the myths of DNA… and other aspects of modern science
This is a reproduction of pages 58 – 104 of R.C.Lewontin’s “Biology as Ideology”, published in 1991. Its central focus is a critique of the Human Genome Project. The Human Genome Project (HGP) was completed in 2003.
It illustrates how modern science is not only a means of state propaganda but also how it’s utterly determined by financial interests.
I have put this up here as a support for all those who refuse the state’s courts’ attempts to force DNA testing on anyone arrested (for instance, this nasty example of state brutality in the face of resistance to DNA sampling). DNA is used by the state to provide “objective” evidence of guilt in criminal cases. Supporters of DNA testing point to the fact that several innocent people have been freed as a result of DNA testing applied retrospectively, but whilst it can show innocence* it’s far more dubious as a means of assessing guilt than fingerprinting, for example. It is very easy to plant or mix up DNA from an innocent person at a crime scene, and there have been clear instances of people whose DNA has been found at crime scenes but who were clearly hundreds of miles away from the crime at the time of the crime. See this, for instance. Or this and this.
The following, then, are the two chapters from Lewontin’s book entitled The Dream of the Human Genome and A Story in Textbooks.
The Dream of the Human Genome
The practical outcome of the belief that what we want to know about human beings is contained in the sequence of their DNA is the Human Genome Project in the United States and, in its international analogue, the Human Genome Organization (HUGO), called by one molecular biologist “the UN for the human genome.”
These projects are, in fact, administrative and financial organizations rather than research projects in the usual sense. They have been created over the last five years in response to an active lobbying effort by scientists such as Walter Gilbert, James Watson, Charles Cantor, and Leroy Hood, aimed at capturing very large amounts of public funds and directing the flow of those funds into an immense cooperative research program.
The ultimate purpose of this program is to write down the complete ordered sequence of A’s, T’s, C’s, and G’s that make up all the genes in the human genome, a string of letters that will be 3 billion elements long. The first laborious technique for cutting up DNA nucleotide by nucleotide and identifying each nucleotide in order as it is broken off was invented fifteen years ago by Allan Maxam and Walter Gilbert, but since then the process has become mechanized. DNA can now be squirted into one end of a mechanical process and out the other end will emerge a four-color computer printout announcing “AGGACTT….”. In the course of the genome project yet more efficient mechanical schemes will be invented and complex computer programs will be developed to catalogue, store, compare, order, retrieve, and otherwise organize and reorganize the immensely long string of letters that will emerge from the machine. The work will be a collective enterprise of very large laboratories, “Genome Centers,” that are to be specially funded for the purpose.
The project is to proceed in two stages. The first is so-called “physical mapping.” The entire DNA of an organism is not one long unbroken string, but is divided up into a small number of units, each of which is contained in one of a set of microscopic bodies in the cell, the chromosomes. Human DNA is broken up into twenty-three different chromosomes, while fruit flies’ DNA is contained in only four chromosomes. The mapping phase of the genome project will determine short stretches of DNA sequence spread out along each chromosome as positional landmarks, much as mile markers are placed along superhighways. These positional markers will be of great use in finding where in each chromosome particular genes may lie. In the second phase of the project, each laboratory will take a chromosome or a section of a chromosome and determine the complete ordered sequence of nucleotides in its DNA. It is after the second phase, when the genome project, sensu strictu, has ended, that the fun begins, for biological sense will have to be made, if possible, of the mind-numbing sequence of three billion A’s, T’s, C’s, and G ‘s. What will it tell us about health and disease, happiness and misery, the meaning of human existence?
The American project is run jointly by the National Institutes of Health and the Department of Energy in a political compromise over who should have control over the hundreds of millions of dollars of public money that will be required. The project produces a glossy-paper newsletter distributed free, headed by a coat of arms showing a human body wrapped Laocoön-like in the serpent coils of DNA and surrounded by the motto, “Engineering, Chemistry, Biology, Physics, Mathematics.” The Genome Project is the nexus of all sciences. My latest copy of the newsletter advertises the free loan of a twenty-three-minute video on the project “intended for high school age and older,” featuring, among others, several of the contributors to a collection of essays about the Human Genome Project, The Code of Codes, and a Jendar of fifty “Genome Events.”
Another consequence of the conviction that DNA contains the secret of human life is the appearance of a large number of popular and semi-popular bocks touting the wonders of the Human Genome Project . None of the authors of these books seems to be in any doubt about the importance of the project to determine the complete DNA sequence of a human being. “The Most Astonishing Adventure of Our Time,” say Jerry E. Bishop and Michael Waldholz; “The Future of Medicine,” according to Lois Wingerson; “today’s most important scientific undertaking,” dictating “The Choices of Modern Science,” Joel Davis declares in Mapping the Code.
Nor are these simply the enthusiasms of journalists. The molecular biologist Christopher Wills says that “the outstanding problems in human biology.., will all be illuminated in a strong and steady light by the results of this undertaking”; the great panjandrum of DNA himself, James Dewey Watson, explains, in his essay in the collection edited by Kevles and Hood, that he doesn’t “want to miss out on learning how life works,” and Gilbert predicts that there will be “a change in our philosophical understanding of ourselves.” Surely, “learning how life works” and “a change in our philosophical understanding of ourselves” must be worth a lot of time and money. Indeed, there are said to be those who have exchanged something a good deal more precious for that knowledge.
Unfortunately, it takes more than DNA to make a living organism. I once heard one of the world’s leaders in molecular biology say, in the opening address of a scientific congress, that if he had a large enough computer and the complete DNA sequence of an organism, he could compute the organism, by which he meant totally describe its anatomy, physiology, and behavior. But that is wrong. Even the organism does not compute itself from its DNA. A living organism at any moment in its life is the unique consequence of a developmental history that results from the interaction of and determination by internal and external forces. The external forces, what we usually think of as “environment,” are themselves partly a consequence of the activities of the organism itself as it produces and consumes the conditions of its own existence. Organisms do not find the world in which they develop. They make it. Reciprocally, the internal forces are not autonomous, but act in response to the external. Part of the internal chemical machinery of a cell is only manufactured when external conditions demand it. For example, the enzyme that breaks down the sugar, lactose, to provide energy for bacterial growth is only manufactured by bacterial cells when they detect the presence of lactose in their environment.
Nor is internal” identical with “genetic.” Fruit flies have lone hairs that serve as sensory organs, rather like a cat’s whiskers. The number and placement of those hairs differ between the two sides of a fly (as they do between the left and right sides 0f a cat’s muzzle), but not in any systematic way. Some flies have more hairs on the left, some more on the right. Moreover, the variation between sides of a fly is as great as the average variation from fly to fly. But the two sides of a fly have the same genes and have had the same environment during development. The variation between sides is a consequence of random cellular movements chance molecular events within cells during development, so-called “developmental noise.” It is this same developmental noise that accounts for the fact that identical twins have different fingerprints and that the fingerprints on our left and right hands are different. A desktop computer that was as sensitive to room temperature and as noisy in its internal circuitry as a developing organism could hardly be said to compute at all.
The scientists writing about the Genome Project explicitly reject an absolute genetic determinism, but they seem to be writing more to acknowledge theoretical possibilities than out of conviction. If we take seriously the proposition that the internal and external codetermine the organism, we cannot really believe that the sequence of the human genome is the grail that will reveal to us what it is to be human, that it will change our philosophical view of ourselves, that it will show how life works. It is only the social scientists and social critics, such as Kevles, who comes to the Genome Project from his important study of the continuity of eugenics with modern medical genetics; Dorothy Nelkin, both in her book with Laurence Tancredi and in her chapter in Kevles and Hood; and, most strikingly, Evelyn Fox Keller in her contribution to The Code of Codes, for whom the problem of the development of the organism is central.
Nelkin, Tancredi, and Keller suggest that the importance of the Human Genome Project lies less in what it may, in fact, reveal about biology, and whether it may in the end lead to a successful therapeutic program for one or another illness, than in its validation and reinforcement of biological determinism as an explanation of all social and individual variation. The medical model that begins, for example, with a genetic explanation of the extensive and irreversible degeneration of the central nervous system characteristic of Huntington’s chorea, may end with an explanation of human intelligence, of how much people drink, how intolerable they find the social condition of their lives, whom they choose as sexual partners, and whether they get sick on the job. A medical model of all human variation makes a medical model of normality, including social normality, and dictates that we pre-emptively or through subsequent corrective therapy bring into line anyone who deviates from that norm.
There are many human conditions that are clearly pathological and that can be said to have a unitary genetic cause. As far as is known, cystic fibrosis and Huntington’s chorea occur in people carrying the relevant mutant gene irrespective of diet, occupation, social class, or education. Such disorders are rare: 1 in 2,300 births for cystic fibrosis, I in 3,000 for Duchenne’s muscular dystrophy, I in 10,000 for Huntington’s disease. A few other conditions occur in much higher frequency in some populations, but are generally less severe in their effects and more sensitive to environmental conditions, as for example sickle-cell anaemia in West Africans and their descendants, who suffer severe effects only in conditions of physical stress. These disorders provide the model on which the program of medical genetics is built, and they provide the human interest drama on which books like Mapping our Genes and Genome are built. In reading them, I saw again those heroes of my youth, Edward G. Robinson curing syphilis in Dr.Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet, and Paul Muni saving children from rabies in The Story of Louis Pasteur.
According to the vision of the project and its disciples, we will locate on the human chromosomes all the defective genes that plague us, and then from the sequence of the DNA we will deduce the causal story of the disease and generate a therapy. Indeed, a great many defective genes have already been roughly mapped onto chromosomes and, with the use of molecular techniques, a few have been very closely located and, for even fewer, some DNA sequence information has been obtained. But causal stories are lacking and therapies do not yet exist; nor is it clear, when actual cases are considered, how therapies will flow from a knowledge of DNA sequences.
The gene whose mutant form leads to cystic fibrosis has been located, isolated, and sequenced. The protein encoded by the gene has been deduced. Unfortunately, it looks like a lot of other proteins that are a part of cell structure, so it is hard to know what to do next. The mutation leading to Tay-Sachs disease is even better understood because the enzyme specified by the gene has a quite specific and simple function, but no one has suggested a therapy. On the other hand, the gene mutation causing Huntington’s disease has eluded exact location, and no biochemical or specific metabolic defect has been found for a disease that results in catastrophic degeneration of the central nervous system in every carrier of the defective gene.
A deep reason for the difficulty in devising causal information from DNA messages is that the same “words” have different meanings in different contexts and multiple functions in a given context, as in any complex language. No word in English has more powerful implications of action than “do.” “Do it now!” Yet in most of its contexts “do” as in “I do not know” is periphrastic, and has no meaning at all. While the periphrastic “do” has no meaning, it undoubtedly has a linguistic function as a place holder and spacing element in the arrangement of a sentence. Otherwise, it would not have swept into general English usage in the sixteenth century from its Midlands dialect origin, replacing everywhere the older “I know not”.
So elements in the genetic messages may have meaning, or they may be periphrastic. The code sequence GTAAGT is sometimes read by the cell as an instruction to insert the amino acids valine and serine in a protein, but sometimes it signals a place where the cell machinery is to cut up and edit the message; and sometimes it may be only a spacer, like the periphrastic “do,” that keeps other parts of the message an appropriate distance from each other. Unfortunately, we do not know how the cell decides among the possible interpretations. In working out the interpretive rules, it would certainly help to have very large numbers of different gene sequences, and I sometimes suspect that the claimed significance of the genome sequencing project for human health is an elaborate cover story for an interest in the hermeneutics of biological scripture.
Of course, it can be said, as Gilbert and Watson do in their essays, that an understanding of how the DNA code works is the path by which human health will be reached. If one had to depend on understanding, however, we would all be much sicker than we are. Once, when the eminent Kant scholar, Lewis Beck, was traveling in Italy with his wife, she contracted a maddening rash. The specialist they consulted said it would take him three weeks to find out what was wrong with her. After repeated insistence by the Becks that they had to leave Italy within two days, the physiclan threw up his hands and said, “Oh, very well, Madame. I will give up my scientific principles. I will cure you today.”
Certainly an understanding of human anatomy and physiology has led to a medical practice vastly more effective than it was in the eighteenth century. These advances, however, consist in greatly improved methods for examining the state of our insides, of remarkable advances in microplumbing, and of pragmatically determined ways of correcting chemical imbalances and of killing bacterial invaders. None of these depends on a deep knowledge of cellular processes or on any discoveries of molecular biology. Cancer is still treated by gross physical and chemical assaults on the offending tissue. Cardiovascular disease is treated by surgery whose anatomical bases go back to the nineteenth century. by diet, and by pragmatic drug treatment. Antibiotics were originally developed without the slightest notion of how they do their work. Diabetics continue to take insulin, and have for sixty years, despite all the research on the cellular basis of pancreatic malfunction. Of course, intimate knowledge living cell and of basic molecular processes may be useful e ally, and we are promised over and over that results are just around the corner. But as Miss Adelaide so poignantly complained:
You promise me this
You promise me that.
You promise me everything
under the sun.
When I think of the time gone by
I could honestly die.
Not the least of the problems of turning sequence information into causal knowledge is the existence of large amounts of’ “polymorphism.” While the talk in most of the books under review is of sequencing the human genome, every human genome differs from every other. The DNA I got from my mother differs by about one tenth of one percent, or about 3,000,000 nucleotides, from the DNA I got from my father, and I differ by about that much from any other human being. The final catalogue of “the” human sequence will be a mosaic of some hypothetical average person corresponding to no one. This polymorphism has several serious consequences. First, all of us carry one copy, inherited from one parent, of mutations that would result in genetic diseases if we had inherited two copies. No one is free of these, so the catalogue of the standard human genome after it is compiled will contain, unknown to its producers, some fatally misspelled sequences which code for defective proteins or no protein at all. The only way to know whether the standard sequence is, by bad luck, the code of a defective gene is to sequence the same part of the genome from many different individuals. Such polymorphism studies are not part of the Human Genome Project and attempts to obtain money from the project for such studies have been rebuffed.
Second, even genetically “simple” diseases can be very heterogeneous in their origin. Sequencing studies of the gene that codes for a critical protein in blood-clotting has shown that hemophiliacs differ from people whose blood clots normally by any one of 208 different DNA variations, all in the same gene. These differences occur in every part of the gene, including hits that are not supposed to affect the structure of the protein.
The problem of telling a coherent causal story, and of then designing a therapy based on knowledge of the DNA sequence in such a case, is that we do not know even in principle all of the functions of the different nucleotides in a gene, or how the specific context in which a nucleotide appears may affect the way in which the cell machinery interprets the DNA; nor do we have any but the most rudimentary understanding of how a whole functioning organism is put together from its protein bits and pieces. Third, because there is no single, standard, “normal” DNA sequence that we all share, observed sequence differences between sick and well people cannot, in themselves, reveal the genetic cause of a disorder. At the least, we would need the sequences ot many sick and many well people to look for common differences between sick and well. But if many diseases are like hemophilia, common differences will not be found and we will remain mystified.
The failure to turn knowledge into therapeutic power does not discourage the advocates of the Human Genome Project because their vision of therapy includes gene therapy. By techniques that are already available and need only technological development, it is possible to implant specific genes containing the correct gene sequence into individuals who carry a mutated sequence, and to induce the cell machinery of the recipient to use the implanted genes as its source of information. Indeed, the first case of human gene therapy for an immune disease—the treatment of a child who suffered from a rare disorder of the immune system— has already been announced and seems to have been a success. The supporters of the Genome Project agree that knowing the sequence of all human genes will make it possible to identify and isolate the DNA sequences for large numbers of human defects which could then be corrected by gene therapy. In this view, what is now an ad hoc attack on individual disorders can be turned into a routine therapeutic technique, treating every physical and psychic dislocation, since everything significant about human beings is specified by their genes.
However, gene implantation may affect not only the cells of our temporary bodies, our somatic cells, but the bodies of future generations through accidental changes in the germ cells of our reproductive organs. Even if it were our intention only to provide properly functioning genes to the immediate body of the sufferet~ some of the implanted DNA might get into and transform future sperm and egg cells. Then future generations would also have undergone the therapy in absentia and any miscalculations of the effects of the implanted DNA would be wreaked on our descendants to the remotest time. So David Suzuki and Peter Knudtson make it one of their principles of “genethics” (they have self-consciously created ten of them) that
while genetic manipulation of human somatic cells may lie in the realm of personal choice, tinkering with human germ cells does not. Germ-cell therapy, without the consent of all members of society, ought to be explicitly forbidden.
Their argument against gene therapy is a purely prudential one, resting on the imprecision of the technique and the possibility that a “bad” gene today might turn out to be useful someday. This seems a slim base for one of the Ten Commandments of biology, for, after all, the techniques may get a lot better and mistakes can always be corrected by another round of gene therapy. The vision of power offered to us by gene therapists makes gene transfer seem rather less permanent than a silicone implant or a tummy tuck. The bits of ethics in Genethics is, like a Unitarian sermon, nothing that any decent person could quarrel with. Most of the “genethic principles” turn out to be, in fact, prudential advice about why we should not screw around with our genes or those of other species. While most of their arguments are sketchy, Suzuki and Knudtson are the only authors among those under review who take seriously the problems presented by genetic diversity among individuals, and who attempt to give the reader enough understanding of the principles of population genetics to think about these problems.
Most death, disease, and suffering in rich countries do not arise from muscular dystrophy and Huntington’s chorea, and, of course, the majority of the world’s population is suffering from one consequence or another of malnutrition and overwork. For Americans, it is heart disease, cancer, and stroke that are the major killers, aecountingfor 70 percent of deaths, and about 60 million people suffer from chronic cardiovascular disease. Psychiatric suffering is harder to estimate, but before the psychiatric hospitals were emptied in the 1960s, there were 750,000 psychiatric inpatients. It is now generally accepted that some fraction of cancers arise on a background of genetic predisposition. That is, there are a number of genes known, the so-called oncogenes, that have information about normal cell division. Mutations in these genes result (in an unknown way) in mating cell division less stable and more likely to occur at a pathologically high rate. Although a number of such genes have been located, their total number and the proportion of all cancers influenced by them is unknown.
In no sense of simple causation are mutations in these genes the cause of cancer, although they may be one of many predisposing conditions. Although a mutation leading to extremely elevated cholesterol levels is known, the great mass of cardiovascular disease has Litterly defied genetic analysis. Even diabetes, which has long been known to run in families, has never been tied to genes and there is no better evidence for a genetic predisposition to it in 1992 than there was in 1952 when serious genetic studies began. No week passes without the announcement in the press of a “possible” genetic cause of some human ill which upon investigation “may eventually lead to a cure.” No literate public is unassailed by the claims. The Alorgunbladid of Reykjavik asks its readers rhetorically, “Med alit I genunurn?” (“Is it all in the genes?”) in a Sunday supplement.
The rage for genes reminds us of Tulipomania and the South Sea Bubble in McKay’s Great Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. Claims for the definitive location of a gene for schizophrenia and manic depressive syndrome using DNA markers have been followed repeatedly by retraction of the claims and contrary claims as a few more members of a family tree have been observed, or a different set of families examined. In one notorious case, a claimed gene for manic depression, for which there was strong statistical evidence, was nowhere to be found when two members of the same family group developed symptoms. The original claim and its retraction both were published in the international journal Nature, causing David Baltimore to cry out at a scientific meeting, “Setting myself up as an average reader of Nature, what am I to believe?” Nothing.
Some of the wonder-workers and their disciples see even beyond the major causes of death and disease. They have an image of social peace and order emerging from the DNA data bank at the National Institutes of Health. The editor of the most prestigious general American scientific journal, Science, an energetic publicist for large DNA sequencing projects, in special issues of his journal filled with full-page multicolored advertisements from biotechnology equipment manufacturers, has visions of genes for alcoholism, unemployment, domestic and social violence, and drug addiction. What we had previously imagined to be messy moral, political, and economic issues turn out, after all, to be simply a matter of an occasional nucleotide substitution. While the notion that the war on drugs will be won by genetic engineering belongs to Cloud Cuckoo Land, it is a manifestation of a serious ideology that is continuous with the eugenics of an earlier time.
Daniel Kevles has quite persuasively argued in his earlier book on eugenics that classical eugenics became transformed from a social program of general population improvement into a family program of providing genetic knowledge to individuals facing reproductive decisions. But the ideology of biological determinism on which eugenics was based has persisted and, as is made clear in Kevles’s excellent short history of the Genome Project in The Code of Codes, eugenics in the social sense has been revivified. This has been in part a consequence of the mere existence of the Genome Project, with its accompanying public relations, and the heavy public expenditure it will require. These alone validate its determinist Weltanschauung. The publishers declare the glory of DNA and the media showeth forth its handiwork.
The nine books I have mentioned here are only a sample of what has been and what is to come. The cost of sequencing the human genome is estimated optimistically at 300 million dollars (10 cents a nucleotide for the 3 billion nucleotides of the entire genome), but if development costs are included it surely cannot be less than half a billion in current dollars. In fact, the managers of the project are hoping for a budget of 200 million dollars a year for fifteen years. Moreover the genome project sensu strictu is only the beginning of wisdom. Yet more hundreds of millions must be spent on chasing down the elusive differences in DNA for each specific genetic disease, of which some 3,000 are now known, and some considerable fraction of that money will stick to entrepreneurial molecular geneticists. None of our authors has the bad taste to mention that many molecular geneticists of repute, including several of the essayists in The Code of Codes, are founders, directors, officers, and stockholders in commercial biotechnology firms, including the manufacturers of the supplies and equipment used in sequencing research. Not all authors have Norman Mailer’s openness when they write advertisements for themselves.
It has been clear since the first discoveries in molecular biology that “genetic engineering,” the creation to order of genetically altered organisms, has an immense possibility for producing private profit. If the genes that allow clover plants to manufacture their own fertilizer out of the nitrogen in the air could be transferred to maize or wheat, farmers would save great sums and the producers of the engineered seed would make a great deal of money. Genetically engineered bacteria grown in large fermenting vats can be made into living factories to produce rare and costly molecules for the treatment of viral diseases and cancer. A bacterium has already been produced that will eat raw petroleum, making oil spills biodegradable. As a consequence of these possibilities, molecular biologists have become entrepreneurs. Many have founded biotechnology firms funded by venture capitalists. Some have become very rich when a successful public offering of their stock has made them suddenly the holders of a lot of valuable paper. Others find themselves with large blocks of stock in international pharmaceutical companies who have bought out the biologist’s mom-and-pop enterprise and acquired their expertise in the bargain.
No prominent molecular biologist of my acquaintance is without a financial stake in the biotechnology business. As a result, serious conflicts of interest have emerged in universities and in government service. In some cases graduate students working under entrepreneurial professors are restricted in their scientific interchanges, in case they might give away potential trade secrets. Research biologists have attempted, sometimes with success, to get special dispensations of space and other resources from their universities in exchange for a piece of the action. Biotechnology joins basketball as an important source of educational cash.
Public policy too, reflects private interest. James Dewey Watson resigned in April as head of the NIH Human Genome Office as a result of pressure put on him by Bernardine Healey, Director of the NIH. The immediate form of this pressure was an investigation by Healey of the financial holdings of Watson or his immediate family in various biotechnology firms. But nobody in the molecular biological community believes in the seriousness of such an investigation, because everyone including Dr.Healey knows that there are no financially disinterested candidates for Watson’s job. What is really at issue isa disagreement about patenting the human genome. Patent law prohibits the patenting of anything that is “natural,” so, for example, if a rare plant discovered in the Amazon whose leaves could cure cancer, no one could patent it. But, it is argued, isolated genes are not natural, even though the organism from which they are taken may be. If human DNA sequences are to be the basis of future therapy, then the exclusive ownership of such DNA sequences would he money in the bank.
Dr. Healey wants the NIH to patent the human genome to prevent private entrepreneurs, and especially foreign capital, from controlling what has been created with American public funding. Watson, whose family is reported to have a financial stake in the British pharmaceutical firm Glaxo, has characterized Healey’s plan as “sheer lunacy,” on the grounds that it will slow down the acquisition of sequence information. (Watson has denied any conflict of interest.) Sir Walter Bodmer, the director of the imperial Cancer Research Fund, and a major figure in the European Genome organization, spoke the truth that we all know lies behind the hype of the human Genome Project when he told The Wall Street Journal that “the issue [of ownership] is at the heart of everything we do.”
The study of DNA is an industry with high visibility, a claim on the public purse, the legitimacy of a science, and the appeal that it will alleviate individual and social suffering. So its basic ontological claim, of the dominance of the Master Molecule over the body physical and the body politic, becomes part of general consciousness. Evelyn Fox Keller’s chapter in The Code of Codes brilliantly traces the percolation of this consciousness through the strata of the state, the universities, and the media, producing an unquestioned consensus that the model of cystic fibrosis is a model of the world. Daniel Koshland, the editor of Science, when asked why the Human Genome Project funds should not be given instead to the homeless, answered, “What these people don’t realize is that the homeless are impaired…Indeed, no group will benefit more from the application of human genetics.”2
Beyond the building of a determinist ideology, the concentration of knowledge about DNA has direct practical, social and political consequences, what Dorothy Nelkin and Laurence Tancredi call “The Social Power of Biological Information.” Intellectuals in their self-flattering wish-fulfillment say that knowledge is power, but the truth is that knowledge further empowers only those who have or can acquire the power to use it. My possession of a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering and the complete plans of a nuclear power station will not reduce my electric bill by a penny. So with the information contained in DNA, there is no instance where knowledge of one’s genes does not further concentrate the existing relations of power between individuals and between the individual and institutions.
When a woman is told that the foetus she is carrying has a 50 percent chance of contracting cystic fibrosis, or for that matter that it will be a girl although her husband desperately wants a boy, she does not gain additional power just by having that knowledge, but is only forced by it to decide and to act within the confines of her relation to the state and her family. Will her husband agree to or demand, an abortion, will the state pay for it, will her doctor perform it? The slogan “a woman’s right to choose” is a slogan about conflicting relations of power, as Ruth Schwartz Cowan makes clear in her essay “Genetic Technology and Reproductive Choice: An Ethics for Autonomy” in The Code of Codes.
Increasingly, knowledge about the genome is becoming an element in the relation between individuals and institutions, generally adding to the power of institutions over individuals. The relations of individuals to the providers of health care, to the schools, to the courts, to employers are all affected by knowledge, or the demand for knowledge, about the state of one’s DNA. In the essays by both Henry Greeley and Dorothy Nelkin in The Code oj Codes, and in much greater detail and extension in Dangerous Diagnostics, the struggle over biological information is revealed. The demand by employers for diagnostic information about the DNA of prospective employees serves the firm in two ways. First, as providers of health insurance, either directly or through their payment of premiums to insurance companies, employers reduce their wage bill by hiring only workers with the best health prognoses. Second, if there are workplace hazards to which employees may be in different degrees sensitive, the employer may refuse to employ those whom it )LIdges to be sensitive. Not only does such employment exclusion reduce the potential costs of health insurance, but it shifts the responsibility of providing a safe and healthy workplace from the employer to the worker. It becomes the worker’s responsibility to look for work that is not threatening. After all, the employer is helping the workers by providing a free test of susceptibilities and so allowing them to make more informed choices of the work they would like to do. Whether other work is available at all, or worse paid, or more dangerous in other ways, or only in a distant place, or extremely unpleasant and debilitating is simply part of the conditions of the labor market. So Koshland is right after all. Unemployment and homelessness do indeed reside in the genes.
Biological information has also become critical in the relation between individuals and the state, for DNA has the power to put a tongue in every wound. Criminal prosecutors have long hoped for a way to link accused persons to the scene of a crime when there are no fingerprints. By using DNA from a murder victim and comparing it with DNA from dried blood found on the person or property of the accused, or by comparing the accused’s DNA with DNA from skin scrapings under the fingernails of a rape victim, prosecutors attempt to link criminal and crime. Because of the polymorphism of DNA from individual to individual, a definitive identification is, in principle, possible. But, in practice, only a bit of DNA can be used for identification so there is some chance that the accused will match the DNA from the crime scene even though someone else is in fact guilty.
Moreover, the methods used are prone to error, and false matches (as well as false exclusions) can occur. For example, the FBI characterized the DNA of a sample of 225 FBI agents and then, on a retest of the same agents, found a large number of mismatches. Matching is almost always done at the request of the prosecutor, because tests are expensive and most defendants in assault cases are represented by a public defender or court-appointed lawyer. The companies who do the testing have a vested commercial interest in providing matches, and the FBI, which also does some testing, is an interested party.
Because different ethnic groups differ in the frequency of the various DNA patterns, there is also the problem of the appropriate reference group to whom the defendant is to be compared. The identity of that reference group depends in complex ways on the circumstances of the case. If a woman who is assaulted lives in Harlem near the borderline between black, Hispanic, and white neighborhoods at 110th Street, which of these populations or combination of them is appropriate for calculating the chance that a “random” person would match the DNA found at the scene of the crime? A paradigm case was tried last year in Franklin County, Vermont. DNA from blood stains found at the scene of a lethal assault matched the DNA of an accused man. The prosecution compared the pattern with population samples of various racial groups, and claimed that the chance that a random person other than the accused would have such a pattern was astronomically low.
Franklin County, however, has the highest concentration of Abenaki Indians and Indian/European admixture of any county in the state. The Abenaki and Abenaki/French Canadian population are a chronically poor and underemployed sector in rural Franklin County and across the border in the St. Jacques River region of Canada, where they have been since the Western Abenaki were resettled in the eighteenth century. The victim, like the accused, was half Abenaki, half French-Canadian and was assaulted where she lived, in a trailer park, about one third of whose residents are of Abenaki ancestry. It is a fair presumption that a large fraction of the victim’s circle of acquaintance came from the Indian population. No information exists on the frequency of DNA patterns among Abenaki and Iroquois, and on this basis the judge excluded the DNA evidence. But the state could easily argue that a trailer park is open to access from any passerby and that the general population of Vermont is the appropriate base of comparison. Rather than objective science we are left with intuitive arguments about the patterns of people’s everyday lives.
The dream of the prosecutor, to be able to say, “Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, the chance that someone other than the defendant could be the criminal is 1 in 3,426,327” has very shaky support. When biologists have called attention to the weaknesses of the method in court or in scientific publications they have been the objects of considerable pressure. One author was called twice by an agent of the Justice Department, in what the scientist describes as intimidating attempts to have him withdraw a paper in press.3 Another was asked questions about his visa by an FBI agent attorney when he testified, a third was asked by a prosecuting attorney how he would like to spend the night in jail, and a fourth received a fax demand from a federal prosecutor requiring him to produce peer reviews of a journal article he had submitted to the American Journal of Hwnan Genetics, fifteen minutes before a fax from the editor of the journal informed the author of the existence of the reviews and their contents. Only one of the authors discussed here, Christopher Wills, discusses the forensic use of DNA, and he has been a prosecution witness himself. He is dismissive of the problems and seems to share with prosecutors the view that the nature of the evidence is less important than the conviction of the guilty.
Both prosecutors and defense forces have produced expert witnesses of considerable prestige to support or question the use of DNA profiles as a forensic tool. If professors from Harvard disagree with professors from Yale (as in this ease), what is a judge to do? Under one legal precedent, the so-called “Frye rule, “‘4 such a disagreement is cause for barring the evidence which “must be sufficiently established to have gained general acceptance in the particular field in which it belongs.” But all jurisdictions do not follow Frye, and what is “general acceptance,” anyway? In response to mounting pressure from the courts and the Department of Justice, the National Research Council was asked to form a Committee on DNA Technology in Forensic Science, to produce a definitive report and recommendations. They have now done so, adding greatly to the general confusion.5
Two days before the public release of the report, The New York Times carried a front-page article by one of its most experienced and sophisticated science reporters, announcing that the NRC Committee had recommended that DNA evidence be barred from the courts. This was greeted by a roar of protest from the committee, whose chairman, Victor McKusick of Johns Hopkins University, held a press conference the next morning to announce that the report, in fact, approved of the forensic use of DNA substantially as it was now practiced. The Times, acknowledging an “error,” backed off a bit, but not much, quoting various experts who agreed with the original interpretation. A member of the committee was quoted as saying he had read the report “fifty times” but hadn’t really intended to make the criticisms as strong as they actually appeared in the text.
One seems to have hardly any other choice but to read the report for oneself. As might be expected the report says in effect, “none of the above,” but in substance it gives prosecutors a pretty tough row to hoe. Nowhere does the report give wholehearted support to DNA evidence as currently used. The closest it comes is to state:
The current laboratory procedure for detecting DNA variation is fundementallv sound [emphasis added]. . . . It is now clear that DNA typing methods are a most powerful adjunct to forensic science for personal identification and have immense benefit to the public.
and further that
DNA typing is capable, in principle, of an extremely low inherent rate of false results [emphasis added].
Unfortunately for the courts looking for assurances, these statements are immediately preceded by the following:
The committee recognizes that standardization of practices in forensic laboratories in general is more problematic than in other laboratory settings; stated succinctly, forensic scientists have little or no control over the nature, condition,form, or amount of sample with which they must work.
Not exactly the ringing endorsement suggested by Professor McKusick’s press conference. On the other hand, there are no statements calling for the outright barring of DNA evidence. There are, however, numerous recommendations which, taken seriously, will lead any moderately businesslike defense attorney to file an immediate appeal of any case lost on DNA evidence. On the issue of laboratory reliability the report says:
Each forensic-science laboratory engaged in DNA typing must have a formal, detailed quality-assurance and quality control program to monitor work.
Quality-assurance programs in individual laboratories alone are insufficient to ensure high standards. External mechanisms are needed. . . . Courts should require that laboratories providing DNA typing evidence have proper accreditation for each DNA typing method used.
The committee then discusses mechanisms of quality control and accreditation in greater detail. Since no laboratory currently meets those requirements and no accreditation agency now exists, it is hard to see how the committee’s report can be read as an endorsement of the current practice of presenting evidence, On the critical issue of population comparisons the eomnlittee actually uses legal language sufficient to bar any of the one-ina-million claims that prosecutors have relied on to dazzle juries:
Because it is impossible or impractical to draw a large enough population to test directly calculated frequencies of any particular profile much below I in I ,000, there is not a sufficient body of empirical data on which to base a claim that such frequency calculations are reliable or valid.
“Reliable” and “valid” are terms of art here and Judge Jack Weintein, who was a member of the committee, certainly knew that. This sentence should be copied in large letters and hung framed on the wall of every public defender in the United States. On balance, The New York Times had it right the first time. Whether by ineptitude or design the NRC Committee has produced a document rather more resistant to spin than some may have hoped.
In order to understand the committee’s report, one must understand the committee and its sponsoring body. The National Academy of Sciences is a self-perpetuating honorary society of prestigious American scientists, founded during the Civil War by Lincoln to give expert advice on technical matters. During the Great War, Woodrow Wilson added the National Research Council as the operating arm of the Academy, which could not produce from its own ranks of eminent ancients enough technical competence to deal with the growing complexities of the government’s scientific problems. Any arm of the state can commission an NRC study and the present one was paid for by the FBI, the NIH Human Genome Center, the National Institute of Justice, the National Science Foundation, and two non-federal sources, the Sloan Foundation and the State Justice Institute.
Membership in study committees almost inevitably includes divergent prejudices and conflicts of interest. The Forensic DNA Committee included people who had testified on both sides of the issue in trials and at least two members had clear financial conflicts of interest. One was forced to resign near the end of the committee’s deliberations when the full extent of his conflicts was revealed. A preliminary version of the report, much less tolerant of DNA profiling methods, was leaked to the FBI by two members of the committee, and the Bureau made strenuous representations to the committee to get them to soften the offending sections. Because science is supposed to find objective truths that are clear to those with expertise, NRC findings do not usually contain majority and minority reports, and, of course, in the present case a lack of unanimity would be the equivalent of a negative verdict. So we may expect reports to contain contradictory compromises among contending interests, and public pronouncements about a report may be in contradiction to its effective content. DNA Technology in Forensic Science in its formation and content is a gold-mine for the serious students of political science and scientific politics.
There is no aspect of our lives, it seems, that is not within the territory claimed by the power of DNA. In 1924, William Bailey published in The Washington Post an article about “radithor”, a radioactive water of his own preparation, under the headline, “Science to Cure All the Living Dead. What a Famous Savant has to Say about the New Plan to Close up the Insane Asylums, Wipe Out Illiteracy and Make over the Morons by his Method of Gland Control”6. Nothing was more up-to-date in the 1920s than a combination of radioactivity and glands. Famous savants, it seems, still have access to the press in their efforts to sell us, at a considerable profit, the latest concoction.
A Story In Textbooks
The claim that all of human existence is controlled by our DNA is a popular one. It has the effect of legitimizing the structures of society in which we live, because it does not stop with the assertion that the differences in temperament, ability, and physical and mental health between us are coded in our genes. It also claims that the political structures of society – the competitive, entrepreneurial, hierarchical society in which we live and which differentially rewards different temperaments, different cognitive abilities, and different mental attitudes — is also determined by our DNA, and that it is, therefore, unchangeable. For after all, even if we were biologically different from one another, that in itself would not guarantee that society would have given different power and status to people who are different. That is, to make the ideology of biological determinism complete, we have to have a theory of unchangeable human nature, a human nature that is coded in our genes.
Every political philosophy has to begin with a theory of human nature. Surely, if we cannot say what it is to be truly human, we cannot argue for one or another form of social organization. Social revolutionaries, especially, must have a notion of what it is to be truly human because the call for revolution is the call for the spilling of blood and a wholesale reorganization of the world. One cannot call for a violent overthrow of what is, without claiming that what will be is more in accord with the true nature of human existence. So, even Karl Marx, whose view of society was an historical one, nevertheless believed that there was a true human nature and that human beings realize themselves in their essence by a planned social manipulation of nature for human welfare.
The problem for political philosophers has always been to try to justify their particular view of human nature. Before the seventeenth century, the appeal was made to divine wisdom. God had made people in a certain way. Indeed, they were made in God’s image, although a rather blurred one, and moreover, human beings were basically sinful from the time of Adam and Eve’s Fall. But modem secular technological society cannot draw its political claims from divine justification. From the seventeenth century onward, political philosophers have tried to create a picture of human nature based on some sort of appeal to a naturalistic view of the world. Thomas Hobbes in his Leviathan, which argued for the necessity of the king, built a picture of human nature from the simplest axioms about the nature of human beings as organisms. To Hobbes, human beings, like other animals, were self-enlarging, self-aggrandizing objects that simply had to grow and occupy the world. But the world was a place of finite resources, and so it necessarily would happen that human beings would come into conflict over those resources as they expanded and the result would be what he called “the war of all against all.” The conclusion for Hobbes was that one needed a king to prevent this war from destroying everything.
The claims that organisms, especially human beings, grow without bound and that the world in which they grow is finite and limited are the two basic claims that have given rise to the modem biological theory of human nature. They resurfaced in the Reverend Malthus’s treatise on population, in his famous law that organisms grow geometrically in numbers while the resources for their subsistence grow only arithmetically, and so again a struggle for existence must occur. As we all know, Darwin took over this notion of nature to build his theory of natural selection. Since all organisms are engaged in a struggle for existence, those that are better suited by their shape and form, by their physiology, and by their behavior to leave more offspring in that struggle will do so, and the consequence will be that their kind will take over the earth. The Darwinian view is that whatever human nature may be, it, like everything else about humans, who are after all living organisms, has evolved by natural selection. Therefore, what we truly are is the result of two billions years of evolution from the earliest rudimentary organisms to us.
As evolutionary theory has developed over the last one hundred years and become technologically and scientifically sophisticated, as vague notions of inheritance have become converted into a very precise theory of the structure and function of DNA, so the evolutionary view of human nature has developed a modem, scientific-sounding apparatus that makes it seem every bit as unchallengeable as the theories of divine providence seemed in an earlier age. What has happened in effect is that Thomas Hobbes’s war of all against all has been converted into a struggle between DNA molecules for supremacy and dominance over the structures of human life.
The most modern form of naturalistic human nature ideology is called sociobiology. It emerged onto the public scene about 15 years ago and has since become the ruling justifying theory. for the permanence of society as we know it. It is an evolutionary and a genetic theory that uses the entire theoretical apparatus of modem evolutionary biology, including a great deal of abstruse mathematics, which is then translated for the inexpert reader in coffee-table books with beguiling pictures and in magazine articles and newspaper accounts. Sociobiology is the latest and most mystified attempt to convince people that human life is pretty much what is has to be and perhaps even ought to be.
The sociobiological theory of human nature is built in three steps. The first is a description of what human nature is like. One looks around at human beings and tries to build a fairly complete description of the features that are said to be common to all human beings in all societies in all places in all times.
The second step is to claim that those characteristics that appear to be universal in humans are, in fact, coded in our genes, that is, in our DNA. There are genes for religiosity, genes for entrepreneurship, genes for whatever characteristics are said to be built into the human psyche and human social organization.
These two claims — that there is a universal human nature and that it is coded in the genes and is unchangeable — would be sufficient as a biological theory of human nature in a purely descriptive sense. That is what we are; take it or leave it. But sociobiological theory, being built on evolutionary theory, goes one step further, as it must to fulfill its program. It must explain, and in some sense justify, how we come to have these particu] genes rather than some other genes that might have given quite a different human nature.
The theory thus goes on to the third step, the claim that natural selection, through the differential survival and reproduction of different kinds of organisms, has led inevitably to the particular genetic characteristics of individual human being characteristics that are responsible for the form of society. This claim strengthens the argument of legitimacy because it goes beyond mere description to assert that the human nature described is inevitable, given the universal law of the struggle for existence and the survival of the fittest. In this sense, the sociobiological theory of human nature puts on a mantle of universality and of utter fixity. After all, if 3 billion years evolution have made us what we are, do we really think that a hundred days of revolution will change us?
Sociobiologists take the first step, the claimed correct description of what is universal in all human beings, more or less as every human nature theorist has done it, by looking around to see what people in their society are like and to some extent by telling their own life stories. Having looked inward at themselves and outward at modem capitalist society for a description of human nature, they then extend it a bit further by looking into the anthropological record in order to assure us that those very same elements that they find in twentieth-century North America and Britain are also, in one form or another, displayed by the Stone Age people of New Guinea. For some reason, they do not look much at the historical record of European society, of which they seem to be quite ignorant, but perhaps they feel that if New Guinea highlanders and Scottish highlanders show the same characteristics today, then there cannot have been much change in 1,500 years of recorded history.
And what are these human universals that sociobiologists find? One can hardly do better than look at the most influential, and in some sense, founding document of sociobiological theory, E.O. Wilson’s Sociobiology. The New Synthesis.1
Professor Wilson tells us, for example, that human beings are indoctrinable. He says, “Human beings are absurdly easy to indoctrinate. They seek it.”2 They are characterized by blind faith: “Man would rather believe than know.”3 That statement is, we must note, found in what is called a scientific work, used as a textbook in courses all over the world, filled with the mathematics of modern population biology, crammed with observations and facts about the behavior of all kinds of animals, based on what Time magazine has called the “iron laws of nature.” But surely, “man would rather believe than know” is more in the line of barroom wisdom, the sort of remark one makes to one’s friend at the local after work following a particularly frustrating attempt to persuade the person in the next office that he ought to do things in a different way. Among other aspects of human nature are said to be a universal spite and family chauvinism. We are told that “human beings are keenly aware of their own blood lines and the intelligence to plot intrigue.”4 Xenophobia, the fear of strangers, is part of our universal equipment. “Part of man’s problem is that his intergroup responses are still crude and primitive and inadequate for the extending territorial relationship that civilization has thrust upon him.”5 One of the results of this, we are told, is that “the most distinctive human qualities have emerged during the phase of social evolution that occurred through intertribal warfare and through genocide.”6 And then there is the relationship between the sexes. Male dominance and superiority is part of human nature. Wilson writes that “among general social traits in human beings are aggressive dominance systems with males dominant over females.”7 The list is not complete. Nor is this simply the idiosyncratic view of one influential sociobiologist. The claims that human warfare, sexual dominance, love of private property, and hate of strangers are human universals are found over and over in the writings of sociobiologists, whether they be biologists, economists, psychologists, or political scientists.
But to make such claims, one must be quite blind even to the history of European society. Take, for example, the claim of a universal xenophobia. In fact, the attitudes of people toward foreign cultures and other countries have varied tremendously from social class to social class and time to time. Could the aristocracy of Russia in the nineteenth century, which thought all things Slavic to be inferior, which spoke French by preference, which looked to Germany for its military and technological resources, be described as xenophobic? Educated and upper classes in particular have often looked to other cultures for the highest and the best. English-speaking scientists on occasion are interviewed by Italian radio and television, and the answers given to the producer’s questions are translated into Italian, which the listeners hear in a voice-over after a few moments of the scientist’s English. When the producers are asked why they do not get an Italian scientist to do the program, they say that Italians simply do not believe any claims about science that are made in Italian and that they have to hear it in English if they are to believe it is true.
Nothing better reveals the narrow ahistorical claims of sociobiological description than the standard discussion of the economy of scarcity and unequal distribution. So, Professor Wilson writes that “the members of human societies sometimes cooperate closely in insectan fashion, but more frequently they compete for the limited resources allocated to their role sector. The best and the most entrepreneurial of the role actors usually gain a disproportionate share of the rewards while the least successful are displaced to other less desirable positions.”8 But this description completely ignores the immense amount of sharing of resources that occurs among a whole variety of modem hunting and gathering societies like Eskimos, and it completely distorts the history even of Europe. The concept of entrepreneurship does not work for, say, the thirteenth century in the Ile-de-France, an agrarian feudal society in which land could not be bought and sold, in which labor could not be hired and fired, and in which the so-called market mechanism was a rudimentary form of exchange of a few goods. Of course, sociobiologists recognize that there are exceptions to these generalizations, but their claim is that those exceptions are temporary and unnatural, and that they will not persist in the absence of constant force and threat. So, societies may indeed, like blue-clad regimented Chinese, cooperate in so-called insectan fashion. But this can be managed only by constant supervision and force. The moment one relaxes one’s vigil, people will revert to their natural ways. It is. rather as if we could make a law saying that everyone would have to walk on their knees, which would be physically possible but terribly painful. The moment we relaxed our vigil, everyone would stand upright again.
At the surface of this theory of human nature is the obvious ideological commitment to modem entrepreneurial competitive hierarchical society. Yet underneath is a deeper ideology, and that is the priority of the individual over the collective. Despite the name sociobiology, we are dealing with a theory not of social causation but of individual causation. The characteristics of society are seen as caused by the individual properties that its members have, and those properties, as we shall see, are said to derive from the members’ genes. If human societies engage in war, that is because each individual in the society is aggressive. If men as a group dominate women or whites Blacks, it is because each man as an individual is desirous of dominating each woman and each white person has feelings of personal hostility set off by the sight of Black skin. The structures of society simply reflect these individual predispositions. Society is nothing but the collection of individuals in it, just as culture is seen as nothing but the collection of disarticulated bits and pieces, individual preferences and habits.
Such a view completely confuses, partly by linguistic confusion, very different phenomena. It is obviously not the case that Britain and Germany made war on each other in 1914 because individual Britons and individual Germans felt aggressive. If that were the case, we would not need conscription. Englishmen, Canadians, and Americans killed Germans and vice versa because the state put them in a position that made it inevitable they did so. A refusal to be conscripted meant a jail term and the refusal to obey orders in the field meant death. Great machines of propaganda, martial music, and stories of atrocities are manufactured by the state to convince its citizens that their lives and the chastity of their daughters are at risk in the face of the threat of barbarians. The confusion between individual aggression and national aggression is a confusion between the rush of hormones that may be felt if someone is slapped in the face and a national political agenda to control natural resources, lines of commerce, prices of agricultural goods, and the availability of labor forces that are the origins of warfare. It is important to realize that one does not have to have a particular view of the content of human nature to make this error of individuals causing society. Prince Kropotkin, a famous anarchist, also claimed that there was a universal human nature but one that would create cooperativeness and would be anti-hierarchical if only it were allowed free play.9 But his theory was no less a theory of thee dominance of the individual as the source of the social.
Having described a universal set of human social institutions that are said to be the consequence of individual natures, sociobiological theory then goes on to claim that those individual properties are coded in our genes. There are said to be genes for entrepreneurship, for male dominance, for aggressivity, so conflict between the sexes and parents and offspring is said to be genetically programmed. What is the evidence that these claimed human universals are in fact in the genes’? Often, it is simply asserted that because they are universal they must be genetic. A classic example is the discussion of sexual dominance. Professor Wilson has written in The New York Times, “In hunter-gatherer societies, men hunt and women stay at home. This strong bias persists in most agricultural and industrial societies [apparently, he has not yet caught up with women in the workforce], and on that ground alone appears to have a genetic origin.”0 This argument confuses the observation with its explanation. If the circularity is not obvious, we might consider the claim that since 99 percent of Finns are Lutherans, they must have a gene for it.
A second evidence offered for the genetic determination of human universal traits is the claim that other animals show the same traits and, therefore, we must have a genetic continuity with them. Ants are described as making “slaves” and having “queens.” But the slavery of ants knows nothing of the auction block, of the buying and selling, of the essentially commodity nature of the slave relations of human society. Indeed, ant slaves are almost always of other species, and ant slavery has a great deal more in common with the domestication of animals. Nor do ants have “queens”. The force-fed egg factory encased in a special chamber in the middle of an ant colony that is called a queen has no resemblance to the life of either Elizabeth I or Elizabeth II or of their different political roles in society. Nor are the words “slave” and “queen” simply convenient labels. Ant “slavery” and ant “royalty” are claimed to have important causal continuity with their human counterparts. They are said to be products of the same forces of natural selection.
This confusion between qualities of animals and qualities of human society is an example of the problem of homology and analogy. By homologous traits, biologists mean those properties of organisms that are shared by different species because they have a common biological origin and some common biological genetic ancestry, and they derive from common features of anatomy and development. Even though they look very different and are used for very different purposes, the bones of a human arm and of a bat’s wing are homologous because they are anatomically derived from the same structures and influenced by the same genes. On the other hand, a bat’s wing and an insect’s wing are only analogous. That is, they look superficially alike and they seem to serve the same function, but they have no origin in common at the genetic or morphological level. But analogy is in the eye of the observer. How do we decide that slavery in ants and ant queens are like human slavery and like human royal families? How do we decide that the coyness we see in people is the same as the behavior in animals called coyness? What happens is that human categories are laid on animals by analogy, partly as a matter of convenience of language, and then these traits are “discovered” in animals and laid back on humans as if they had a common origin. There is in fact not a shred of evidence that the anatomical, physiological, and genetic basis of what is called aggression in rats has anything in common with the German invasion of Poland in 1939.
The third kind of evidence that is presented for a genetic basis of human social behavior is the report of heritability of human traits. Such characteristics as introversion and extroversion, personal tempo, psychomotor and sports activities, eroticism, dominance, depression, and even conservatism and liberalism are said to be heritable. But the evidence for the heritability of these traits is totally absent. We must remember that genetics is a study of similarity and difference between relatives. We judge things to be heritable if close relatives are more alike than distant relatives or unrelated persons. But the problem in human genetics in particular is that similarity between relatives arises not only for biological reasons but for cultural reasons as well, since members of the same family share the same environment. This has always been the problem of human genetics whether we are talking about traits of personality or anatomy. Most reports of the heritability of personality traits are simple observations that parents and children resemble each other in some respect. The highest similarity between parents and offspring for social traits in North America is for political party and religious sect, yet no serious person believes genes determine these attributes. The observation of similarity of parents and offspring is not evidence of their biological similarity. There is a confusion between the observation and the possible causes. The fact is, not a single study of personality traits in human populations successfully disentangles similarity because of shared family experience and similarity because of genes. So, in fact, we know nothing about the heritability of human temperamental and intellectual traits that are supposed to be the basis for social organization.
There is a deeper problem. To carry out a heritability study, even a correct one, we require differences between individuals. If everyone is identical in some respect, that is, if everybody has exactly the same genes for some characteristic, then there is no way to investigate its heritability, because genetic investigations require contrasts between individuals. Sociobiological theory claims that all human beings share genes for aggression, for xenophobia, for male dominance, and so on. But if we all share these genes, if evolution has made us all alike, in this human nature, then in principle there would be no way to investigate the heritability of the traits. On the other hand, if there is genetic variation among human beings in these respects, then on what basis do we declare that one or another manifestation is universal human nature? If it is genetically determined human nature that we are aggressive and like to go to war, then we must suppose that A.J. Mustie, the famous pacifist, lacked this gene and was, therefore, in some sense less than human. If, on the other hand, he possessed the gene but was a pacifist, the genes seem somewhat less than all-powerful in determining behavior. Why are we not all like A.J. Mustie? There are deep contradictions in simultaneously asserting that we are all genetically alike in certain respects, that our genes are all-powerful in determining our behavior, and at the same time observing that people differ.
Finally, there is an extraordinary biological naiveté and ignorance of the principles of developmental biology involved in assertions that genes make us behave in particular ways in particular circumstances. DNA functions in several ways in influencing the development of organisms.
First, the exact sequence of the amino acids in our proteins is coded in our genes, but no one would suggest that the amino acid sequence for a particular protein in itself can make us liberal or conservative. Second, genes influence when in the course of development and in which part of the body particular proteins are to be produced, and this in turn influences cell division and cell growth. So it might be claimed that there is a fixed pattern of neurons in our central nervous system, influehced by the turning on and turning off of genes during development, that makes us warlike or pacifist. However, this would require a theory of the development of the central nervous system that makes no allowances for developmental accidents and little or no role for the creation of mental structures by experience. Yet even the rudimentary social organization of ants, with their structure of work and interindividual relations that is so simple compared with ours, is very flexible with respect to information for the external world. Ant colonies change their collective social behavior over time and depending on how long the colony has occupied a given territory. It takes an enormous set of assumptions to suppose that the human central nervous system, with thousands of times more nervous connections than in an ant, has completely stereotyped and fixed genetic responses to circumstance. The incredible variety of human social circumstances would require an amount of DNA that we simply do not possess. There is enough human DNA to make about 250,000 genes. But that would be insufficient to determine the incredible complexity of human social organization if it were coded in detail by specific neuronal connections. Once we admit that only the most general outlines of social behavior could be genetically coded, then we must allow immense flexibility depending on particular circumstances.
The final step in the sociobiological argument is to say that the genes we possess for universal human nature have been established in us through evolution by natural selection. That is, once upon a time human beings varied genetically in the degree to which they were aggressive, xenophobic, indoctrinable, male dominant, and so on, but those individuals who were most aggressive or most male dominant left more offspring, so the genes that were eventually left in us as a species were the ones that now determine those traits. The argument of natural selection seems a fairly simple and straightforward one for some kinds of traits. For example, it is argued, the more aggressive of our ancestors would leave more offspring because they would swoop down on the less aggressive and eliminate them. The more entrepreneurial would have appropriated more resources in short supply and starved out the wimps. In each of these cases, it is easy to make up a ~plausible story that would explain the superior reproductive abilities of one type over another.
There are, however, some traits that are said to be universal and that do not lend themselves so easily to this story of individual reproductive advantage. An example, and one that is discussed a great deal by sociobiologists, is altruistic behavior. Why should we be cooperative under some circumstances, and why should we sometimes give up what appear to be immediate advantages for the benefit of others? To explain altruism, sociobiologists advance the theory of kin selection. Natural selection for a trait does not require that individuals possessing it leave more offspring but only that the genes coding the trait be represented in larger numbers in future generations.
There are two ways to increase the representation of one’s genes in future generations. One is to leave more offspring. The other is to arrange that even if one does not leave more offspring, one’s relatives do so, since close relatives share genes. So, a person could sacrifice his reproduction completely, provided his brothers and sisters left many more children. Thus, his kind of genes would increase indirectly through his relatives and, in this indirect way, he would leave more offspring. An example of this phenomenon is the occurrence of “helpers at the nest” in birds, in which it is said that nonreproductive birds help out their close relatives, who are then able to raise more than the ordinary number of offspring and in the end more family genes are left. To make kin selection work, a sufficient number of excess offspring must be left by relatives. For example, if an individual gives up its own reproduction, its brothers and sisters must have twice as many offspring as ordinarily, but one can at least tell a story that might make this plausible.
We are then left with those traits that do not even benefit relatives differentially, for example, a general altruism toward all members of the species. Why are we good to strangers? For this phenomenon, the sociobiologist provides the theory of “reciprocal altruism”. The argument is that even if we are unrelated, if I do you a favor that costs me something, you will remember that favor and reciprocate in the future, and by this indirect path I will succeed in advancing my own reproduction. An example often given is that of the drowning person. You see someone drowning and jump in to save that person even at the risk of your own life. In the future, when you are drowning, the person whose life you have saved will remember, and save you in gratitude. By this indirect path you will increase your own probability of survival and reproduction over the long run. The problem with this story is, of course, that the last person in the world you want to depend on to save you when you are drowning is someone whom you had to save in the past, since he or she is not likely to be a strong swimmer.
The real difficulty with the process of explanation that allows direct advantage, or kin selection, or reciprocal altruism when one or the other is useful in the explanation, is that a story can be invented that will explain the natural selective advantage of any trait imaginable. When we combine individual selective advantage with the possibility of kin selection and reciprocal altruism, it is hard to imagine any human trait for which a plausible scenario for its selective advantage could not be invented. The real problem is to find out whether any of these stories is true. One must distinguish between plausible stories, things that might be true, and true stories, things that actually have happened. How do we know that human altruism arose because of kin selection or reciprocal altruistic selection? At the very minimum, we might ask whether there is any evidence that such selective processes are going on at the present, but in fact no one has ever measured in any human population the actual reproductive advantage or disadvantage of any human behavior. All of the sociobiological explanations of the evolution of human behavior are like Rudyard Kipling’s Just So stories of how the camel got his hump and how the elephant got his trunk. They are just stories. Science has been turned into a game.
The entire process of sociobiological reasoning is illustrated by two cases, one meant only fancifully by sociobiologists as a teaching exercise, and one they take seriously. The fanciful one concerns the problem of why children hate spinach and adults like it. It is contained in a high-school textbook written by sociobiologists in order to train children in adaptive thinking.” The first step is the description of a human universal. All children hate spinach. To see the universal truth of this assertion, it is only necessary to look around and ask our friends. Moreover, when we look around we find that adults eat spinach. How has this happened? We imagine that there is a gene that causes children to hate spinach but allows adults to like it. Note that there is no evidence for such an unlikely gene. It is simply postulated. Spinach contains a substance, oxalic acid, that interferes with the absorption of calcium, which young children need for their growing bones. So any child in the past who had the wrong gene and ate spinach would have had defective growth, suffered from rickets, and might not have left many offspring. (Although it is far from clear that crooked legs interfere with reproduction and longevity.) On the other hand, adults’ bones have stopped growing, calcium is not so important to them, and they are free to take advantage of the nutrients in spinach, so there is no selection against their liking it. As a consequence, it is part of genetically determined human nature that children hate spinach but adults like it. We have a completely articulated story of a claimed urnversal fact of human nature. We should not let the silliness of this case distract from its essential features. It is meant to teach students all the elements of a naturalistic argument about human nature. It makes a generalized observation by looking around. It postulates genes without any evidence, and then it tells a plausible or perhaps not so plausible story.
Let us see how this is applied to a serious case and one widely discussed by sociobiologists: the existence in human societies of homosexuality. Homosexuality is claimed to be a biological problem because, after all, since homosexuals leave no offspring, the genes for homosexuality should have long ago disappeared. Why have they not? First, the sociobiologist makes the assumption that homosexuals leave fewer offspring. This implies a description of human sexual behavior in which the world is divided between heterosexuals and homosexuals, one class that leaves offspring and the other that does not. This description, however, does not correspond to our knowledge of human sexuality. In fact, the world is not divided between two classes. On the contrary, there is continuum of sexuality from persons who have never engaged in anything but heterosexual behavior, through those who have a somewhat wider range of experiences, through those who are regularly bisexual to those who are totally homosexual. According to a number of surveys, about half of all males in North America have had at least one homosexual contact. Moreover, this range of behaviors has varied historically by social class. There was widespread bisexuality among the upper classes in Classical Rome and Greece and, indeed, what were the usual homosexual practices in these societies were different from present practices. Moreover, there is, curiously enough, not an iota of evidence about the relative reproductive rates of people with different sexual histories. Obviously those who engage exclusively in homosexual behavior have, until the recent advent of artificial insemination, left no offspring. But nothing is known about the reproductive rates of those who are totally heterosexual as opposed to those who have a broad range of sexual experience. So, for example, we do not know whether a person who is heterosexual in 40 percent of his or her encounters and homosexual in 60 percent has fewer or more children than a person who is totally heterosexual. Indeed, we could make an argument that bisexuality is a manifestation of greater general libido, and it might turn out that bisexual people leave more offspring. We simply do not know the answer.
Second, there is absolutely no evidence that there are any genetic differences between individuals of different sexual preferences. If it were true that homosexuals left no offspring, there would be a certain problem in studying the heritability of homosexual behavior. In fact, there are no studies of the heritability of sexual preference, so the claims for genetic predisposition to different forms of sexuality are pure fancy.
Finally, there is the problem of an evolutionary story. The one told by sociobiologists is that of helpers at the nest. Homosexuals in the past, it is argued, did not themselves leave any offspring but helped their heterosexual brothers and sisters to raise more children by sharing resources with them, and this compensation was sufficient to keep the genes for homosexuality in the population. It must be remembered that the nonreproductive homosexuals must help their brothers and sisters so well that those relatives have twice as many offspring as usual if kin selection is to work. But there is no evidence for helpers at the nest in human societies. If our remote prehistoric ancestors were anything like modern hunting and gathering people, a general sharing of resources would be a common phenomenon not only within the family but within entire villages so that the “nest” included nonrelatives. But we know nothing about the relative number of offspring left at present by people who have homosexual brothers and sisters, for no one has ever measured family size in relation to this question.
Thus, the entire discussion of the evolutionary basis of human sexual preference is a made-up story, from beginning to end. Yet it is a story that appears in textbooks, in courses in high schools and universities, and in popular books and journals. It bears the legitimacy given to it by famous professors and by national and international media. It has the authority of science. In an important sense, it is science because science consists not simply of a collection of true facts about the world, but is the body of assertions and theories about the world made by people who are called scientists. It consists, in large part, of what scientists say about the world whatever the true state of the world might be.
Science is more than an institution devoted to the manipulation of the physical world. It also has a function in the formation of consciousness about the political and social world. Science in that sense is part of the general process of education, and the assertions of scientists are the basis for a great deal of the enterprise of forming consciousness. Education in general, and scientific education in particular, is meant not only to make us competent to manipulate the world but also to form our social attitudes. No one saw this more clearly, and was more honest about it, than one of the most conservative political figures in American history, Daniel Webster, who wrote that:
“education is a wise and liberal form of police by which property and life and the peace of society are secured.”
[the emphasis here is not in the original book…and just to clarify what is perhaps obvious, it would be more precise to say that “miseducation is a cleverly manipulative form of police by which capitalist property relations and the peace of class society are inculcated”]
*Note added, 29/2/16:
Apparently, even using DNA to “prove” innocence is dubious and often fairly arbitrary. A person’s DNA changes – and over a long period can change quite substantially. Which might be a good reason why the “guilty” in prison should also ask for DNA testing.