Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Neil deGrasse Tyson Getting His Brains on with GMOs

You're right, Dr. Tyson, these are Frankenfood.

I spotted this Daily Kos diary that caught Neil deGrasse Tyson waxing rantific about GMOs, genetically modified organisms, which center around foods. Courtesy of Mother Jones, we have the video. Tyson did not blink for long:

I'm with him in a general sense, and I'm also get that GMOs aren't, straight out of the gate, a catastrophic event in the history of mankind. I guess I don't have a problem with making a better tomato by inserting a frog gene. I do have a problem with a tomato eating Brooklyn, but that's Hollywood and not necessarily a likelihood.

It is worth, however, a bit of anxiety and care as we approach this expanding science. Dr. Tyson says chill out and let the good guys -- the scientists -- keep a watchful eye. Further, the subtext is hey, hippies, don't get you underwear in a bunch over something you haven't fully examined. If you want, go eat only wild foods on the Big Island. Let the rest of us continue a tradition tens of thousands of years old because this might not be the biggest problem we humans have, and we might manage to do it right.

This fits in with a The Week article that explains evolution very well, especially the part where we don't believe in evolution, we either understand it or don't. I like that. I get that. Here's a taste:
The very notion of "species" is even a little misleading — a discrete-sounding artifice created for the convenience of people who live about a hundred years. If you had eyes to see the big picture, and could watch life change on a geologic time frame, you'd see constant gradual change, as generations adapt to circumstance.
It's that incredibly slow pace that makes it hard for people to grasp intuitively. When you only live long enough to see three or four generations — a few ticks of evolution's clock — any tiny generational changes, like humanity getting marginally blonder or taller, are dwarfed by differences in the members among any one generation. Pile on enough eons, and tiny pidgin horses gradually become rideable by gradually less hairy apes. But it's impossible to see for yourself.
That's evolution left to proceed at its own lazy, trial-and-error pace. But it turns out you can make the gears turn a lot faster — in fact, we do it all the time. Have you ever seen strawberries in the wild? They're little tiny things, easily missed if you are not a bird or a bee. We bred them to be big and fat, specifically by only allowing the seeds from the biggest, fattest ones in each generation to reproduce. We similarly manipulate almost every other "natural" food we eat today: Take a stroll through any modern produce section and you can see the fruits, literally and figuratively, of evolution turbocharged by human intervention.
Dogs are another example: We invented the dog, starting with wolves and quickening the natural but poky process of evolution by specifically selecting breeding pairs with desirable traits, gradually accentuating particular traits in successive populations. Poodles, Rottweilers, Great Danes, Hollywood red-carpet purse dogs — all this fabulous kinetic art was created, and continues to be created, by humans manually hijacking the mechanism of evolution.
So if someone asks, "Do you believe in evolution," they are framing it wrong. That's like asking, "Do you believe in blue?"
Evolution is nothing more than a fairly simple way of understanding what is unquestionably happening. You don't believe in it — you either understand it or you don't. But pretending evolution is a matter of faith can be a clever way to hijack the conversation, and pit it in a false duality against religion. And that's how we end up with people decrying evolution, even as they eat their strawberries and pet their dogs, because they've been led to believe faith can only be held in one or the other.
I'll buy into that, and it makes a good parallel to Dr. Tyson's argument: The shit is happening anyway, so get down with it, get involved and make it turn out well. Okay?

I get that we evolved. But are we still evolving? For better or for worse, I guess we are.

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