You really think bananas used to just grow naturally in the forest? GTFO!

We’ve been modifying organism’s genes since the agricultural revolution. Somewhat belatedly (12,000 years hence), people are beginning to voice concerns about genetically modified organisms. For those people, I have bad news; genetic modification is practically the definition of domestication. We select crops and livestock for desirable traits, from large udders in dairy cows, to high-yield maize, and seedless fruit*. Although farmers prior to 1866 didn’t know the mechanisms behind what they were doing, they were doing it nonetheless. Without genetically modified organisms, civilization would not exist.

So why the recent bruhaha? My thoughts come straight from the school of my namesake, the incomparable George Orwell. George Orwell was a staunch advocate of language, and provided one of the gloomiest foretelling of what would happen were we to lose it. The ministry’s prime weapon was language, either to incite violence and ill-will, or to placate citizens into a languid stupor.

We live in the information age, where everybody is too busy and overwhelmed with data to evaluate things outside of their field of expertise in any depth. Thus, we all must make snap judgments concerning the world around us. In other words, we must judge books by their covers. This is why language is more important today than it ever has been. If we had infinite time to research topics, or canvas expert opinion, the choice words used in incendiary headlines (or provocative tweets, if you want me to be current) would pale into insignificance. However, if these headlines are the only things that people read, the language means everything.

Politicians know the power of language, and hence they talk about ‘military conflicts’, because war has become rather taboo, and ‘enhanced interrogation’, because as a society we agree torture is wrong. As Orwell puts it:

“Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”

My favorite** of these political deceptions has to be ‘waterboarding’. Drowning someone to make them confess to any crime you put before them is morally reprehensible, but I might consider going waterboarding myself on the weekend; sounds like fun for all the family! It would be rather amusing if it was not so sinister. When you begin to realize that every word that comes out of a politician’s mouth is carefully calibrated to trick the public into going along with any despicable, harebrained scheme they concoct, it ceases to be just an interesting psychological novelty. Again, Orwell knew the severity of the problem:

“if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.”

Just as the right words can convince the unsuspecting public of just about anything, the wrong words can generate mass outrage and mob opposition to rather benign concepts. Enter ‘Genetically Modified Organisms’. I’m an evolutionary biologist by trade, and would wager my training in genetics is more appreciable than the average person. Even I however, will admit that it sounds like something out of a horror film. ‘Genetic Modification’ conjures up images of mad scientists messing around with radioactive waste, giant spiders with wings, or even some kind of zombie apocalypse. The steadfast resistance to an idea without having the slightest notion of what that idea entails is lamentable. We mustn’t let imagined fears brought on by a revulsion to scary words jeopardize the progress of civilization. We risk losing one of the best chances of feeding the planet due to a knee-jerk reaction from people who lack even a basic understanding of agriculture, let alone molecular biology.

Unless scientists pay closer attention to the psychology of language, future technological and scientific advances will continue to fall by the wayside under the weight of public disapproval. If politicians are manipulating language to satisfy their own self-interests, and preying on people who lack the time to investigate spurious claims, we must do the same. We were on the right path when we talked about ‘golden rice’, but we dropped the ball sometime in the 1990’s. GMO’s may sadly be a lost cause, but I implore scientists to learn from the witless tricksters in power, and fight fire with fire.

Okay, that seems like enough words, hopefully they are the right ones.


*It seems unlikely that nature would devise an organism that could not reproduce on its own now doesn’t it? And of course, when I say unlikely, I mean ridiculous.

**perhaps favorite isn’t the right word…

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