The Cognitive Roots of Genophobia


Will Saletan linked this just-published analysis by Razib Khan. Razib has been researching and thinking carefully about the sources of anti-GMO sentiments.

…GMO has not become culturally polarizing. Yet. Most peoples’ opinions are inchoate and instinctive. I believe they derive from folk biological intuitions about essences. Ultimately it’s about the fact that people don’t understand genes in any prosaic sense, but they think that they’re somehow magically involved in the nexus of who we are in a deep and fundamental sense. That’s why the translocation of fish genes into tomato is so uncomfortable for people; they imagine that the essence of the fish is somehow being mixed with the essence of the tomato, and that just feels wrong. Genophobia of this sort is comprehensible in a cognitive anthropological framework. Just as we are likely wired for Creationism, I think we’re wired for being very skeptical of the concept of GMO, because of the implicit connotations of muddling categories which we view was fundamental. And, just like Creationism, we can overcome these deep intuitions. Much of natural science in the modern world consists of overcoming and updating of deep intuitions.


I am mildly optimistic that this will not happen with GMO, and that is because scientists are anti-anti-GMO, and, politically liberal. It seems very likely that a GMO food labeling measure will pass in the near future. And I believe that this will galvanize a backlash among scientists on the whole. Something similar happens on the Right with Creationism. Whenever the movement actually scores a victory, elite Republicans, who invariably accept the science of evolutionary biology, become alarmed and roll back gains made by Creationists. Unlike evolution, GMO are not just abstractions in a laboratory. When GMO becomes pervasive enough, or at least the knowledge of how pervasive they are becomes more common, then the public will likely make peace with their reservations, just as they have with in vitro fertilization.

Source The Cognitive Roots of Genophobia

6 thoughts on “The Cognitive Roots of Genophobia

  1. If GMO foods are considerably cheaper than non-GMO foods then probably people will buy the GMO foods.

    I do not like the way some GMO companies behave. When the GMO pollen drifts onto another farmer’s field, some GMO companies will force that farmer to pay the company that GMOd the crop. That is unfair yet some courts have permitted it, or so I’ve read.

    • Thanks for your comments. GE pollen drift is one of the myths nurtured by the people who benefit from the fears. It’s not easy to discover the truth, nor to work out who to trust. Fortunately just a few days ago Will Saletan published the results of his deep dive at Slate. I can almost guarantee you will find it a helpful read.

      • I have never been unalterably opposed to GE crops although I do think that there should be adequate caution which there probably is. It may well be that genetically modifying crops is no more risky than more traditional methods. And, I have never trusted the anti-GMO crowd; they seem to have their own agendum which is probably to justify their own existence and ensure its survival. It is inexcusable that they put their own agendum above the welfare of millions of people.

        According to what I’ve read, and I have no way to evaluate it, GM companies have charged farmers, who did not want GM crops, for the patented genes that have drifted via pollen onto their fields. Whether that has actually occurred I do not know for certain but I do not trust the anti-GM organizations to be honest and objective nor do I necessarily trust GM companies.

        It was disappointing to learn that an employee of the Sauk Institute has published disinformation. I met the late Dr. Sauk by accident at a social function years ago and I do not believe that he would approve of the misuse of the organization that bears his name.

        I’m equally disturbed by the anti-nuclear crowd that disseminates disinformation, but that’s another matter. In any case, we cannot believe everything we read, including on the Internet.

  2. In the real world farmers are neighbors with strong incentives to cooperative. They may go to same church. But farmers actively share information – on pests, weeds, seeds, methods. There are well established procedures to manage pollen drift when adjacent farms are growing different seeds.

    The case you are thinking of is probably Percy Schmeiser, a Canadian farmer who was sued by Monsanto for patent violation. He was blatantly stealing, violating his technology agreement. If you study Schmeiser’s case you will find a man who’s been making a nice living off the lecture circuit. I understand it’s less work and pays better than farming:-)

    Big bad Monsanto suing innocent farmer is a myth. Think about it, the last thing Monsanto wants is to upset their customers with lawsuits. Crazy – but people just swallow this nonsense without thinking.

  3. I dunno, I’ve read that some of the gene-silencing techniques used in GMOs create complexes that are actively toxic to mammalian cells.  I haven’t had the time to research this that I’d like but it is not something that I’m willing to dismiss out of hand.

    • That’s not on my radar. If you email or tweet @KevinFolta at U of Florida I’ll bet Kevin can steer you to the sound science, if there is any as yet. Or Pamela Ronald at UC Davis.

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