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David Mertz
Works at Gnosis Software
Attended University of Massachusetts, Amherst
Lives in Los Angeles, California
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David Mertz

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I've been frustrated for the last--well, 35 years or so--about this race between gay-rights discourse and anti-gay discourse to determine who can commit the broadest and crudest naturalistic fallacy.

I found the turning point in the decline of a genuinely political gay-rights discourse to be in the move--around the late 1970s--from talking about "sexual preference" to talking about "sexual orientation," with accompanying false essentialism, genetic reductionism, and similar false naturalizations. In some ways, this was a gesture of "racializing" the movement to follow (a certain crude thread within) the civil rights movement in the USA (i.e. for the rights of Blacks/African-Americans). It also saddens me to see the discourse that has emerged around "polyamory" since the 1990s also follow the crude reductionist pattern that the gay-rights movement walked down two decades earlier.

I hope it goes without saying that the "naturalization" of race is also a category error, but it's one committed perpetually enough to be a basis for a poor analogy.

The author of The Nation editorial makes the good and obvious point that there is no reason why an inclination to a behavior being genetic or in-born makes it socially permissible or defensible. Just as much--probably more--than an inclination towards same-sex attractions might have a genetic aspect, an inclination towards violence likely has some differential genetic component. Saying "I was born this way" in itself is NO argument (in either direction) for the social or ethical permissibility of a behavior.... and constructing that discourse detracts from the genuinely politically liberatory defense of civil liberties.

A point not made by the author of this editorial is the overwhelming disanalogy with race among the bigots themselves. No doubt a certain homophobic politics operates under a mantra of "Gays shouldn't have rights because they could just choose not to act that way." The gay-rights counter position quibbles over the dependent clause while ignoring the REAL issue which is the main clause, which should stand on its own. But at the same time, many bigots of the racial sort argue in favor of discrimination, persecution, racial-violence (by either state or private actors), etc. precisely on the basis of alleged innateness of traits.

That is to say, racists, from American slave-owners down to their more recent followers of the Murray and Herrnstein stripe, have often claimed that rights should be denied precisely BECAUSE genetic dispositions justify such. That is, these sorts of bigots argue--empirically wrongly, of course--that Blacks are less intelligent, ethical, more prone to violence, and so on, than Whites--and that therefore discrimination is merited because they are "born that way." As horrible as the pseudo-science of the scientific racists is (or just the non-scientific ones), I think arguing biology misses the point of why civil rights must be treated as rights, and that the discourse of liberty must rely on ethics and politics, not on biological reductionism.

The naturalistic fallacies of old-school racists is suspect, but so are the naturalistic fallacies of gay-rights advocates.
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No reason, just a pic from a friend.
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Galleries in St Germaine de Pres
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Two tries at panorama of British Museum done directly on my HTC One phone.
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It has to be one of the best public building interior spaces anywhere.
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David Mertz

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THOUGHTS ON GMO LABELING 

(minor edits of some comments I made on a friend's FB thread that linked to a petition about this topic)
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Most sides of this discussion basically miss the point, and it's difficult for me to engage in any of the common--but each wrong in a different way--positions.

For the most part, I am not much concerned that eating foods that have been subject to direct gene manipulation will have directly negative health/medical effects upon me (as opposed to the essentially 100% of foods that have been subject to indirect gene manipulation through hybridization and selective breeding).

On the other hand, the creation of such dietary dangers is not impossible, and regulation of food safety is important. However, a label of "GMO" or "GMO-free" is almost completely unrelated to that health/nutritional question. It tells me nearly as little as the faddish trends in some diets to eat all white foods, or all green foods (or whatever accidental property sometimes chosen with some woo-woo reasoning that has no real connection to health, nutrition, or side-effects). The inspection against dietary dangers needs to be done be scientific experts who actually look at specific proteins, enzymes, biological organisms, and other substances associated with GM technologies (not generically associated; rather on a specific and case-by-case basis).

While I have only minor concern with GMO foods causing dietary dangers, I have a great deal of concern over the ECOLOGICAL and ECONOMIC effect of these technologies. Engineered genes, for example, can be naturally hybridized into other organisms--either different strains of the same crop, for example, or wholly different species. When weeds gain the gene for herbicide resistance this way, that has ecological and economic importance that is not at all addressed by labeling at the supermarket.

Similarly, when genes are introduced that changes the relationship of an organism with its parasites and/or symbiotes (whether these are macroscopic like insects and weeds, or microscopic like bacteria and viruses), these changes do not remain isolated. The other organisms that interact with GMOs in turn interact with existing non-GMO organisms too, and that can have broad ecological significance. These indirect effects are further complicated by the overbroad patent system that allows GMO producers to make claims over those producers who do not even themselves directly purchase GMO products.

While firm regulation of these elements is critical, none of that regulatory need is addressed by labels on foods in supermarkets. Moreover, a lot of the anti-GMO (or pro-labelling) people fail to see the broader biological and politico-economic context here, and hence choose what is almost entirely the wrong goal of getting labels on foods.

I absolutely DO agree that GMO foods should be subject to an enhanced inspection regime. They should be treated in a fashion similar to drug trials, really. When you introduce a gene into a food product, you introduce a collection of manufactured proteins into the cellular material of that organism. These proteins are either novel--or at times may occur in other food products, but not in this specific one--and they might have health effects (just as a novel drug does). But examining this needs to be done by competent biologist and physicians, not at some generic "GMOs are harmful" level.

Just as a simple example that gets presented often enough: A reasonably large number of people have allergies to nuts, and specifically to peanuts--sometimes with life-threatening severity. I have a friend who developed as an adult an allergy to tomatoes that is pretty severe (although it diminished over time, and she can eat well cooked tomato products again). Introducing genes might cause a similar semi-rare allergy in some novel crop--e.g. someone might know to avoid peanuts, but be completely unable to determine that eating GMO spinach of a certain strain will cause this same reaction. (on the other side, there apparently exists a GMO peanut strain that has been made allergen free).

As a slight digression, my mother had kidney stones removed and was told to adjust her diet to avoid foods with high oxalate content. The thing about oxalates is that they occur in a wide variety of foods, but the division of foods that are high-oxalate vs. low-oxalate absolutely does not even remotely match any natural conceptual pattern you can form. This is actually, in a way, the opposite of the GMO label--while oxalate content is an objective and natural property of foods, it's not one one can intuit other than by looking at a list of foods (two things that seem similar in our "natural" categories might vary widely). In contrast, the GMOness is something that is easy to categorize mentally (and empirically if this was better disclosed), but biochemically it essentially tells you nothing whatsoever. Two different GMO foods might share that attribute of creation process, but have completely different biochemical properties (even two strains of the same foodstuff).

I think the moral for me is that I think there should be openness in the publication of the ACTUAL biochemical properties of GMOs (and firmer safety verification requirements for them), I think a generic "GMO(-free)" label is counter-productive. What might be nice is a label at the grocery that says "strain 283B-134 corn", with a requirement that Monsanto or whomever make as a public record the exact gene sequences introduced and the results of the phase I and phase II trials done on the foodstuff. That's not a feel-good binary category, but it ultimately lets consumers, regulators, scientists, etc. concretely analyze the properties of a given product.
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Galleries in St Germaine de Pres
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There's a theme here, I just can't put my finger on what.
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People
Have him in circles
942 people
Work
Occupation
Writer, Programmer, Developer, Advocate
Employment
  • Gnosis Software
    1998 - present
  • DE Shaw Research
    Writer, Programmer, Developer, Advocate, 2008 - present
  • IBM developerWorks
    2000 - 2012
  • SEIU
    2009 - 2012
  • Open Voting Consortium
    2003 - 2010
Places
Map of the places this user has livedMap of the places this user has livedMap of the places this user has lived
Currently
Los Angeles, California
Previously
Boulder, Colorado - Northampton, Massachusetts - Turners Falls, Massachusetts - Greenville, South Carolina - San Francisco, California
Story
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Ideational Bricoleur
Introduction
A commodity appears, at first sight, a very trivial thing, and easily understood. Its analysis shows that it is, in reality, a very queer thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties. (Karl Marx, Capital)

Just as the dominated classes' ideological structures determine their future political, economic, and moral situations; my own view of my position to my boss determines my relation to my boss. These thoughts in the sailor went round and round like hamsters strung out on dex. (Kathy Acker, Empire of the Senseless)

If once a man indulges himself in murder, very soon he comes to think little of robbing; and from robbing he comes next to drinking and Sabbath-breaking, and from that to incivility and procrastination. (Thomas de Quincey)

Ontology recapitulates philology. (Willard Van Orman Quine, Word and Object)

Only as a part of a social whole, only in and through a social class, does the human person become historically real and culturally productive. [...] Not a single action taken by a whole person, not a single concrete ideological formation (a thought, an artistic image, even the content of dreams) can be explained and understood without reference to socioeconomic factors. (Valentin Voloshinov, Freudianism)

Keeping medicines from the bloodstreams of the sick; food from the bellies of the hungry; books from the hands of the uneducated; technology from the underdeveloped; and putting advocates of freedom in prisons. Intellectual property is to the 21st century what the slave trade was to the 16th. (Lulu of the Lotus-Eaters)
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GPG pub key: 1024D/317262D2 2007-07-17 Key fingerprint = 93E2 5D5B EE88 295C 3977 6C94 BCCB 1E27 3172 62D2 (http://gnosis.cx/davidmertz.pubkey or use the keyservers)
Education
  • University of Massachusetts, Amherst
  • University of Colorado, Boulder
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Lulu of the Lotus-Eaters