Apr 17 2015

Grab Your Torch and Pitchforks

I always find it disturbing to see people, especially in large crowds, apparently acting according to primitive emotions rather than enlightened thinking. It makes it seem like the veneer of civilization is paper thin, and we are not far removed from apes huddled around the monolith and hitting each other over the head with bones.

We can get on top of it, but that is a high energy state. Entropy is forever dragging us down to the lowest common denominator of tribalism, fear, disgust, and paranoia. As Sagan wrote in the Demon-Haunted World:

Whenever our ethnic or national prejudices are aroused, in times of scarcity, during challenges to national self-esteem or nerve, when we agonize about our diminished cosmic place and purpose, or when fanaticism is bubbling up around us – then, habits of thought familiar from ages past reach for the controls.It does seem, based upon a century of psychological research, that all that basic programming is still there in our brains.

The candle flame gutters. Its little pool of light trembles. Darkness gathers. The demons begin to stir.”

A recent editorial about GMOs (genetically modified organisms) reminded me of that quote from Sagan. In the article McWilliams correctly, in my opinion, notes that much of the anti-GMO movement is built upon the emotion of disgust. This is any observation I have made before myself. Disgust is an interesting emotion. It has obvious survival advantages, but like many emotions it errs on the side of the false positive and is not very discriminating.

GMO rhetoric often takes the form of provoking disgust – talking about fish genes in tomatoes, “frankenfood,” emphasizing the use of pesticides (which is incidental to GMO technology), emphasizing that it is “unnatural,” or stating that it is not “real food.” These negative terms are contrasted with the language of wholesomeness for non-GMO foods – whole, natural, organic, and raw.

The Foodbabe is essentially basing her entire career on provoking the disgust reflex.

While disgust, just like fear and anxiety, is a protective reflex that serves a purpose, it is also a button that can easily be pushed and exploited. Part of the problem also is that the instincts we evolved in our pre-technological environment did not necessarily prepare us for the modern world. That is why we need things like science and evidence to help us figure out what is safe and what isn’t.

We are also interested in more than just what will make us instantly drop dead. We want to know what foods will be healthful to eat over our currently extended lifetimes. This is a more subtle effect, and a basic sniff test will simply not do. We need careful observation and rigorous data.

This is partly why popular campaigns to provoke disgust are so often anti-scientific. If the science were on your side, you wouldn’t need to push primitive emotional buttons.

The “fishmato” is perhaps my favorite example when it comes to GMOs. The example is meant to conjure images of fishy parts mixing with a tomato. Such images, however, are pure nonsense. All life on earth shares a common ancestry. Fish and tomatoes already share most of their genes (it’s hard to put a single number on it, but estimates hover around 60%). Also, genes shuffle around the kingdoms of life all the time, through viral vectors, for example.

In fact, you have to ask what is meant by “fish genes” and “tomato genes,” as if there is some fundamental difference between the two. There isn’t. They are just genes. Proteins are just proteins. There is nothing inherently “unnatural” about fish and tomatoes sharing genes.

The anti-GMO movement pushes other emotional buttons as well, specifically invoking the imagery of a villain and paranoia about the powers that be. Monsanto, of course, is the iconic boogeyman of the anti-GMO movement. They have created a demon almost entirely out of whole cloth. It is a modern day mythology. In fact, watching the anti-GMO movement unfold over the last two decades is an excellent example of how mythology forms and evolves. It is easy to see how the ancient world was populated with gods and demons, heroes and villains.


We are not yet free (if we ever will be) of the primitive circuits in our brains that helped us navigate the Serengeti but are not adapted to a modern technological world. For that we need science and critical thinking. The anti-GMO movement, along with many other social movements, provides ample examples of the various ways in which emotion trumps reason.

Understanding this aspect of human nature is critical, and it at least gives us the opportunity to use critical thinking to transcend our primitive instincts.

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