Smart guy, but partially flawed logic

Neil deGrasse Tyson, a world-renowned physicist, defended genetically modified organisms some time ago and it went viral on Youtube with this video, posted some days ago.

He wrote a rebuttal on Facebook1 regarding the reactions to his words. Of course he’s entitled to his opinion, but so am I.

For starters he’s absolutely right that a lot of the discussion has been scandalized2 which doesn’t exactly aid a rational discussion. He’s also right on the issue that there are many facets to take into account and each should be treated separately. He also writes:

2) Everything I said is factual. So there’s nothing to disagree with other than whether you should actually “chill out” as I requested of the viewer in my last two words of the clip.

But is that so? Is it factual? I also watched the clip a few days ago and even though I didn’t feel the need to comment on it then, I do now. In my opinion comparing die-hard modern genetic engineering to breeding by selection is comparing apples and oranges.

There is a hybrid method I have read and heard about that uses selection as we humans have used it for millenia and combines it with genetic research to find out how close the actual outcome is to the intended outcome. Simply put, this is something that could normally happen in nature by pure chance, but you don’t have to wait entire crop cycles to make sure you get what you want. I have read that this method is being used to breed strawberry strains that are a lot more aromatic than those commonly available on the shelves these days3. In fact the standardization and complete focus on the needs of the retailers have taken their toll already – biodiversity, something many people have vowed to protect, is diminishing at a fast rate from our food crops – … but that’s another story.

However, the statement is that die-hard genetic engineering which introduces a pig’s genes into a mouse or soy genes into all kinds of food is something that has been done for a long time by humans.

Of course that’s not correct. Being the smart guy he is, I wonder how this could slip his mind. There is nothing “factual” and similarly to splitting up the discussion about the different facets of GMOs, this kind of genetic engineering shouldn’t be mashed together with selection either – whether human-made or natural.

Certainly in nature you wouldn’t suddenly end up with all kinds of crops that produce “interesting” proteins normally not found in that particular species. The scope of the problem becomes visible by looking at allergies. Good for you if you don’t suffer from one (or several). But if you do: good luck!

Sweeping this very important fact under the carpet makes one wonder where his bias stems from. It’s part of the food security discussion, but most of the time it is completely neglected as a topic of that discussion. Just because something isn’t outright killing people doesn’t mean it’s safe, let alone good, for you.

// Oliver

  1. https://www.facebook.com/neiltyson/posts/10204439688771816 []
  2. not the only topic either in which this happens []
  3. based on older strains that went almost extinct because of the mainstreaming of seeds – i.e. emphasis on quantity rather than quality []
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