -the triad that allowed the rise of civilisation- were man-made. Authors have fancied that primitive humans disliked farming because it was unnatural and that they would have preferred to remain nomads (1, 4). Primitives thought that the new crops were dangerous, unnatural and even offensive to Mother Earth. In those old days however, without nanny-states, without well-paid white-collar jobs, without glorified pseudo-literacy, in a time when -according to Hobbes- it was “war of all against all” lovers of old ways were out-competed and driven to extinction by our ancestors. It’s evolution, baby.

Darwin was not the first to talk about evolution by natural selection. But when he published his Origin of Species the theory was ripe and many educated individuals were ready to accept it. The readiness to accept the new theory was also due to evolution, not biological but cultural evolution.

TMM545here have always been spirits opposed to progress. Even in Darwin’s time some people protested against the expanding railways. Scaremongers warned that the human body could not withstand velocities of 20 mph (5). Others predicted that Hell would break lose, with criminals travelling all over the place. Landowners claimed railways would ruin the countryside. Even worst: money-grubbing corporations wanted to make money out of that abomination -Hypocrites sneering at companies involved in the conscious pursuit of wealth seldom renounce to their own inheritance of family wealth and privileges or consider it money-grubbing. 

Evolution doesn’t go backwards. Like our ancestors 10,000 years ago we need to move forward, tackling new problems: desertification, Bauer im Weizenfeld bis Horizontsalinisation, growing population, new pests. Like our ancestors we can cleverly and safely improve our crops. The anti-GM campaigners of today are anti-farmers of days past. If you are reading this -and more generally if you exist- it is likely because you are lucky enough to have had ancestors that didn’t listen to them. Since Darwin’s time we have defeated many mortal -and previously common- diseases, trebled our life expectancy, and invented effective pain killers. Pain is natural, yet it is bad; a life expectancy of 25 years is natural, yet it is bad; tuberculosis is natural, yet it is bad. Who will say that all natural things are good and all man-made solutions bad?MM546 Stupidity is natural, yet it is bad. Do not fall for empty slogans and scaremongering. Challenge the slogans of anti-GM campaigners* and you will find that -at best- most of them haven’t got a clue. Find out (here or elsewhere) how GMOs are made; it is not witchcraft; it is not heresy. There is no need for 16th century mob-style torching of scientists at the stake.

Genetical engineering cleverly and safely makes the same thing that our ancestors did by try and error 10,000 years ago. We have much better quality controls these days; in fact they didn’t have any. Before aeronautical engineering, crossing the Atlantic would have taken weeks of sailing; now it takes hours. There is nothing natural in humans flying -or sailing for that matter- and there are some risks. But we happily use airplanes because it is fast, convenient and generally very safe. What is unnatural? Genetical engineering uses biological tools and knowledge to MM547make things faster and better. The drive to improve nature is natural in humans. Opposing new things for lack of knowledge or just because they are new is unnatural. Trying to go backward instead of forward is contrary to human instincts of progress and change; it is unnatural. Do not be tempted by the myth of the natural and noble savage. Without civilisation and the science that supports it, life would be hard and brutish, short and full of hunger and pain. Science is good. Trying to improve nature is natural.

Genetically modified organisms will ultimately gain universal acceptance because they are an expression of human evolution -like trains or vaccines. Like early trains and vaccines some GMOs may have down sides; these will be swiftly dealt with. It’s evolution. Let’s do the evolution.

  

*MM549

1 – Before the Dawn: Recovering the Lost History of Our Ancestors; Nicholas Wade, 2007.

2 – Science Vol. 340 p929; Simon & Ridley, 2013

3 – Annu. Rev. Genet. Vol. 33 p1–27; Robert Allard, 1999.

4 – Asimov’s Guide to the Bible Vol.1: The Old Testament; Isaac Asimov, 1967

5 – Railway: Identity, Design and Culture; Keith Lovegrove, 2005

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  • Jeremis 23/08/2013 at 3:13 pm

    Written well but you see everything too shallow. Even talking that those who is not agree with you are peasants and people far from science looks ridiculous and far from truth. If you want to eat GM food just do it, finally it’s a personal choice. Just don’t forget that you consists of what you eat. I am working at embriology dep. BTW

    • Ariel Poliandri 24/08/2013 at 7:42 am

      Why shallow? It may not be scientific; I explained my scientific argument in
      Anyway, peasants do like GMOs; it is mainly scientifically illiterate urbanites that oppose them and prevent peasants from using them.
      Just remember that your job is not who you are; I knew this girl from a lab one floor above mine that, in addition to her like for medieval attire, stopped working twice a day for praying.
      I don’t mind eating GMOs and I like to eat pork. Worshiping Gaia or Allah is all very well but your job description doesn’t make it a rational choice. You shouldn’t impose backward, irrational choices to others and that is what anti-GM campaigners try to do all the time.

  • Kevin Folta 03/07/2013 at 10:32 am

    Really well done Ariel. The downfall of the anti-GMO movement is that those inside don’t know enough to recognize a real expert, they are fooled by profiteering charlatans, and when real experts try to help them they don’t have the courage to even consider the information.

    If you say something consistent with science– you must be getting paid by Monsanto. So predictable.

    Beautifully written. Thanks. kf

    • Ariel Poliandri 05/07/2013 at 5:39 am

      Cheers Kevin,

      The downfall is also coming now that reasonable people and scientists are starting to be more active debunking irrational hysteria. Most scientists are sick of pseudoscientific commentators but not many are speaking out yet.
      It is extremely annoying that the stronger opposition to GM crops comes out from aesthetic motives white washed as reasonable objections. Whenever you prove them wrong they come up with new, and even less solid, arguments because their objective is not discovering the truth but just imposing their opinion.

  • Mary 02/07/2013 at 9:28 pm

    So, Myc, when the answer is: No–no funding from Monsanto or any similar interest–do you actually begin to consider the ideas? Or do you just dismiss them anyway? I’m trying to understand how that works for you.

  • Ariel Poliandri 02/07/2013 at 8:50 pm

    I must say that you are not the first person accusing me of working for Monsanto, but no, I don’t work for Monsanto or any other agribusiness. I am a molecular biologist that works in academia using mammalian cells and, some times, yeast or bacteria.
    I will not accuse you of working for the multi billion pound “organics” industry, an industry as shallow and upper-middle class-centred as any other branch of the fashion industry.
    I will not accuse you neither of being a woman of independent/semi-independent means, supported by the capital accumulated by parents and grand parents, that preaches against evil companies making money and in favour of “organic” crops despite the fact that their production is extremely inefficient, that they are expensive and that they won’t feed the world.
    Most GE crops use less pesticide or less herbicide or less fertiliser or provide other advantage compared to conventional crops. They are engineered to be better not worst.
    Do you think that farmers are stupid? Do you think that they will run to buy more expensive seeds because they want to waste more money in pesticides, herbicides and fertilisers? Why would they do that? I don’t think they are stupid.
    And now that after 20 years of GM crops in the US and elsewhere not a single death has been associated with the technology you change the scaremongering from “Can you think of the children!” to “Can you think of the bees!”
    Tell me: if GM crops are so terrible for bees, how come that they are declining in the UK where no commercial GM crops are grown? or in the entire continent of Europe where they are grown in insignificants amounts and mostly in just one country?
    If you don’t like some particular GM crop because you know something that I am too stupid to understand that’s fine and the blame is on me. But if you oppose all GM crops full-stop you are an eco-jihadist or a fool.
    I can only repeat what CP Snow said more than 60 years ago when your mind set started to rise:
    If you want to turn your backs on the benefits of industrialisation, go hungry and see most of your children die in infancy; you are free to make that choice. “I respect you for the strength of your aesthetic revulsion […] But I don’t respect you in the slightest if, even passively, you try to impose the same choice on others who are not free to choose.”

  • Myc 02/07/2013 at 8:48 pm

    Ariel, I don’t wish to be rude, but are you being funded by Monsanto or a similar commercial interest? Your support for GM technology is understandable for someone in a medical department, due to the huge medical advances made using GM animal models, such as in cystic fibrosis, but the proper scientific evidence for GM crops is stacked against you:

    The evidence comes from the largest crop trials ever carried out in the UK, the GM Crop Farm-Scale Evaluation, from 1999-2004 over a four year period. This was funded independently from industry with public money, through two public bodies, the Natural Environment Research Council and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council.

    The GM Farm-Scale Crop Trials categorically found that compared with conventional crops, GM crops of oil-seed rape and sugar beet were substantially worse for wildlife, especially bees, butterflies and birds, as announced at the British Science Festival at Exeter University in the summer of 2004, when the results were published openly for the first time.

    Parliament’s response said that “It is inconceivable that [GM] beet or spring-sown oil seed rape will be given consents to be grown if managed under the same conditions as applied in the Farm-Scale Evaluations”. In other words, using commercial herbicides and GM herbicide resistant crops, because of the harm to biodiversity.

    The House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee report’s key findings said that: “Biodiversity levels have slipped intolerably over the last fifty years and Government has a duty to try to regain some of that lost ground. Indeed the Government… should establish a benchmark for biodiversity in conventional crops, at the less intrusive end of the spectrum”. The report’s recommendations go on to say: “We therefore recommend that in future trials the biodiversity benchmark against which GM crops should be assessed should be that associated with the less intensive and more biodiversity-friendly end of the spectrum found in UK agriculture, such as organic crops”.
    In other words, not only do GM crops (or rather their associated pesticides) harm the environment, but that commercial pesticides have caused so much damage already that any future GM trials should be benchmarked against organic standards, not conventional farming. That’s the science case. What’s yours?

    • Kevin Folta 03/07/2013 at 10:38 am

      myc, could you please post a link to the peer-reviewed article that says its worse for bees and birds?

      When I’m out in the field I see the spray plane fly over and dump pesticide on the the non-GM stuff to control insect damage to the corn. That kills every non-plant organism in the field.

      They don’t spray over Bt-producing corn fields. This is consistent with the National Academies of Science/NRC report that shows 60-80% pesticide reductions since Bt has been used in corn and soybean.

      The other notes are from European politicians. They are as alarmist and flimsy as activists. EU scientists (with rare exception) side with transgenic technologies.

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