Ten years ago this week on 14 April, 2003 the Human Genome Project was completed.
At the time John Sulston, who led the international project in Britain, predicted that, “We are going to hold in our hands the set of instructions to make a human being.”
Science minister Lord Sainsbury said “We now have the possibility of achieving all we ever hoped for from medicine.”
Yet radical biologist Steven Rose says that the project has been a “failure”.
He points to the fact that promised insights into the molecular nature of human disorders—ranging from cancer to schizophrenia—have failed to materialise.
So what do the genome discoveries represent?
To answer this question it is necessary to consider a key feature of science—its claim to objectivity.
Karl Marx claimed that, “If the essence and appearance of things directly coincided, all science would be superfluous.” But since this essence is often concealed, we can only learn such truths in an indirect fashion.
This prompted the Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin to say that “human knowledge does not follow a straight line, [but] endlessly approximates a series of circles, a spiral.”
To uncover the essence of reality, scientists must put forward theories and then use experiment or observation to see if these match up to reality. But theories will also be influenced by the society in which they arise.
Gregor Mendel, a 19th century monk, first showed that certain characteristics of an organism can be passed down to future generations. This happened according to precise mathematical rules as if due to discrete elements, which Mendel called genes.
Such an idea was a huge step forward compared to the former belief that human characteristics are inherited by mixing of the blood.
And Mendel’s rules are still used today.
Yet his proposal was also influenced by an idea central to capitalism—that a complex system is simply the sum of its parts. This underlies both Margaret Thatcher’s notorious claim that “there is no such thing as society”, and Richard Dawkins’ concept of the “selfish gene”.
Yet the more we learn about the molecular structure of genes, the more it becomes clear that this idea is based on a crude and often misleading approximation of reality.
We now know that genes are made of DNA. It fulfills its role as the “blueprint of life” by coding for proteins—the building blocks of cells and organisms.
But many conditions seem to be determined by subtle differences in proteins that interact with each other. The genetics of such conditions is likely to be complex.
We’re learning more about heart disease or diabetes, and mental conditions like schizophrenia. And the more we learn, the more naive it seems that these could be influenced by just a few genes or that a catch-all drug could target them.
Does this mean scientists should give up on trying to identify a molecular basis for such disorders? I’d argue not.
There are exciting practical consequences of technologies unleashed by the Project.
The possibilities for identifying individual susceptibilities to disease are immense and, in cancer research at least, are starting to point to treatments.
Yet at the same time as capitalism throws up such amazing technologies, a child dies every eight seconds in Africa for lack of clean water.
That for me is the biggest indictment of the system we live under.