Viewpoint: Activist opposition to GMOs fueled by an ‘extremist’ vision of nature

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We would like to take the opportunity on #Worldenvironmentday to come back to a problem we have been thinking about for a few years now. In a recent column, Laurent Alexandre champions the idea that man has been fighting Nature for millions of years… However, we would contend that Man and Nature are on a continuum and that the struggle in question is above all an ideological confrontation.

Man vs Nature class struggle

Noting, quite rightly, that there is a particular strand of ecological ideology increasingly given to deifying Nature, Dr Laurent Alexandre protests: “In reality, nature can be terribly evil and humanity’s greatness can lie in fighting it,” he says. “Life has never been so sweet since we started fighting Nature.” He reminds us on the one hand of all the innovations that have been beneficial to humanity (glasses, soap, heating, vaccines, medicines…) and, on the other, natural disasters and diseases (Black Death, Spanish Flu).

This theory, which appears obvious, nevertheless poses the following awkward point: it presupposes the existence of two distinct and mutually exclusive classes of beings – mankind on the one hand and Nature on the other. But we may well ask ourselves if this kind of division – because it is so abstract – is really just a mental exercise.  And is it really in our interest to divide life in two?

Mankind-Nature Continuum

On the contrary, everything leads us to the observation of a certain continuity between mankind and nature. And this is true on many levels. Philosophers and scientists since the dawn of time have sought these parallels.  In “On the Knowledge of God and of One’s Self” Bossuet states, “The ear has cavities made to make the voice sound the same way it sounds in rocks and echoes …. The vessels have their valves turned in all directions; the bones and muscles have their pulleys and levers.” We are thinking of course of the Descartes automatons.

These analogies are transposed on the technological level into concrete applications, the most famous of which are obviously camouflage garments. Also, there are any number of cases where man has been inspired by nature to innovate. There is a widespread belief that nature is still the best engineer and that man can just copy the solutions nature proposes for his various inventions. A BBC educational video shared more than a million times explains how Japanese engineers solved an acoustic problem with their “bullet train” – which made an unbearable noise when entering a tunnel – by taking inspiration from the shape of the kingfisher’s beak, which is able to hit the water both faster and more quietly.

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Credit: Telegraph

The history of technological innovations is full of examples like this. We could further argue the case for this continuum and prove that man is not an exception, by citing certain ethological experiments. For example, we recently discussed how some researchers have shown that bees are able to count. All these examples are obviously in line with the argument of a continuum between man and nature.

Ideological confrontation

It is true, however, that there actually is an ever-increasing struggle. But, in our opinion, this struggle is not between man and nature, but an ideology that wants to take over the concept of nature and attribute certain properties to it in order to define “what is natural” and “what is not.” This is all to be able to speak on behalf of nature and rely on these “rules” to gain power.

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This is how we demonstrated that the GMO dispute was ideological in nature, because it opposed, on the one hand, those who wanted to reduce nature to the vertical transfer of genetic information (i.e. living things resulting from reproduction) and, on the other hand, those who also accepted the horizontal transfer of genetic information as a “natural” phenomenon. That results in a conflict between anti-GMO and pro-GMO activists.

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Tobacco plants

While the former have a reductive vision of nature, the latter have a broader vision of it. They know perfectly well, for example, that man is only imitating nature in creating GMOs, because, as Conrad P. Lichtenstein has shown, for example, tobacco in the wild contains genetic material that has been transferred other than through reproduction. So by creating GMOs, we are only copying nature. Those who have a limited vision of nature would like to prevent others from developing technology, claiming that it is not natural.

As we can see, if there is opposition, it is not between man and nature, it is an ideological opposition between two views of nature, given that some (extremist ecologists) would like to impose their definition of nature ideologically, to control and prevent any technological development. An interesting parallel can be drawn with religious wars: when one religion tries to impose its monopoly on the definition of God to oppose those who accept another version.

Liberation rather than combat

To return to Laurent Alexandre’s analysis, however, we need to highlight one question: does the existence of a philosophy which positions mankind as an exception in the natural world – a species which can exceed all limits – incite an opposing reaction which would seek to curtail Mankind’s activities, and eventually, for the most extreme among its proponents, see the species disappear altogether?

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If, on the other hand, as we would contend, there is indeed continuity, then perhaps we can slightly blur the terms of engagement of this supposed “combat” without going so far as to fall into the deification of nature. In our view, the term “liberation” (also used by Alexandre) is much more accurate than that of “combat”.

Human endeavor is more an attempt to free ourselves from determinism and fatalism. Achieving this requires a good knowledge of the rules rather than “combating” them. And because some camps think that man can innovate without “limits” and “frameworks,” others would do anything to limit human activities in any way.  However, as we have also seen recently in our debate between Borlaug and Vogt, the resolution of this “controversy” requires more scientific knowledge and technological innovation.

Jean-Paul Oury is Editor in Chief of The European Scientist. He holds a PhD in epistemology, history of science and technology from Paris VII Jussieu. Follow him on Twitter @JP_O

A version of this article was originally published at European Scientist and has been republished here with permission. Follow European Scientist on Twitter @EuropeScientist

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