Mark Lynas is a prominent commentator on GMOs who has made a very public transition from being a GMO activist – who, amongst other actions, was involved in destroying (ripping up) GM-test crops – to being an advocate of such science and innovation. Much of his journey is discussed in his recent book Seeds of Science: Why We Got It So Wrong on GMOs (Bloomsbury Sigma, 2018), and it’s also widely documented online. Lynas is also a prominent science writer and communicator about climate science and potential solutions to global warming and other environmental issues who has won prestigious prizes like the Royal Society Prize for Science Books. His rather eventful life has also involved roles like being the climate advisor to the (then) president of the Maldives, Mohamed Nasheed (from 2009-12), and authoring other contentious and interesting books like The God Species: How Humans Can Really Save the Planet and Nuclear 2.0: Why a Green Future Needs Nuclear Power. I’ve be an interested observer of his career and some of his personal transitions.
I was interested to read key aspects of Seeds of Seeds such as his account of why he changed his mind on GMOs such as genetically modified (GM) foods. The subtitle of his book perhaps should have been ‘Why I and We Got It So Wrong on GMOs, and How I Changed My Mind’. Indeed his book is, in part, an exploration of what it takes to change one’s mind on our core beliefs or reconsider our positions, and what enables or constrains this process.
But as I got further into the book I also got particularly interested in aspects of his journey which appear to be reflected in the transformation of the book itself (i.e. away from its initial first draft form and style, as discussed in Chapter 8) and the continuing evolution of his views on GMOs away from a ‘black and white’ style assessment (e.g. being completely ‘anti’ or completely ‘for’ GMOs). I also think that there’s much worth pondering in this.
Below I consider some of Lynas’s account of how he came to reconsider his position and what we might be able to learn from this along with the resulting text he produced. The text and his continuing evolution potentially provide an interesting case and ‘model’ which might be able to serve as a transferable exemplar which is paradigmatic (in Kuhnian terms) and can be considered from both sociological and practical perspectives. For instance, the revised text may be a more persuasive book as a consequence of the changes made to it.
To begin, as part of his account, Lynas notes many factors which include the following:
- Increasing scientific focus and literacy as a consequence of his writings on climate science and global warming (e.g. his best-selling book Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet which was awarded the Royal Society Science Books Prize in 2008) and as a consequence of his increasing immersion in scientific literature;
- Shifting identity and a growing sense of inclusion within the scientific community: for instance, he states that he took winning the Royal Society Science Books Prize as “a trophy of affirmation from the scientific community” (p.251); he refers to “my new scientific tribe” (p.252); and he discusses how he came to see himself as “a defender of science” (p.42). He further states that he began to worry that his stance on GM foods and related activism was inconsistent with his shifting identity;
- New routines and related evidence assessment heuristics and practices: Lynas discusses his emerging desire to recognise and stick to mainstream scientific consensuses (the importance of which is often emphasised these days such as in Naomi Oreskes’s book Why Trust Science?); his related approach of placing more weight on the assessments of prestigious scientific bodies and academic institutions rather than other organisations or actors he was associated with; and his efforts to familiarise himself with the scientific literature on a topic. He notes related dilemmas which he faced where the assessments of such bodies and institutions conflicted with the views of organisations in the environmental movement;
- Shifting personal loyalties away from group (environmentalists/greens) and towards another (scientists). When reflecting on this, he refers to the work of social psychologists like Jonathan Haidt. For instance, he provides the following reflections: “Reading Haidt’s book on group dynamics made me understand that I was probably primed to change my mind on GMOs only because I had begun to shift my loyalty from one group, the greens, to another, the scientists” (p.251) as part of, or as a consequence of, his science writing on global warming and other topics;
- Direct personal mentoring from prominent scientists, such as from the then President of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), Nina Fedoroff (who is a leading expert on biotechnology and a biologist);
- Shifting personal risk calculus: “I could risk the resulting storm of criticism from environmentalists because I no longer so strongly identified with that group” (p.251), whereas he states that he felt criticism from scientists (regarding his stance on GMOs) would be consequential for his science writing career; and
- Shifting personal projects away from direct action style radical activism and towards science writing.
Numerous passages related to his journey were surprisingly reflective. For example, he questions whether “I reasoned my way out of anti-GMO beliefs” by “assimilating [new] scientific information” (p.247-8) – the story he originally told himself – or whether other factors were more influential. He reflects on the role of alternative factors and the outcomes of this process, as illustrated by these reflections: “[D]eep down I probably cared less about the actual truth than I did about my reputation for truth within my new scientific tribe. Hopefully these ended up being more or less the same thing” (p.252).
Seeds of Science covers much surprising territory such as recent research on moral psychology and group dynamics with a view to interpreting his own personal transitions – providing an autoethnography of sorts – and wider reactions to GMOs.
Interpreting Lynas’s ‘exemplary’ personal journey
When I read Lynas’s account of GMO debates and his transitions I began to wonder whether it could be interpreted as an illuminating exemplar of important social processes and, secondly, whether this resulting text (i.e. Seeds of Science) – and Lynas’s own continuing evolution – could be seen as a useful paradigmatic exemplar (in Kuhnian terms).
For example, from a sociological perspective much of Lynas’s reflections might be considered regarding the relationship between individual human beings and social collectivities (e.g. groups). For instance, we can consider the ontological claim made by some sociologists that “individuals are the sum of the collectivities that make them up” (Collins, 2019, p.15) and are, in effect, the social writ small. That is, we can see individuals as “made up of things larger than themselves” (Collins, 2019, p.6). As Lynas came to identify more with the scientific community, internalised its shared concepts, and began to perform more of its characteristic actions, he changed. Interestingly, he appears clearer on this in hindsight (as compared to when this unfolded), which points to reflexivity challenges.
In Lynas’s case he sees himself as someone with somewhat “split loyalties” (p.196), i.e. to both his environmentalist friends (i.e. greens) and a “new scientific tribe” (p.252). However, in his account he indicates that the scientific collectivity became his primary one, as his loyalties shifted more towards working scientists (p.251).
Whilst a person is not fully determined by the group(s) they come from – or gradually come to be immersed in, as detailed in Seeds in Science – we also need to carefully consider groups and the way they work, including their implications for individual behaviour. Related to this sociology suggests we consider the socialness of humans and the ways in which it can be both enabling and constraining of their actions and existence as social beings.
In this regard, Seeds of Science can be read as also being about process of internalising and embodying a new ‘form of life’ (see Collins, 2019), i.e. the “scientific form of life” (Collins, 2019, p.71). It’s a journey I can partly relate to, though Lynas is much farther along it.
The process of writing the book (elaborated below) and key characteristics of the book embody this ‘form of life’ in important and interconnected ways. Some important aspects of this distinctive ‘form of life’ include the following norm and aspirations:
- Both understand, and make a special effort to fairly represent, your opponent’s position(s) (Collins, 2014);
- Solicit and/or consider feedback from peers on draft work prior to publication (i.e. peer review);
- Action is primarily driven by core scientific ideals (especially getting at the truth of the matter) rather than political and/or financial motivations (Collins, 2014);
- Convince others (including your opponents) with arguments which, in part, explicitly address opposing views and/or positions (Collins, 2014); and
- Conform with other prevailing scientific norms such as adopting a basic posture of modesty regarding one’s claims and explicitly recognising unknowns (e.g. avoiding almost ‘religious’ certainty)
I started to become more interested in the above – regarding both Seeds of Science and Lynas’s own journey (including when writing the book) – when I read the final few chapters. This will be briefly elaborated and discussed below.
In this part of the book Lynas notes that he completed a full draft of a significantly different book that was ultimately never published because “something in me […] held back” (p.195) from publishing that version. He writes:
When I began this project I intended it as an expose of sorts, a passionate polemic highlighting the sheer injustice and irrationality of the movement against genetic engineering and the damage I believed it had done to the world […].
I had this book all ready to go, and even sent a draft to my publisher. But something in me also held back. I was aware that, entertaining as it might be, and reassuring to anyone who already agreed with my self-professed pro-science Damascene conversion, I wasn’t doing much service to the cause of truth – my analysis was shallow, many of my targets were straw men, and if I were advancing any cause at all it would be one of polarisation rather than illumination” (p.195).
What Lynas decided to do – i.e. instead of publishing the “angry, one-sided” (p.196) book he’d initially drafted – is very interesting and something that we can perhaps both learn from and interpret sociologically. Lynas did the following:
- He sent the initial draft out to people that he knew would be most critical of it and asked for their feedback (e.g. former activist friends who he knew hold contrary views on GMOs);
- He requested interviews (for the book) with key activists whom he had “become pitted against in recent years” (p.196) such as George Monbiot and Paul Kingsnorth (which got incorporated into new chapters);
- Based on the feedback he received (and further input) he developed a better appreciation of what the first draft was missing and he deleted multiple entire chapters from the initial draft; and
- He added new chapters which sought to better characterise and more fully engage with his opponent’s positions on GMOs and related issues. Such chapters also more vividly detail and insightfully discuss his major ruptures with former friends.
Chapters 8 and 9 appear to be part of what resulted from this process – which are entitled ‘What Anti-GMO Activists Got Right’ (Chapter 8) and ‘How Environmentalists Think’ (Chapter 9) – and they are two of the most interesting and insightful in the book. One thing that they do well is fairly represent his opponents’ positions and arguments and, related to this, they more fully engage with what motivated the anti-GMO movement.
He writes: “What my friends helped me to realise was missing from my first draft was an honest appreciation of where the anti-GMO movement came from, what it really stands for, and what drives the people in it who have genuine concerns about it” (p.196).
Additionally, the Lynas that emerged from this process of engaging more fully with his opponents and former close friends appears to be different. His arguments come across as less ‘black and white’ than I’ve read in the past whilst still remaining supportive of genetic engineering technologies and many resulting innovations. For instance he endorses the position adopted by Oxfam America which “has ‘no policy position for or against GM technology'” and looks at it on a “case by case” basis (p.129), and asserts the following:
[T]he GMOs debate needs to move away from black and white either/or framings and towards a more nuanced yes/and/but/maybe approach” (pp.267-8)”.
“So let’s hear it for the GMO proponents. But let’s also hear for the vegans, the conservationists, the farmers, the scientists, the environmentalists, and indeed everyone who is working to understand how we can best protest this planet both for future generations and for the rest of life around us. Let’s use science as the wonderful tool that it is, but let’s also respect people’s feelings and moral intuitions about the proper extent of human intrusion into the biosphere” (p.269).”
“Maybe we can […] join forces to ensure that scientific innovations […] are critically assessed and deployed in a way that helps the environment and improves the livelihoods of people on poor countries too” (p.269-270)
Additionally, the new chapters provide a better sense of peoples’ underlying concerns – such as the issues of corporate power, patenting and dispossession raised by Monbiot – and Lynas engages with them ‘sympathetically’ (i.e. he takes them seriously). He acknowledges that opposition to genetic engineering was “not always without good cause” (p.225). Similarly, a review published in Science magazine notes that “Lynas gives readers a firsthand look at both sides of the discourse” and this is unusual for material published on GMOs.
(In case you’re wondering the book also addresses common objections to GMOs and related controversies such as: the so-called “terminator seeds” controversy and widely reported studies which are claimed to have shown that GM foods are unsafe; concerns about cross-pollination and related legal issues [especially the claim that farmers are getting sued by firms like Monsanto as a consequence of cross-pollination]; the claims that Monsanto (and related firms) “drives family farmers out of business” and “takes away the ancient rights of farmers to save their own seeds” [see Chapter 5: ‘Suicide Seeds?”]; and broader issues concerning the contemporary agricultural system and related trends).
Some related comments seem warranted. Firstly, to the extent that he successfully addresses his opponents’ arguments, Seeds of Science becomes a more persuasive book (at least it was for me). It certainly appears more reasonable and worth engaging seriously with. Second, Lynas’s more nuanced position on GMOs also appears to have been enabled by both his approach and by further engaging with his former environmentalist leanings and explicitly defending of “the right of anyone to have a fundamentally moral objection to genetic engineering” (p.237). His discussion of specific applications of genetic engineering (and related technologies) he supports and opposes usefully grounded related discussion in later chapters and the more nuanced approach he is now advocating for.
Overall, he wants us to be more scientific about GMOs – better recognising, for example, scientific findings about the potential environmental impacts of GMOs which have worried environmentalists but have turned out to be far more trivial in nature (p.259), or about food safety considerations (p.259) – but also to ensure we address concerns about moral transgression and potential political objections of others. Indeed, he acknowledges his own moral intuitions about potential transgressions that should be avoided (see Chapter 9).
A related question is how to get there and whether the revised book will make a stronger contribution to this. In the short-term the writing process appears (at least according to what’s conveyed in the text) to have facilitated some renewed discussions and connections between activists and writers who had falling outs and that’s no small achievement.
Some concluding comments are in order. Firstly, it’s impossible to know to what extent the decision to not to publish the first version of Seeds of Science was motivated by Lynas’s “split loyalties” (which I noted above) or, on the other hand, his further socialisation into what Harry Collins has called the scientific form of life and its associated values system and meaning system. Perhaps it’s a case of ‘both/and’. Additionally, other people may have responded differently to the experiences and events he reported, so we shouldn’t be too deterministic in our consideration of these social forces and factors.
Nonetheless, the personal transformation Lynas describes as he became both a science writer and climate activist – and someone who came to see himself as both a “defender of science” (p.42) and a member of the ‘scientific tribe’ (i.e. a different social collectivity) – appears to have been consequential. It’s also something that I can relate to.
Secondly, I think the process of writing the book and the text he ultimately produced are useful paradigmatic exemplars (in Kuhnian terms). There’s much that can be learned from Lynas’s personal journey and this book about both the kinds of social processes that interest sociologists and the sorts of practices and problem solutions that ought to be considered (e.g. good writing practices), both of which I’ve only touched upon in this post.
Reading Lynas’s ‘autoethnography’ also stimulated insights into my own evolving journey.
Beyond these aspects which have particularly interested me here, Seeds of Science: Why We Got It So Wrong On GMOs is also an interesting read if you’re interested in a historical and global view of anti-GMO activism, of what contributed to it, and of some of the major players in the both the activism and the development of the genetical engineering technologies. The book covers much interesting and useful ground from Lynas’s account of the direct actions he participated in and organised, through to a history of Monsanto and analysis of their roles in genetic engineering as well as other scientific pioneers who discovered new genetic engineering techniques, through anti-GMO activism in Africa, and so on.