Socialist Worker

Tight genes support us

by Paul McGarr
Issue No. 1735

What a delicious week! The fallout from the Human Genome Project has quite simply shattered the central claim of those who say human behaviour is determined by our genes. Even sweeter is that among those who have disproved this notion are the very people who have been its champions.

For years you could hardly stir without being confronted with claims that genes determined everything. There were claims of a 'gay gene', an 'alcoholism gene' and a 'criminal gene'. There was never, of course, any investigation of whether a 'mad psychopathic bomber gene' was inherited by successive US presidents and British prime ministers.

Instead we got some real gems. My favourite was that genes programmed us to like 'landscape paintings of Capability Brown English-style parklands'. (I kid you not, this is from the Sunday Express.) More nastily, the old racist lie that somehow 'races' have genes giving them different 'intelligences' (in other words, whites are cleverer than blacks) was pushed.

There was and is a nasty right wing ideology behind it all-don't blame society for racism, homelessness and poverty, they are just the natural workings out of our biology. You don't have to be a rocket scientist or geneticist to see how this fitted with the pro-market, 'neo-liberal' agenda.

A minority of scientists argued against all this, pointing out it was unscientific rubbish. In the US the most prominent of the dissidents has been Richard Lewontin, in Britain Steven Rose. These people were ridiculed and rubbished at every turn by the genetic determinists.

Now just as the tide is turning globally against the market ideology of the 1980s and 1990s, it has decisively turned on the genetic determinists too. They have spent the last ten years pouring billions into the Human Genome Project, which has itself been a sordid tale of commercial rivalry. To their shock and amazement they have found that humans do not have the 140,000 or so genes they thought.

One of those centrally involved in the genome project, Craig Venter, points out why the number matters: 'If you think we are hard wired and that everything is deterministic, there should be a lot of genes because we have a lot of different traits. So I think a lot of people were expecting this to be the case.' Whoops! It turns out we have perhaps as few as 26,000 genes-far, far too few to allow any claims about any direct relationship between genes and human behaviour.

We only have twice as many genes as the humble fruit fly-and share many of the same genes-and have around the same number of genes as the thale cress plant. We are 85 percent genetically identical to dogs. The results show that all human beings are 99.99 percent identical in genetic make-up, making us all virtually 'identical twins'. One implication is simple. 'No serious scholar in this field considers race to be a scientific concept,' says Venter. 'It just is not. We all evolved as black Africans.'

Genes are important in shaping our basic biological make-up. But human behaviour and society are shaped by complex environmental and social factors-and those are something we can change.

As the genetic determinists see their ideology crash on the stubborn rock of fact, I do hope principled scientists like Richard Lewontin and Steven Rose will this week be having a chuckle.

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Sat 17 Feb 2001, 00:00 GMT
Issue No. 1735
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