Black Swan author Nassim Taleb warns of unpredictable dangers from GMOs


New York University professor Nassim Taleb, author of The Black Swan, which many believe foreshadowed the events leading up to the Great Recession, is now weighing in on the GMO issue. He and two colleagues–Yaneer Bar-Yam from the New England Complex Systems Institute and Rupert Read, University of East Anglia philosophy professor–have written a paper, The Precautionary Principle (with Application to the Genetic Modification of Organisms) that they claim brings probability theory to the issue of whether GMOS might introduce “systemic risk” to the environment. The crux of Taleb’s argument:

Top-down modifications to the system (through GMOs) are categorically and statistically different from bottom up ones (regular farming, progressive tinkering with crops, etc.) There is no comparison between the tinkering of selective breeding and the top-down engineering of taking a gene from an organism and putting it into another.

Taleb is not a scientist and most geneticists would dispute his generalized, and some would say simplistic, characterization of genetic engineering. He goes on to argue that the chance of ecocide, or the destruction of the environment and potentially humans, increases incrementally with each additional transgenic trait introduced into the environment. He’s not saying that human ignorance to the potential risks presented by GMOs will doom the planet by 8:34 a.m. on Aug. 13, 2082 — choreographing potential events as absolute certainties as many financial pundits do. Nor is he specifying which trait or traits will combine to cause which specific environmental disaster. Taleb doesn’t deal in specifics; he deals in probability. He’s simply saying that given enough time and enough new traits (or ignorance) something big, such as ecocide, is almost guaranteed to occur.

Read the full original article: Is Nassim Taleb Right About Monsanto Company and GMOs?

Read the Nassim Taleb paper here: The Precautionary Principle

  • Loren Eaton

    Two things, does he have data to support the idea that top-down modifications are ‘categorically and statistically different from bottom up ones.’? Sounds more like a premise.
    …and, “There is no comparison between the tinkering of selective breeding and the top-down engineering of taking a gene from an organism and putting it into another.” Is Dr. Taleb familiar with the Texas Male Sterile/Southern Leaf Blight episode? Didn’t this ‘progressive tinkering’ lead to a rather serious issue? And not a GMO in sight.

  • Richard

    I think the article is correct in that you can’t really critique his analysis using a straight by trait analysis. What you can look at is his starting premise. The thing about mathematical models is the well-known axiom of garbage in = garbage out.

    His rather odd choice to ignore the risks of traditional methods of breeding that combine large numbers of genes in unknown ways puts this mathematical model on shaky ground. What really invalidates it for me is that he seemed unaware of the work done by the National Academy of Sciences. There is at least one traditional method that has been determined to add more unknown risk than GM.

  • Dominick Dickerson

    What does he mean by “new traits”? Does he not understand that these traits aren’t new, there are no new proteins being synthesized (yet) by genetically engineered plants , Cis or trans. The genes code for proteins that have been used successfully for literally countless generations by “nature” with causing ecocide. Why when mediated and guided by human action do this proteins magically become ecocidal?

    Its clear he’s talking about risks from transgenic modification, as if the notion that crossing the “species boudary” as others have put it automatically makes it riskier. I don’t really understand that argument, since I apparently unlike this esteemed author understand that genetics is universal and genes have been conserved over vast evolutionary distances, thus rendering any objection to as he puts it “top-down engineering of taking a gene from an organism and putting it into another” moot, because the source of the gene is non consequential: genes are genes are genes. And he’s entirely ignoring cisgenics.

    His whole tell is the single line “I do not wish to pay—or have my descendants pay—for errors by executives of Monsanto.”
    Really bad form.

    “Top-down modifications to the system (through GMOs) are categorically and statistically different from bottom up ones (regular farming, progressive tinkering with crops, etc.) ”

    This is the heart of his argument and he just throws it in there unsupported. This is not a throwaway line. He fails to demonstrate any meaningful difference between the risks of genetic engineering and what he calls “the progressive tinkering with crops”. Will the great probabilistic guru Taleb explain why the targeted insertion of a single gene is riskier than the blind and random mutations caused by mutagenesis, chemical and/or radiation based, or how it’s riskier than artificial selection and its shuffling and rearrangement of entire genomes or as he calls it “progressive tinkering with crops”.

    Mr Taleb misses the point entirely. It’s not that those advocating for Genetic engineering want to throw out the precautionary principle, which is what he’s implying. What I take issue with is the uneven application of the precautionary principle. It has failed to be demonstrated that genetic engineering as compared to chemo-mutagenesis or irradiation or any other form of creating new crop varieties is any riskier. Why does genetic engineering receive such extra scrutiny when these other forms which are both more random in the effects and less specific in their “tinkering” are given a free pass. If he were really interested in probabilities and assessing risk he wouldn’t (or shouldn’t) have just ignored that.

  • Brent BT

    I don’t see how, with such a vague understanding of genetics, Dr Taleb could build any kind of probabilistic model that represents actual states of affairs. Just because the outcome of the model (“ecocide”) sounds scary doesn’t mean it is worthy of serious consideration. There are a surplus of awesome geneticists within a few blocks of this guy. When he collaborates with one of them to create a model that has to do with this Universe, he will get the attention of the rest of us. As it stands, he has just added to the tired list of fringe publications activists will cite as if they represent a real alternative.

  • JohnG

    If you think all genes are equal, why not go and get yourself some bird flu and swine flue genes – or ebola virus gene. Some genes mutate into biological agents that kill plants, animals and people. What if a new species; part corn, part fish, part virus mutates into a super plant – not susceptible to any known herbicide – and spews poisonous pollen into the air?

  • 19battlehill

    I read this comments and I realize how ignorant most of the people writing them are. You all have no idea what Taleb is talking about, try understanding his entire premise and then maybe you might get it, but that again I doubt it.

    • Lol

      Yes this is correct. Geneticists somehow think that are “before” or “higher” than probability theory/risk. Largely bunch of mathematical illiterates.

  • Gene

    this is the best non biology paper ever written on the risks of transgenic crops

    paired with this study

    showing a lack of proper testing [figure below], it is undeniable evidence of the poor oversight of a potentially disastrous choice