15. The Selfish Gene
It was not until the late 1930s that Darwin's mechanism for evolution—natural selection—obtained widespread acceptance. At this time, leading scientific figures like Ronald A. Fisher, J.B.S. Haldane, and Sewall Wright became the founding fathers of neo-Darwinism, which fused natural selection with Mendelian genetics. The theory of heredity was essential for the connection between the theory of evolution and cell theory. In the 19th century, biologists Schleiden, Schwann, and Virchow explained that cells were the basic unit of all living things. In 1944, Canadian Bacteriologist Oswald Avery identified DNA in the cell nucleus as the material forming the basis of heredity. The discovery by Francis Crick and James Watson of the double helix of DNA further clarified the pathway of evolution. Darwin's variations in offspring were due to changes in DNA, arising from random mutations and internal molecular rearrangements, on which natural selection would act.
Gregor Johann Mendel, an Austrian monk, and amateur botanist in the 1860s made a careful study of the inherited characteristics of plants, which discovered the phenomenon of genetic inheritance. Mendel, a shy and modest man, sent his findings to an eminent biologist, who, as one might have expected, dismissed the whole idea as nonsense. Deeply discouraged, Mendel hid his ideas from the world and returned to his plants. His revolutionary work was only rediscovered in 1900, when the science of genetics was really born. Improvements in microscopes made it possible to see inside the cell, leading to the discovering of genes and chromosomes.
Genetics allows us to understand the ever-continuing development of life. The evolution of life meant the appearance of a self-replicating molecule which could transmit the characteristics of the life-form to future generations. Such a mechanism is deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA). This self-reproducing DNA molecule is not concentrated in a particular part of the body, but is contained in every animal or plant cell. The highest evolved species, a product of over 3 billion years of evolution, is the human species. At adulthood, humans are made up of a trillion cells, but at conception there existed only a singled-celled embryo. How does this happen? The secret is in the DNA. Within this single cell was contained the DNA molecule that held the genetic code for the construction of a human being. The genetic information carried by the genes is stored in a chemically coded form. One gene is a section of DNA that has the information to make a particular type of protein.
The genes contained in every cell are that part of the organism that contains all the necessary information for creating animals and plants. Most genes carry information that direct cells to make proteins. Some genes tell the cells in an embryo where they are and whether they should grow into an arm or a leg. The sequences of bases stored in the genes determine what the living creature will be. The heredity information is stored in the nucleus of each cell in the form of chains of genes called chromosomes. Like a living textbook, two sets of chromosomes carry all the genes allotted to an individual, defining the nature of the structure of the proteins that do most of the work in the body.
Only in the 1950s was the chemical composition of genes identified as DNA. In 1953 Francis Crick and James Watson made a revolutionary breakthrough in genetics with their discovery of the famous double-helix model of the nucleic-acid molecule, for which they shared the Nobel Prize in 1962. This makes clear how chromosomes are duplicated in cell division. DNA is present in the simplest life-forms: a virus possesses a single DNA molecule. All life as we know it depends on DNA in the last analysis. The discovery and development of genetics further unlocked the secrets of evolution. The laws of evolution discovered by Darwin were enriched by the understanding of genetics, through the work of Fisher, Haldane and Wright, the founders of neo-Darwinism.
The gene is the unit of heredity. The entire collection of genes possessed by an organism is called the genome. At present scientists are engaged in a project to identify all the genes of the human genome, which number around 100,000 **. The genes themselves in each generation of cells reproduce themselves; proteins in the shape of special enzymes play an important role in the process. Through this self-reproduction, genes are formed once again for each new cell. So the genes indirectly produce the proteins that construct and maintain all cells. From bacterial cells, plant cells and animal cells; cells specialised to form leaf and stem, muscle and bone, liver and kidney, and many more, including the brain. Each cell contains the same complement of genes as was present in the original cell. Each human cell probably contains the genetic information needed to make any type of human cell, and therefore an entire human being, but in each cell only a selected portion of that information is used. It is analogous to a book of instructions, where only certain pages, and even only certain lines and words are selected to code the necessary proteins needed in the production of various cells.
The effect of sexual reproduction is to mix or shuffle the genes. The sex cells (egg or sperm) only contain 23 chromosomes each in humans, but when fused make up the normal 46 chromosomes. The new cell would, in the words of Dawkins, be “a mosaic of maternal genes and paternal genes.” As the two sets of chromosomes merge, if two gene signals differ, then one characteristic will prevail over the other. The gene for brown eyes, for instance, is dominant to that for blue. They are what is termed as recessive and dominant genes. Sometimes a hybrid compromise is produced.
It is through reproduction that variation is achieved. From an evolutionary view this is vital. The asexual reproduction of primitive organisms makes identical copies of the parent cell, where mutation is very infrequent. On the other hand, sexual reproduction, with the new combination of genes from two sources, increases the possibilities of genetic variation and has the effect of accelerating the rate at which evolution can proceed. Each life form carries the DNA code of genetic information. The evidence of our common ancestry is the similarity of cell structure of all living things. The mechanism of inheritance is the same, where DNA determines that mice look like mice, humans look like humans, and bacteria look like bacteria. Some organisms, such as bacteria, possess only one main DNA molecule, whereas our own cells, and those of higher organisms, contain a number of separate bundles of DNA (chromosomes).
Genes and environment
Over the last 25 years, the twin ideologies of reductionism and biological determinism have been dominant in all branches of biology. The method of reductionism tries to explain the properties of complex wholes—proteins for example—in terms of the properties of the atoms and even the fundamental particles of which they are composed. The further down you went, the better (it was claimed) was the understanding. Further, they assert that the units that compose the whole exist before the whole, that a chain of causation runs from the parts to the whole, that the egg always comes before the chicken.
Biological determinism is very closely related to reductionism. It claims, for example, that the behaviour of human beings is determined by the genes possessed by individuals and leads to the conclusion that all human society is governed by the sum of the behaviour of all the individuals in that society. This genetic control is equivalent to the older ideas expressed by the term “human nature”. Again scientists may argue that this is not what they mean, but the ideas of determinism and of genes as “fixed unalterable entities” abound in their statements and are taken up with glee by right wing politicians. For them, social inequalities are unfortunate, but they are innate and unalterable; they are therefore impossible to remedy by social means, as to do so would “go against nature”. This idea has been expressed by Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene, which is used as a textbook in American universities.
The mechanism of evolution is conditioned by the dialectical interrelationship between genes and environment. Prior to Darwin, French naturalist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck put forward a different theory of evolution, which asserts that the individual adapts itself directly to its environment and passes on these modifications to its offspring. This mechanical interpretation has been completely discredited, although the idea that environment directly alters heredity resurfaced in Stalinist Russia in the guise of Lysenkoism. Human evolution has both a “nature” and a “history”. The genetic raw material enters into a dynamic relationship with the social, economic and cultural environment. It is impossible to understand the process of evolution by taking either one of the two in isolation, as there is a constant interaction between the biological and “cultural” elements.
It has been conclusively proved that acquired traits (derived from the environment) are not biologically transmitted. Culture is passed on from one generation to another exclusively by teaching and example. That is one of the decisive features that set human society apart from the rest of the animal kingdom, although the elements of this can also be observed in the higher apes. It is impossible to deny the vital role of genes in human development, nor is this in the slightest degree in contradiction with materialism. Does it follow, then, that “it's all in the genes?” Let us quote the words of Dobzhansky:
“Most contemporary evolutionists are of the opinion that adaptation of a living species to its environment is the chief agency impelling and directing biological evolution.”
And again: “Culture is, however, an instrument of adaptation which is vastly more efficient than the biological processes which led to its inception and advancement. It is more efficient among other things because it is more rapid—changed genes are transmitted only to the direct descendants of the individuals in whom they first appear; to replace the old genes, the carriers of the new ones must gradually outbreed and supplant the former. Changed culture may be transmitted to anybody regardless of biological parentage, or borrowed ready-made from other peoples.” 81
Biologists divide the organism into two parts, the genetic make-up, known as the genotype, and the apparent qualities, the phenotype. It is a common error to regard the relation between the two as a simple relation of cause and effect. The genotype, so the argument goes, comes before the phenotype, and is therefore the decisive element in the equation. We are born with a given set of genes, which cannot be altered, and this decides our fate, as surely as the position of the planets in astrology. This kind of genetic mechanistic determinism is the mirror image of the quack theories of Trofim Denisovich Lysenko. It is Lamarckism turned inside out. In reality, the genotype, or genes found in the nucleus of every cell, is more or less fixed—give or take the occasional mutation. The phenotype, or the total morphological, physiological and behaviour properties of the individual, is not fixed. On the contrary, it changes constantly throughout the life of the organism by interaction between the genotype and the environment and between the phenotype and the environment. In other words, it is a product of dialectic inter-action of organism and environment. If Albert Einstein had been born in a New York slum, or a village in India, it does not take much intelligence to see that his genetic potential would have counted for very little.
The study of genetics provides the conclusive answer to idealism. No organism can exist without a genotype. And no genotype can exist outside a spaciotemporal continuum—an environment. The genes interact with the environment to give rise to the process of human development. As a matter of fact, if hereditary were perfect, there could be no evolution, since heredity is a conservative force. It is essentially a mechanism for self-copying. But there is a built-in contradiction in the genes, whereby occasionally an imperfect copy is produced—a mutation. There are an infinite number of such accidents, most of which are not only useless but positively harmful to the organism.
A single mutation cannot transform one species into another. The information contained in the gene does not remain there in splendid isolation. It enters into contact with the physical world, where it is tested, processed, articulated and modified. If a particular variant provides a better protein than another in a given environment, it will prosper, while the others are eliminated. At a certain point, small variations reach a qualitative stage, and a new species is formed. This is the meaning of natural selection. For some four billion years, the genes of every living thing—plants and animals, including humans—have been formed in this way. It is not a one-way process. The idea of the genetic determinists, that the genes are pre-eminent, has been described by Francis Crick, one of the discoverers of the DNA code, as the central dogma of molecular biology. It is no more valid than the dogma of the Immaculate Conception. In the dialectical relationship between the organism and the environment, information about the phenotype flows back into the genotype. The genes are “selected” by the environment, which determines which will survive, and which perish.
The role of the genetic code plays a vital role in establishing the “framework” of human beings, whereas the environment works to fill out and develop behaviour and personality. They are not isolated factors, but dialectically fuse together to produce the individual and his or her unique characteristics. No two persons are identical. However, although it is not possible to alter a person's hereditary make-up, it is entirely possible to alter the environment. The way to improve an individual's potential is to improve their environment. This idea has provoked a heated argument over many years: is it possible to over-ride or change genetic “deficiencies” through an improved environment? The leading early geneticist Francis Galton tried to demonstrate that genius was hereditary, and favoured a policy of selective breeding to maintain the intellectual stock. The idea that middle-class and upper class whites were genetically superior to other races and classes permeated Victorian society. It became the ideology of the eugenics movement which advocated forced sterilisation to prevent the biologically unfit from propagation. Unsound scientific data using IQ (intelligence quota) testing was used to support biological determinism and social inequalities based on race, sex or class that cannot be altered as they reflect innate inferior genes.
"Intelligence" and genes
The American sociobiologist Edward O. Wilson expresses the biological determinist view as follows:
“If the planned society—the creation of which is inevitable in the coming century—were to deliberately steer its members past those stresses and conflicts that once gave the destructive phenotypes (aggression and selfishness) their Darwinian edge, the other phenotypes (co-operation and altruism) might dwindle with them. In this, the ultimate genetic sense, social control would rob man of his humanity.” 82
In other words, by getting rid of the bad aspects of humanity, we may get rid of the good at the same time! Again, Wilson confuses genotype with phenotype by implying that the phenotype (not the genotype) is fixed and unchanging. It is not. Genotypes do not “code” for traits in the phenotype and there is no gene that is equivalent to altruism in the phenotype. Every living thing is the result of a continuous interaction between the genes, the environment, and the phenotype itself. However, we must also avoid falling into the other trap of believing the organism is putty in the “hands” of genes and the environment. It too is an active part of the process. All living things interact with their environment in a dialectical way. affirmed Dobzhansky:
“To suppose that a sex cell transports a particle called 'intelligence' which will make its possessor smart and wise no matter what happens to him is, indeed, ridiculous. But it is evident that the people we meet are not all alike in intelligence, abilities, and attitudes, and it is not unreasonable to suppose that these differences are caused partly by the natures of these people and partly by their environments.”
Although this clearly demonstrates the materialist and dialectical character of life processes, genetics has given rise to heated controversy and opened the door to idealism and reactionary conceptions. A one-sided fashion of genetics inevitably ends up in error and confusion. Thus, certain geneticists have fallen into the trap of biological determinism or genetic determinism. This is also the case with sociobiologists like E.O. Wilson and Richard Dawkins. Commenting on this, Steven Rose asks:
“Does evolutionary theory imply that certain aspects of human—capitalism, nationalism, patriarchy, xenophobia, aggression and competition—are 'fixed' in our 'selfish genes'? Some biologists have claimed to answer this question in the affirmative, and political theorists of the right—from libertarian monetarists to neo-fascists have seized upon their pronouncements as providing 'scientific' justification for their political philosophies.”
The only conclusion from this is that capitalism and all its ills are “natural”, being derived from biological facts. Theories of racial and sexual inequality have also sought to base themselves on certain interpretations of science.
Simplistic and crude metaphors of evolution, such as “survival of the fittest” and “the struggle for existence”, made their way through Herbert Spencer into the vocabulary of social Darwinism. Within biology was found the very confirmation of capitalism, class inequalities and imperialism. It appears that the sociobiologists of the E.O. Wilson mould are following in their footsteps with their views of human nature and biological determinism. Marx and Engels explained that “man makes himself”. Human nature, like consciousness, is a product of the prevailing social and economic conditions. That is why human nature has changed throughout history, following the development of society itself. For the sociobiologist, human characteristics appear biologically fixed through our genes, giving sustenance to the myth that “you can't change human nature”.
In point of fact, so-called human nature has been transformed and re-transformed many times in the course of human history, as Dobzhansky points out:
“Darlington (1953) believes that 'individual adaptability is indeed one of the great illusions of common-sense observation. It is an illusion responsible for some of the chief errors of political and economic administration today. Individuals and populations cannot be shifted from one place or occupation to another after an appropriate period of training to fit the convenience of some master planner, any more than hill farmers can be turned into deep-sea fishermen or habitual criminals can be turned into good citizens.'
“Despite all the inadequacy and uncertainty of our knowledge of human genetics, there is plenty of evidence contrary to Darlington's view, and this evidence is conclusive.
“History abounds in proofs that individuals and populations can successfully be shifted from one place or occupation to another. Industrial revolutions in many countries throughout the world have amply shown this. The near ancestors of millions of industrial workers have been mostly 'timeless' peasants tilling the soil. The movement from the soil to industrial cities is even now under way, and on a grand scale, in some 'underdeveloped' countries.” 83
A term frequently misused by genetic determinists is heredity, especially in the field of IQ testing. The psychologists Hans Eysenck in Britain, Richard Herrnstein and Arthur Jensen in the US have promoted the idea that intelligence is largely inherited. They also maintain that the average IQ of blacks is genetically lower than that of whites, and of Irish in Ireland to English in England. Eysenck apparently believes that blacks and the Irish have been selectively bred for “low IQ” genes. In point of fact, IQ tests have been shown to be inherently flawed. There is no such thing as a unit of measurement for “intelligence”, as there is for height or weight. The IQ is an imaginary concept based upon arbitrary assumptions.
The IQ test originated at the beginning of the century when Alfred Binet established a simple test to help identify children with learning difficulties. For Binet it was a means of identification of difficulties that could then be remedied through “mental orthopaedics”. He certainly did not believe that this measure was of some “fixed” intelligence, and for those who contemplated such ideas Binet's rebuke was sharp: “We must protest and react against this brutal pessimism.”
The basis of Binet's test was simple enough: older children should be able to carry out mental tasks that younger children could not. He thus assembled tests suitable for each age group; those considered brighter or less able were judged accordingly. Where children encountered difficulties, then remedial action should be undertaken. However, this system in the hands of others was used to draw different conclusions. With the death of Binet, the advocates of eugenics saw their opportunity to reinforce their determinist message. Intelligence was now considered innate and fixed through heredity and corresponded with social class and racial origin. As Lewis Terman introduced the Stanford-Binet tests into the US, he made it plain that low intelligence:
“is very common among Spanish-Indian and Mexican families of the South-West and also among negroes. Their dullness seems to be racial, or at least inherent in the family stocks from which they come…Children of this group should be segregated in special classes…They cannot master abstractions, but they can often be made efficient workers…There is no possibility at present of convincing society that they should not be allowed to reproduce, although from a eugenic point of view they constitute a grave problem because of their unusually prolific breeding.”
This constituted the tone of the US educational establishment in regard to testing. A new twist was also introduced to extend its scientific scope: standards were set for adults, and the ratio between age and mental age—the “intelligence quotient”, or IQ.
In Britain, it was English psychologist Sir Cyril Lodowic Burt who translated and championed even more obsessively than his American counterparts Binet's tests. He claimed that men were more intelligent than women on the basis of alleged studies. The same gentleman alleged that he possessed the strongest scientific evidence that Christians were more intelligent than Jews, Englishmen than Irishmen, upper-class Englishmen than lower-class Englishmen, and so on. Not surprisingly, Burt himself just happened to be an upper class, Christian English male! By such means the oppressors justify oppression, the wealthy and powerful justify their privileges, on the grounds that their victims are “inferior”. For some 65 years, until his death in 1971, Burt continued his work on eugenics and IQ testing, being duly knighted for his services to mankind. He helped to establish the notorious “eleven plus” education system, which segregated children between “secondary modern” and grammar schools. Burt explained: “Capacity must obviously limit content. It is impossible for a pint jug to hold more than a pint of milk; and it is equally impossible for a child's educational attainments to rise higher than his educable capacity permits.”
So Binet's tests were twisted beyond recognition to reinforce the class character of society. There were those born to be hewers of coal and carriers of water, and those who would rule over society. The tests were not used to remedy, but to segregate. Whatever the modification of the IQ test, they all have the same roots: a preconceived “intelligence” that is the hallmark on which all are judged. However these tests are overwhelmingly influenced by culture and social stereotypes that determine the results. Again they are linked to school performance, and reflect those results. However, the idea that it is possible to identify or measure “intelligence” in this crude fashion is fundamentally false. After all, what is intelligence? How can it be quantified? It is not like weight or height. Intelligence is not fixed, as Burt claimed, but elastic. The potential of a human brain is limitless. To allow a human being to fulfil this potential is the task of society. Environmental facts can greatly restrict potential or enhance it. Bring up children in bad social conditions, and they will be disadvantaged in comparison with those brought up with all their needs provided. Social background is extremely important. If you change the environment, you change the child. Despite the claims of the biological determinists, intelligence is not fixed or genetically predetermined.
The obsession to statistically plot “intelligence” through the bell-shaped curve is an attempt to enforce social conformity. Those outside of the norm are said to be “abnormal” and in need of treatment. Alternately, it is genetic, and determines our class, race, and life. But in reality, whereas our genotype is fixed, our phenotype changes constantly. The loss of an arm or leg is irreversible but not heritable. Wilson's disease is heritable but with drugs not irreversible. “Nor, of course,” says Rose, Kamin, and Lewontin, “does the phenotype develop linearly from the genotype from birth to adulthood. The 'intelligence' of an infant is not merely a certain small percentage of that of the adult it will become, as if the 'pint jug' were being steadily filled.”
Burt's frantic attempts to shore up the genetic basis of IQ, led him systematically to falsify his records and data. His celebrated IQ study of separated identical twins resulted in his incredible assertion that there was no correlation between the environments of the separated pairs. For him, everything was determined by the twin's genes. He was the idol of the genetic determinists, and his work gave them the ammunition to further their cause. In 1978, D. D. Dorfman, an American psychologist, proved conclusively that this respectable scientist and English gentleman had simply invented his results. After his exposure as a fraud, his supporters were forced to change tack, simply berating Burt for his scientific carelessness! Burt's work was the IQ equivalent to the Piltdown Man. And yet at the time—despite fifteen years of glaring inconsistencies—his researches were hailed by the scientific establishment as proof of the inheritability of IQ. Despite Burt's demise, the establishment still clung to his reactionary philosophy as the cornerstone of their class outlook.
The more recent studies, involving separated identical twins in Britain, America and Denmark, do not in any meaningful way prove the inheritability of IQ. These studies have been convincingly answered by Steven Rose, Leon J. Kamin and Richard Lewontin. Their conclusion?
“We do not know what the heritability of IQ really is. The data simply do not allow us to calculate a reasonable estimate of genetic variation for IQ in any population. For all we know, the heritability may be zero or 50 per cent. In fact, despite the massive devotion of research effort to studying it, the question of heritability of IQ is irrelevant to the matters at issue. The great importance attached by determinists to the demonstration of heritability is a consequence of their erroneous belief that heritability means unchangeability.”
“Neither for IQ nor for any other trait can genes be said to determine the organism,” they continue. “There is no one-to-one correspondence between the genes inherited from one's parent and one's height, weight, metabolic rate, sickness, health, or any other nontrivial organic characteristic...every organism is the unique product of the interaction between genes and environment at every stage of life.” 84
Eugenics was a word coined in 1883 by Francis Galton, who was a cousin of Darwin's. The desire to “improve” the human stock is frequently related to pseudo-scientific theories put forward by those who wish to demonstrate the “superiority” of a particular group—race, nation, social class, or sex, in terms of blood or “good breeding”. Such reactionary nonsense is usually given a spurious “scientific” air to convey an impression of intellectual respectability to the most irrational and abhorrent prejudices. America, the “land of the free”, saw the triumph of the eugenics movement in the enactment of laws for the compulsory sterilisation of the “biologically inferior”. The state of Indiana passed the first sterilisation act in 1907. This practice could be carried out on those considered insane, imbecilic or moronic, as recommended by a board of experts. In the mid-1920s John Scopes taught evolution using a book entitled A Civic Biology, by George W. Hunter, which contained the infamous case of Jukes and Kallikaks ***. Under the heading Parasitism and Its Cost to Society—the Remedy, it says:
“Hundreds of families such as those described above exist today, spreading disease, immorality and crime to all parts of this country. The cost to society of such families is very severe. Just as certain animals or plants become parasitic on other plants or animals, these families have become parasitic on society. They not only do harm to others by corrupting, stealing or spreading disease, but they are actually protected and cared for by the state out of public money. Largely for them the poorhouse and the asylum exist. They are true parasites.
“If such people were lower animals, we would probably kill them off to prevent them spreading. Humanity will not allow this, but we do have the remedy of separating the sexes in asylums or other places and in various ways preventing intermarriage and the possibilities of perpetrating such a low and degenerate race.”
By the 1930s, over 30 states in America had passed sterilisation laws, expanding those eligible for treatment to alcoholics and drug addicts, and even blindness and deafness in others. The campaign reached its height in 1927, when the Supreme Court, by 8-1 votes, upheld the Virginia sterilisation law in Buck v. Bell. This case involved an eighteen year old white girl called Carrie Buck, who was involuntarily incarcerated in the State Colony for Epileptics and Feeble-Minded, and was the first person to be sterilised under the act. She was chosen, according to Harry Laughlin, the superintendent of the Eugenics Record Office (who wanted to eliminate “the most worthless one-tenth of our present population”), as she, her daughter and her mother were genetically mentally subnormal. This information was largely accrued from the Stanford-Binet test of IQ—which was later proved to be totally wrong. The judge in the case, O.W. Holmes, stated “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.” Carrie's sister Doris was also covertly sterilised under the same law. Carrie's child, Vivian, died in 1932 of an illness. Her teachers described her as “very bright”.
By January 1935, around 20,000 forced sterilisations for eugenic purposes were carried out in the US. Laughlin wanted the net to include “homeless, tramps and paupers” and was taken up most fervently in Nazi Germany, where the Erbgesundheitsrecht led to the sterilisation of some 375,000, including 4,000 for blindness and deafness. In the USA, in the end, 30,000 were sterilised against their will. While classical eugenics has been discredited, new versions such as psychosurgery have emerged. This proclaims the idea that surgery on the brain can alleviate social problems, notably violence. Two American psychosurgeons, Vernon Mark and Frank Ervin, went so far as to argue that city riots in the US are caused by mental problems (deranged amygdalas) and may be cured by brain surgery on certain ghetto leaders. Research into this area of biology is being financed by the US law enforcement agencies.
Seeking suitable candidates for brain surgery, a revealing letter from 1971 between the Director of Corrections, Human Relations Agency, Sacramento, and the Director of Hospitals and Clinics, University of California Medical Center, shows the mentality of sections of the “scientific” community. The Director asks for suitable prison candidates “who have shown aggressive, destructive behaviour, possibly as a result of severe neurological disease,” to conduct “surgical and diagnostic procedures…to locate centres in the brain which may have been previously damaged and which could serve as the focus for episodes of violent behaviour,” for surgical removal.
The reply suggests a candidate who:
“was transferred…for increasing militancy, leadership ability and outspoken hatred for white society…he was identified as one of several leaders in the work strike of April 1971…Also evident at approximately the same time was an avalanche of revolutionary reading material.”
These crank ideologies are the theoretical backdrop of political reaction. In 1980, Dr. K. Ray Nelson, the then director of the Lynchburg Hospital where Carrie Buck was sterilised, discovered that over 4,000 operations had been carried out, the last as late as 1972. The IQ tests used in the Buck case have long been discredited. These reactionary ideas of forced sterilisation are not simply confined to the “dark ages” of the past, but are alive today, sustained on pseudo-scientific theories, particularly in America. Even now, there are sterilisation laws on the statute books of 22 US states.
Crime and genetics
Since the early 1970s the proportion of Americans in prison has more than tripled. In Britain those behind bars is at record levels. Prisons are so overcrowded that inmates are kept in police cells. “The UK in 1991 had a higher proportion of its population in jail than every Council of Europe nation apart from Hungary,” comments the Financial Times (10th March 1994). Despite this violent crime remains high in both countries. This crisis has witnessed a flowering of reactionary ideas attempting to link criminal behaviour to biological factors. “For every 1 per cent that we reduce violence, we save the country $1.2 billion,” says American psychologist Adrian Raine. As a result, the US National Institute of Health has increased its budget for violence-related research to $58 million. And in December 1994 the National Science Foundation began promoting proposals for a $12 million, five-year research consortium. “With the expected advances, we're going to be able to diagnose many people who are biologically brain-prone to violence,” claims Stuart Yudofsky, chair of the psychiatry department at Baylor College of Medicine in the Scientific American of March 1995.
It has become fashionable in certain circles to attribute all kinds of things to genetic or biological disorders, rather than recognising that social problems arise from social conditions. The school of genetic determinism has drawn all types of reactionary conclusions, reducing all social problems to the level of genetics. Not long ago, research apparently revealed that many violent criminals had an extra Y chromosome, but more recent studies show the connection to be irrelevant. Now evidence of less activity in the frontal cortex of the brain of murderers is attracting attention as the link between biology and violence. There is a proposal for a Federal Violence Initiative to identify at least 100,000 inner-city children “whose alleged biochemical and genetic defects will make them prone to violence in later life.”
The dangers of phoney research leading to genetic links to race and criminal or antisocial behaviour are ever present. False conclusions can be drawn from the statistic that in the US, where 12.4 per cent of the population are blacks, they account for 44.8 per cent of arrests for violent crime. In the same article in Scientific American we read:
“There is reason to be concerned that ostensibly objective biological studies, blindly ignoring social and cultural differences, could misguidedly reinforce racial stereotypes.” Due to this threat, boycotts have taken place over blood and urine samples being taken from racial minorities. So, according to Raine, “all the biological and genetic studies conducted to date have been done on whites.”
Raine continues: “Imagine you are the father of an eight-year old boy. The ethical dilemma is this: I could say to you, 'Well, we have taken a wide variety of measurements, and we can predict with 80 per cent accuracy that your son is going to become seriously violent within 20 years. We can offer you a series of biological, social and cognitive intervention programmes that will greatly reduce the chance of his becoming a violent offender.' What do you do? Do you place your boy in those programmes and risk stigmatising him as a violent criminal even though there is a real possibility that he is innocent? Or do you say no to the treatment and run an 80 per cent chance that your child will grow up to (a) destroy his life, (b) destroy your life, (c) destroy the lives of his brothers and sisters and, most important, (d) destroy the lives of the innocent victims who suffer at his hands?”
Firstly, it is not possible to predict a child's future criminal behaviour at all—let alone with 80 per cent accuracy. And secondly, this puts the blame for crime on the individual. This reactionary argument fails to see crime, violence, and other social ills, as a product of the society we live under. It is a society based upon human exploitation and the maximisation of profit that results in mass unemployment, homelessness, poverty, and the denigration of life. These social conditions, in turn, produce crime, violence, and brutality. This is nothing to do with genes or biology, and everything to do with the barbarism of capitalist society.
The biological determinists are used to bolster up reactionary social ideas. It is not society that is to blame for crime, poverty, unemployment, etc., but the individual, through their genes or defective biology. The answer, therefore, is brain or genetic surgery. Others look for abnormal levels of testosterone, or slower heartbeats as the explanation of human violence. Some scientists have pointed to the low levels of serotonin, a chemical that in the body affects, amongst other things, the functioning of the brain. Thus, C.R. Jeffery wrote in the Journal of Criminal Justice Education: “By increasing the level of serotonin in the brain, we can reduce the level of violence.” So serotonin boosters, like the antidepressant Prozac, are administered to patients to cure their aggression. The falsehood of this view is explained by the fact that this chemical can rise or drop in different parts of the brain at different times, with different effects. Environment can also affect levels. However, these “facts” are not allowed to get in the way, or prevent these people from making outrageous claims to bolster their reactionary views.
Jeffery advocates that “Science must tell us what individuals will or will not become criminals, what individuals will or will not become victims, and what law enforcement strategies will or will not work.” Yudofsky reinforces Jeffery's enthusiasm with his assertion: “We are now on the verge of a revolution in genetic medicine. The future will be to understand the genetics of aggressive disorders and to identify those who have greater tendencies to become violent.” He believes that hyperactive children should be tested, and, if necessary, given beta-blockers, anticonvulsants or lithium. Yudofsky says these drugs will be “cost effective” and a tremendous “opportunity for the pharmaceutical industry.” It is not difficult to see on which side his bread is buttered.
“There are areas where we can begin to incorporate biological approaches,” argues Diana Fishbein. “Delinquents need to be individually assessed.” She goes on to advocate compulsory treatment for criminals, but if this is unsuccessful, “they should be held indefinitely.” Masters believes that “we now know enough about the serotonergic system so that if we see a kid doing poorly in school, we ought to look at his serotonin levels.”
Racism and genetics
The United States senate was told in 1899 that:
“God has not been preparing the English-speaking and Teutonic peoples for a thousand years for nothing but vain and idle self-admiration…He has made us adept in government that we may administer government among savages and senile people.”
William Bradford Shockley, the co-inventor of the transistor, argued that, since blacks are genetically less intelligent than whites, they should not be given equal opportunities, a view also held by the well-known psychologist Hans J. Eysenck. Human nature is seen as the source and explanation of all social ills, having drawn certain distorted parallels with the lifestyles of other animals. The broader claims of sociobiology are that racism and nationalism are natural extensions of tribalism, which, in turn, is a product of “kin selection”. “Nationalism and racism,” states E.O. Wilson, “are culturally nurtured outgrowths of simple tribalism.” This idea has even been suggested by Richard Dawkins: “Conceivably, racial prejudice could be interpreted as an irrational generalisation of a kin-selected tendency to identify with individuals physically resembling oneself and to be nasty to individuals different in appearance.” 85
According to the father of sociobiology, E.O. Wilson, “in hunter-gatherer societies, men hunt and women stay at home. This strong bias persists in most agricultural and industrial societies and on that ground alone appears to have a genetic origin.” He says that men are “naturally” polygamous, while women are “naturally” monogamous. The characteristic of sociobiology is the comparison of human social relations with the animal world, as justification for male dominance and class structure. “The genetic bias,” says Wilson, “is intense enough to cause a substantial division of labour even in the most free and most egalitarian of future societies.” This is the theme, based on the animal world, which zoologist Desmond Morris attempts to popularise.
The recent attempts to prove that intelligence is inherited has centred around IQ testing. The Bell Curve by Charles Murray regurgitates the old argument that genetics explains the gap between the average IQ of American whites and blacks. The fundamental arguments in this book have been repeatedly demolished. According to psychiatrist Peter Breggin, it is an attempt to “resurrect the King Kong image of Afro-Americans as violent and stupid.” ( The Guardian, 13th March 1995). But the most crushing evidence against the theories of genetic determinism come from a recent book entitled The History and Geography of Human Genes by population geneticists Luca Cavalli-Sforza, Paolo Menozzi and Alberto Piazza. The book is a remarkable synthesis of more than 50 years research in population genetics. It is the most authoritative account to date of how humans vary at the level of their chromosomes. The firm conclusion of the book is that, once the genes for surface traits such as colouration and stature are discounted, the human 'races' are remarkably alike under the skin. That variation between individuals is far greater than the variation among groups. According to the magazine Time:
“In fact, the diversity among individuals is so enormous that the whole concept of race becomes meaningless at the genetic level. The authors say there is 'no scientific basis' for theories touting the genetic superiority of any one population over another.” (16th January 1995.)
In reviewing the book, the Time article states:
“Despite the difficulties, the scientists made some myth-shattering discoveries. One of them jumps right off the book's cover: a colour map of the world genetic variation has Africa on one end of the spectrum and Australia on the other. Because Australia's aborigines and sub-Saharan Africans share such superficial traits as skin colour and body shape, they were widely assumed to be closely related. But their genes tell a different story. Of all humans, Australians are most distant from the Africans and most closely resemble their neighbours, the Southeast Asians.” The review concludes, “What the eye sees as racial differences—between Europeans and Africans, for example—are mainly adaptions to climate as humans moved from one continent to another.”
The book also confirms that the birthplace of humanity and so the starting point for the original human migrations was Africa, thereby demonstrating that the split from the African branch is the oldest on the human family tree.
The use of biological and genetic theories to justify reactionary policies is not a new phenomenon, although in the last decade or so it has been given a new lease of life by the general tendency of Western governments to go onto the offensive against the welfare state and all the other social conquests of the working class. The law of the market—that is the law of the jungle—is back in fashion. That includes, of course, the universities, where there are always enough people willing to swim with the prevailing current, which does their career prospects no harm whatsoever.
There are many honest academics who approach their subject in a dispassionate manner, but it would indeed be naïve to believe that the fact that a person has a string of letters after his or her name makes them immune from the pressures of the society in which they live, whether they are aware of it or not. In 1949, N. Pastore conducted a study into the opinions of twenty-four psychologists, biologists and sociologists concerning the so-called nature-nurture problem. Out of twelve “liberals or radicals”, eleven said the environment was more important than heredity, and one the opposite. In the conservative camp, the result was exactly the opposite—eleven hereditarians and only one environmentalist! Dobzhansky found this result “disconcerting”. For our part, we find it quite predictable.
Roger Scruton draws the social lessons: “Bioeconomics says that government programmes that force individuals to be less competitive and selfish than they are genetically programmed to be are preordained to fail.” This fitted in perfectly with the reemergence of genetic determinism in America, and their proof that blacks were inferior to whites, and the working class was inferior to the middle and upper classes. The scientific backing for such fallacies is used to create an aura of so-called respectability and objectivity.
Richard Dawkins, who came to fame with his controversially entitled book The Selfish Gene, has been at the centre of a heated polemic over genetics. Molecular biologists have identified the importance of DNA in replicating copies of DNA molecules. They possess coded instructions that produce the building blocks of life, amino acids. These make up proteins which shape cells and organs. Because of this, some molecular biologists and also sociobiologists have argued that all natural selection acts ultimately at the level of the DNA. This has led a number of scientists to have become so obsessed with the wondrous nature of the gene, that not a few are unable see the wood for the trees. Some have given the gene mystical qualities from which reactionary ideas are drawn. The idea that a person's physical, mental and moral characteristics are handed down unaltered and unalterable from genes is certainly not supported by the facts of genetic science. Yet it has cropped up again and again in literature and has had a serious effect on social policy throughout the 20th century.
The gene transmits its influence from parent to offspring. It can only be defined as a difference between a number of different genes (called allelles) influencing the same thing (e.g. blue/brown allelles for eye colour). The difference is identified by means of biochemical, physiological, structural or behavioural testing/observation (after other sources of variation, like environment, have been excluded).
Unfortunately, many scientists and others use misleading shorthand for the above definition. Particularly, that a gene that contributes to an individual animal behaving differently becomes the gene for its distinctive behaviour. Dawkins is not the only scientist that falls into this trap. In the 1970s many spoke of a gene coding for physical and behavioural characteristics. Also a gene must be compared with another for the same trait. It is not an entity that stands alone in its own right. As J.B.S. Haldane correctly pointed out, genetics is the science of differences not similarities. Quite simply, you and I can both be selfish—the differences between us cannot. You cannot apply personal characteristics to a comparison. In his book, The Selfish Gene, Dawkins jumps back and forth from one definition to the other, claiming that they are interchangeable—which they are not. The result has been to encourage biological determinism. A whole generation of American and other scientists are being brought up on this confusion.
The scientific research into genetics shows the possibilities for medicine, where gene disorders such as Huntington's chorea, Duchenne muscular dystrophy, and others have been identified. However, there are widespread assertions that in some way genes are responsible for all kinds of things, like homosexuality and criminality. This genetic determinism reduces all social problems to the level of genetics. In February 1995, a conference on Genetics of Criminal and Anti-Social Behaviour was held in London. Ten of the thirteen speakers were from the United States where a similar conference in 1992 with racist overtones was abandoned because of public pressure. While the chairperson, Sir Michael Rutter of the London Institute of Psychiatry stated “there can be no such thing as a gene for crime”, other participants, like Dr. Gregory Carey of the Institute of Behavioural Genetics, University of Colorado, maintained that genetic factors as a whole were responsible for 40-50 per cent of criminal violence. Although he said it would be impractical to “treat” criminality through genetic engineering, others said there were good prospects for developing drugs to control excessive aggression, once the responsible genes had been found. He suggested, however, that abortion should be considered when antenatal testing indicates a child is likely to be born with genes predisposing it to aggression or antisocial behaviour. His view was endorsed by Dr. David Goldman from the Laboratory of Neurogenetics at the US National Institute of Health in Maryland. “The families should be given the information and should be allowed to decide privately how to use it.” ( The Independent, 14th February 1995.)
According to Professor Hans Brunner of Nijmegen University Hospital in Holland, men in a family who inherited a particular genetic abnormality of the X chromosome that led to a deficiency in an enzyme concerned with messages in the brain have shown “impulsive aggression” including arson and attempted rape. Dr. David Goldman and Professor Matti Virkkunen of the University of Helsinki said they were discovering aggression-related genetic variations in the way people process brain chemicals. “Pharmaceutical companies are already interested in our findings,” said Virkkunen. ( The Financial Times, 14th February, 1995.)
Steven Rose described the conference as “troublesome, disturbing and unbalanced.” The event was attacked in a letter by fifteen scientists. Dr. Zakari Erzinclioglu, director of the Centre for Forensic Science at Durham University, called it “very disturbing, simple minded and mischievous.” Ashley Montague pointed out that “it is not 'criminal genes' that make criminals, but in most cases 'criminal social conditions'.”
Richard Dawkins' The Selfish Gene, originally published in 1976, makes some startling assertions. “We are born selfish,” says Dawkins. Although he says that “genes have no foresight” and “they do not plan ahead” Dawkins imbues genes with a consciousness and a “selfish” identity. They strive to replicate themselves, as if they are consciously planning how best this could be achieved:
“Certainly in principle, and also in fact, the gene reaches out through the individual body wall and manipulates objects in the world outside, some of them inanimate, some of them other living beings, some of them a long way away. With only a little imagination we can see the gene as sitting at the centre of a radiating web of extended phenotypic power. And an object in the world is the centre of a converging web of influences from many genes sitting in many organisms. The long reach of the gene knows no obvious boundaries.” 86
Because for Dawkins individual organisms do not survive from one generation to another, while genes do, it follows that natural selection acts on what survives, namely, the genes. Therefore, all selection acts ultimately at the level of DNA. At the same time, each gene is in competition with each other to reproduce themselves in the next generation. “What after all, is so special about genes? The answer is that they are replicators.”
In this view, the replicator of life is the gene; thus the organism is simply the vehicle for the genes (“survival machines—robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes”…”they swarm in huge colonies, safe inside gigantic lumbering robots”). It is a recasting of Samuel Butler's famous aphorism that a hen is simply the egg's way of making another egg. An animal, for Dawkins, is only DNA's way of making more DNA. He imbues the genes with certain mystical qualities, which is essentially teleological. In his defence Dawkins Dawkins argued:
“I suspect, that both Rose and Gould are determinists in that they believe in a physical, materialistic basis for all our actions. So am I…whatever view one takes on the question of determinism, the insertion of the word 'genetic' is not going to make any difference.”
He then added,
“if you are a full-blooded determinist you will believe that all your actions are determined by physical causes in the past…what difference can it possibly make whether some of those physical causes are genetic? Why are genetic determinists thought to be any more ineluctable, or blame-absolving, than 'environmental ones'?” 87
Everything in nature has a cause and an effect, in which an effect in its turn becomes a cause. Dawkins mixes up determinism and fatalism: “An organism is a tool of DNA.” Genetic determinism has a precise meaning, where genes are said to “determine” the exact nature of the phenotype. There is no doubt that genes have a powerful effect in the form of the organism, but its entity will be decisively influenced by the environment. For example, if two identical twins are placed into two totally different environments, two different characters will be produced. As Rose explains,
“In reality, however, selection must act at a multitude of levels. Individual gene-sized lengths of DNA may or may not be selected in their own right, but that DNA is expressed against the background of the entire genotype; particular assemblies of genes or whole genotypes must therefore themselves represent another level of selection. Further, the genotype exists within a phenotype, and whether that phenotype survives or not depends on its interaction with others. Hence it will only be selected against the background of the population in which it is embedded.” 88
Dawkins was forced to backtrack to some extent, modifying his arguments in the later editions of The Selfish Gene (1989) and in The Extended Phenotype: The Long Reach of the Gene (1982). He says his flamboyant language left him open to misrepresentation and misunderstanding: “It is all too easy to get carried away, and allow hypothetical genes cognitive wisdom and foresight in planning their 'strategy'.” He nevertheless defends his fundamental argument and views life “in terms of genetic replicators preserving themselves by means of their extended phenotypes.” And that “natural selection is differential survival of genes.” Dawkins now says “genes may modify the effects of other genes, and may modify the effects of the environment. Environmental events, both internal and external, may modify the effects of genes, and may modify the effects of other environmental events.” But this concession aside, Dawkins' main thesis remains.
For instance, he says: “Contraception is sometimes attacked as 'unnatural'. So it is, very unnatural. The trouble is, so is the welfare state. I think that most of us believe the welfare state is highly desirable. But you cannot have an unnatural welfare state, unless you also have unnatural birth control, otherwise the end result will be misery even greater than that which obtains in nature.” He continues, “the welfare state is perhaps the greatest altruistic system the animal kingdom has ever known. But any altruistic system is inherently unstable, because it is open to abuse by selfish individuals, ready to exploit it. Individual humans who have more children than they are capable of rearing are probably too ignorant in most cases to be accused of conscious malevolent exploitation.”
According to Dawkins child adoption is against the instincts and interests of our “selfish genes”. “In most cases we should probably regard adoption, however touching it may seem, as a misfiring of an in-built rule,” says Dawkins. “This is because the generous female is doing her own genes no good by caring for the orphan. She is wasting time and energy that she could be investing in the lives of her own kin, particularly future children of her own. It is presumably a mistake which happens too seldom for natural selection to have 'bothered' to change the rule by making the maternal instinct more selective.”
He says that: “if a female is presented with reliable evidence that a famine is expected, it is in her own selfish interests to reduce her own birth-rate.” Dawkins also believes that natural selection would favour children who cheat, lie, deceive and exploit and that “when we look at wild populations we may expect to see cheating and selfishness within families. The phrase 'the child should cheat' means that genes which tend to make children cheat have an advantage in the gene pool.” 89
He concludes that the organism is a tool of DNA, rather than the other way around. These comments are interesting not so much for what they tell us about genes, but for what they reveal about the state of society in the last decade of the 20th century. In certain societies, powerful muscles or the ability to run fast can confer a genetic advantage. If a similar advantage is attributed to the propensity to lie, cheat and exploit, it must mean that such features are the qualities most necessary to succeed in modern society, and this is perfectly correct from the standpoint of the advocates of “market values”. While it is extremely questionable that such qualities can, in fact, be passed on through the genetic mechanism, it is certainly the fact that they form the most essential features of the egoism of the bourgeois. The “war of each against all”, as old Hobbes puts it, is the basic standpoint of capitalist society.
Is it true that such a mentality is a genetically conditioned part of “human nature”? Let us remind ourselves that capitalism and its values has only existed at most for the last 200 years out of approximately 5,000 years of recorded history, and 100,000 years of human development. Human society, for the overwhelming majority of its existence, has been based on the principle of co-operation. Indeed, human beings could never have raised themselves above the level of animals without this. Far from being an essential component of the human psyche, competition is a recent phenomenon, a reflection of a society based on the production of commodities, which twists and perverts human nature into patterns of behaviour that would have been considered abhorrent and unnatural in the past.
It is too easy to blame some mysterious phenomenon such as “our genes” for the grasping self-centred morality of the market place. Moreover, this is not a question of zoology, but of social class. Individual capitalists compete against each other and do not hesitate to use any methods to ruin their rivals—lying, cheating, industrial espionage, insider dealing, predatory take-overs—these are considered to be normal commercial practice. From the standpoint of the working class, things are very different. It is not a question of individual morality, but precisely of social survival (the sociological equivalent of “the survival of the fittest”). The only power the working class possesses against the employers is the power of unity. That is precisely of co-operation.
Without organisation, beginning at the trade union level, the working class is only raw material for exploitation. The workers' need to combine in the defence of their interests is a lesson that has to be learned over and over again. Selfishness and “individualism” (in the bourgeois sense of the word) is quite self-defeating for the working class. Every strikebreaker is presented as a great defender of “individual freedom” by the millionaire press because it is in the interest of the employers to atomise the working class, to reduce it to its component parts, utterly at the mercy of Capital. Here too, the dialectical law holds good that the whole is greater that the sum of the parts. Consciously or not, those who present selfishness as an ideal, or at least as “human nature”, have taken up a definite position in relation to the struggle between wage labour and Capital, and cannot complain if they are criticised for providing grist to the Thatcherite mill.
Dawkins sees evolution not as the outcome of a struggle of organisms, but as a struggle between genes seeking to copy themselves. The bodies they inhabit are secondary. He discards the Darwinian principle that individuals are the units of selection. This is a fundamentally false idea. Natural selection deals with organisms, with bodies. It favours some bodies because they are better suited to their environment. The gene is a piece of DNA enclosed within the cell nucleus, large numbers of which contribute to the development of most body parts. This in turn is affected by a whole series of environmental factors, internal and external. Selection does not work directly on parts. Natural selection works on bodies because they are in some way “fitter”, i.e., stronger, fiercer, warmer, and so on. If there is a particular gene for strength or other such specific attributes, then Dawkins may be correct. But that is not the case. There is not one gene for one bit of anatomy. For instance, the instructions for the construction of the ear are contained in a host of separate genes, half of which have come from either parent.
As Stephen Jay Gould explained:
“It [natural selection] accepts or rejects entire organisms because suites of parts, interacting in complex ways, confer advantages…Organisms are much more than amalgamations of genes. They have a history that matters; their parts interact in complex ways. Organisms are built by genes acting in concert, influenced by environments, translated into parts that selection sees and parts invisible to selection. Molecules that determine the properties of water are poor analogues for genes and bodies.” 90
This analysis is backed up by Steven Rose in his criticism of Dawkins which we have already quoted. Dawkins' method leads him into the swamp of idealism, when he attempts to argue that human culture can be reduced to units he calls memes, which, apparently, like genes, are self-replicating and compete for survival. This is clearly wrong. Human culture is passed down from generation to generation, not through memes, but through education in the broadest sense. It is not biologically inherited but has to be painstakingly relearned and developed by each new generation. Cultural diversity is bound up not with genes but social history. Dawkins' approach is essentially reductionist.
Societies are broken down to organisms, organisms to cells, cells to molecules, and molecules to atoms. For Dawkins, human nature and motivation are to be understood by analysing human DNA. The same is true of James Watson (the discoverer, with Francis Crick and Rosalind Franklin, of the double helix) who said: “What else is there but atoms?” They never allow the existence of either multiple levels of analysis or complex modes of determination. They ignore the essential relations between cells and the organism as a whole. This empirical method, which emerged with the scientific revolution at the birth of capitalism, was progressive in its day, but has now become a fetter on the advancement of science and the understanding of nature.
The future of genetics
“Until very recently, the only access to the genes which shape the natural world was through environmental change. Now those genes can be manipulated directly. That makes a change easy, immediate and comprehensible; the technology that enables direct genetic manipulation also opens genes' activity up to inspection. But at the same time it makes change arbitrary, because genes that no animal would spontaneously evolve become possible. These new techniques give humanity unprecedented powers to change the world—and to change itself.” ( The Economist, 25th February 1995.)
Over the past three decades, colossal advances have been made in the field of molecular genetics. In 1972, the first gene was isolated and reproduced (“cloned”) in a laboratory. The consequences of this were so worrying, that scientists considered a voluntary moratorium on the recombination of the cloned genes into the DNA of other organisms. But now the introduction of cloned genes into humans has become almost routine. By the first decade of the next century scientists will know the true names of all the proteins in the human body. Such knowledge has tremendous implications for the future—for good or ill.
Until this moment, the gene was shrouded in mystery, like Kant's Thing-in-Itself. The gene was the stern master of human destiny, implacable, unalterable, unfathomable. To talk about our genes was not only to talk about our inheritance. It was to talk about our fate. And fate is a court against which there is no appeal. Until this moment. But now, for the first time in the history of life on our planet, the possibility exists of human beings controlling their own destiny, at the deepest levels. Contrary to the nonsense of the genetic reactionaries, it was never true that genes completely determined human evolution. Although they play a major role in human life, genes do not control it. At most, they establish certain parameters that limit or permit. But now the genotype itself, for the first time, is being brought under control. This is a revolutionary development, pregnant with great consequences for the future of humanity.
The emergence of life out of inorganic matter was a giant evolutionary leap. After a whole series of transformations, the development of a thinking brain as the product of social life and collective labour was another giant step. Matter becomes conscious of itself. Now, for the first time in four billion years, human beings are in the process of mastering the secrets of their own evolution. Natural selection ceases to be a blind, mysterious force. The all-powerful genotype can be brought under the control of the phenotype. Humankind has the potential to determine its own destiny, and modify the harsh dictates of natural selection.
“Just as organisms are interpretations of genetic information within a specific environment, so the use of this genetic knowledge will depend on the environments—economic and ethical, personal and political—in which that use is made. But those uses, good or ill, will surely be made. The genes that imperiously limited and permitted will be bent to human will; limits will become movable, permissions stretched. Genes have never been the complete masters of human destiny, but nor have they been humanity's servants. Until now.” ( The Economist, 25th February 1995)
It is as futile to bemoan these discoveries as it was for desperate groups of workers to break machines in the early days of the Industrial Revolution. The discoveries of science and technology are a vital part of the development of society, allowing humankind to gain greater control over the constraints imposed by nature. Only in this way can humanity become truly free. The problem is not what the human mind discovers. The problem is how the discoveries are used. The advances of science open a new and breathtaking horizon of unlimited human development. But there is another, darker side to all this. The 20th century carries a terrible message of what horrors can come from capitalism in its epoch of historical decline. The techniques of genetic engineering in the hands of uncontrolled monopolies, interested only in making big profits, poses a ghastly threat.
The entire development of technology, which is constantly breaking down all barriers, and uniting the world in a way that has never been seen before, is an argument in favour of a world planned economy. Not the monstrous caricature of Stalinism, but a democratically run society, in which men and women would achieve conscious control over their lives and destinies. On the basis of a harmonious planned economy, pooling the resources of the entire planet, a vista of unlimited development opens up. On the one hand, we have the task of nurturing our own world, of making it fit for human beings, of repairing the ravages caused by the greed of irresponsible multinationals. On the other, we have before us the greatest challenges yet contemplated by our species—the exploration of space, linked to the question of the future survival of humankind. The science of genetic engineering, now in its infancy, may in the future be linked to the demands of long space voyages. At present, this is in the realm of speculation. Yet the history of the last hundred years has shown just how rapidly ideas that seemed to be fantastic have been overtaken by reality.
What we see at this moment in time is a colossal potential. In the context of a democratic, harmoniously planned economy, where men and women freely and consciously determine their destinies, the science of genetics will cease to be a block on human progress and will take its proper place in the study and transformation of life itself. This is not fantasy, but corresponds to actual possibilities. In the words of Oliver Morton:
“The possibilities of this biology are almost endless. The natural world, including the human body and mind, will become malleable. Implanted organs may refashion the brain, designer viruses rebuild old tissue. Human organs grown in animals for transplant are already being designed. New types of creature may appear; creatures to marvel at. If humanity can find no peer among the stars, it could create new intelligences on earth. The genetic difference between man and chimp is small; new sentient species are not inconceivable.
“All this will be made possible by genetics. But, at the same time, the pre-eminence of the gene will fade away. Genes have lost their privileged position as the carriers of information. Biological information will be stored in minds and computers as well as in genes, and the genes will become just one of the many means of manipulating the world, appropriate for some things and not for others, just like therapeutic proteins…
“What was once unique to genes is now in humanity's grip. That grip could soon have all the power that has at times been attributed to genes and more. The same intelligence will be able to shape the gene and the environment, which between them make all organisms what they are. The control of biological information on this scale—of the raw data and the way that it is processed—means the control of biology, of life itself.” ( The Economist, 25th February 1995.)
81. Dobzhansky, T. op. cit., p. 21.↩
82. Wilson, E. Sociobiology—The New Synthesis, p. 575.↩
83. Dobzhansky, T. op cit., p. 264.↩
84. See Rose, S. L. Kamin and R. Lewontin, Not in our Genes, pp. 84, 86, 87, 96, 116 and 95.↩
85. Dawkins, R. The Selfish Gene, p. 108.↩
86. Ibid pp. 3 and 265-6.↩
87. Dawkins, R. The Extended Phenotype: The Long Reach of the Gene, pp. 10-11.↩
88. Rose, S.Molecules and Minds, pp. 64-5.↩
89. Dawkins, R. The Selfish Gene, pp. 126, 109, 129 and 150.↩
90. Gould, S. The Panda's Thumb, pp. 77-8.↩
**. This was written before the results of the Human Genome Project were known which has shown that the actual number of human genes is far less than what scientists supposed. See the comments in the preface to the second edition.↩
***. The Jukes and the Kallikaks were names given to two imaginary families used as examples during the latter 19th century and early 20th century to argue that anti-social behaviour or low intelligence was genetically determined. This idea that traits considered socially inferior could be transmitted genetically was used to argue in favour of eugenics, or the pseudo-scientific breeding of human beings, the Jukes Family representing inherited criminal tendencies and the Kallikak Family inherited mental retardation.↩