Essentialism, Vitalism, and the GMO Debate

Research Article


There has been a long-standing opposition to genetically modified organisms (GMOs) worldwide. Some studies have tried to identify the deep-lying philosophical, conceptual as well as psychological motivations for this opposition. Philosophical essentialism, psychological essentialism, and vitalism have been proposed as possible candidates. I approach the plausibility of the claim that these notions are related to GMO opposition from a historical perspective. Vitalism and philosophical essentialism have been associated with anti-GMO stance on account of their purported hostility to species and organismic mutability. I show that vitalism has often been associated to various mutabilist theories, whereas the case for philosophical essentialism as motivating GMO opposition depends on the now discredited Essentialism Story that had constructed essentialism as a predominant view in pre-Darwinian science. Further, as philosophical essentialism taken seriously is incompatible with the reality of genetic engineering, it is unlikely to be a reason for opposition. Psychological essentialism, involving an instinctive repulsion from the practice of manipulating what is thought to be the essence of living beings, is a more likely reason for resistance to transgenesis. Yet even here, historical considerations are crucial. Not only lay people tend to essentialize genes, but scientists themselves can be shown to have been complicit in essentialist tendencies. From the advent of modern genetics, the imagery of the all-powerful genes, often depicted by scientists themselves metaphorically as material counterparts of the now obsolete vitalistic agent, has permeated the language of leading scientific figures, whose influence in shaping public opinion should not be downplayed. Enthusiasm for genetic engineering and the abhorrence from it might both derive from the same unrealistic image of the essential gene, the revision of which thus holding out the hope for transcending the present impasse of the GMO controversy.


Genetically modified organisms GMOs Essentialism Vitalism Genetic engineering Essentialism Story 


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Institute of PhilosophyEötvös Loránd UniversityBudapestHungary

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