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It’s not all in the genome

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Issue 1703

What do socialists say?

It’s not all in the genome

By Paul Mcgarr

SCIENTISTS this week announced they had “cracked the code of life”. The culmination of the Human Genome Project was hailed as a revolutionary breakthrough. The Mirror claimed the project was “the greatest scientific achievement of our time”.

Scientists, it said, will have mapped all the genes in our bodies which “determine the shape and colour of your eyes, your height, your ability to absorb cholesterol, your sexual orientation and your susceptibility to disease”. The genes also “determine if you are gay, athletic, musically talented or a manic depressive. Some resear ch ers say your genes will even determine your criminal record.”

The Human Genome Project is the most expensive scientific project ever undertaken. Yet it is mostly a waste of money which will tell us few of the things claimed by its backers. Genes are chemicals in every cell in the human body, and of every living thing. They are made of four chemicals which are linked together in long chains in various combinations.

The idea of the Human Genome Project was to map the entire sequence of these chemicals. This “genome” would be the “blueprint for life”, and open the door to explaining human biology and behaviour, and herald miracle cures to disease. The whole notion is deeply flawed.

If the genome is a “blueprint”, it is only so in the sense of a very general definition of what a house is-it has walls, a roof and so on. Such a definition does not tell you the specific design of a particular house, still less how you go about organising the raw materials, tools and labour needed to actually build it.

Genes operate only as part of a complex series of chemical and biological processes. These involve a vast range of other chemicals interacting with each other and the wider environment. An understanding of all these elements, and the role of genes in them, is the foundation of a proper understanding of biology. The simplistic vision pushed by those behind the Human Genome Project is far from that.

They suggest there is a simple relation between individual genes and disease. That is simply false.

Cystic fibrosis, for instance, is “caused” by a defect in a single gene. Steve Jones is a leading geneticist who was involved in the work on cystic fibrosis. He points out that “the gene can be damaged in many ways. Every population, sometimes every family, may have its own mutation. “More than 1,000 different cystic fibrosis mutations are known. One illness, an alteration in a single gene, has a multiplicity of causes.”

For other diseases, he argues, “the problem is spectacularly worse”. For over a decade we have heard hype about how “gene therapy” would cure all sorts of disease. Yet as Steve Jones argues, “In spite of all the fuss about gene therapy there is not a single convincing case in which that treatment given alone has cured a disease.”

The idea that genes hold the key to complex social phenomena is even more laughable. There is not, nor can there be, a “gay gene”. Sexuality has a basis in biology but is a complex, socially constructed phenomenon which cannot be reduced to the workings of a string of chemicals.

Claims about a “criminal gene”, for example, are an attempt to deflect discussion from the real causes, which are social and linked to class and poverty, and from considering what is meant by crime.

Stealing to feed your family is crime. But sending innocent men to die a gruesome death, as the would-be future US president does, is not. What is particularly obscene about the Human Genome Project is the way profit-hungry corporations have seized on it to patent human genes.

These companies hope they can make millions from pushing genetically based “cures” based on such patents. They may well come a cropper on that quest. But in the process the same drive could see these patents used to release all sorts of untested and potentially dangerous chemicals and organisms.

If just a small part of what has gone into the project was used for more serious research, including genuine investigation of genetics, far more real scientific advances would be made.

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