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Socialist Review, January 1994

John Baxter


Science for socialists

From Socialist Review, No. 171, January 1994.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.

The Doctrine of DNA: Biology as Ideology
R.C. Lewontin
Penguin £5.99

If there were a molecule for the 1990s it would be deoxyribonucleic acid, DNA, the stuff that genes are made of. Genes are the science fad of the moment. Most recently we’ve seen the reported discovery of a ‘gay gene’, but the argument that genes determine our behaviour is much older and much more all-embracing.

Men are naturally aggressive, women are naturally passive. We can’t escape it, it’s in our genes. People are naturally selfish, naturally scared of outsiders, some people naturally have more talent than others. Competitiveness, racism and inequality are all encoded on the human gene. Any hope of a more equal society, let alone socialism, must clearly be utopian nonsense.

Countering these arguments about genetics must be an important part of the socialist’s armoury. This short book of radio lectures by a leading geneticist is extremely welcome. In it Lewontin does not simply demolish the specific arguments used to link human behaviour to their genes. He launches a scathing attack on the simplistic assumptions which underpin most genetic research.

Lewontin’s starting point is to attack reductionism in science. He attacks the idea that essentially the world works like a giant clock, with every observable effect having a simple single cause. Much of science is concerned with the search for such simple monocausal explanations.

For example, in the 19th century scientists spent a great deal of time searching for the cause of tuberculosis. Eventually they found a germ, the tubercle bacillus. No one can get TB without ingesting this bug. But while TB raged in the sweatshops of Britain’s cities, it was virtually unknown in the ruling class. It’s reasonable to argue that the cause of TB was the social conditions of early industrial capitalism. The declining rate of TB in the late 19th century had more to do with the changes in these social conditions than any advances in medical science. The cause of the TB epidemic was the complex economic and social changes brought by the industrial revolution, not simply a bacterium.

Lewontin traces the rise of reductionism in science to the bourgeois revolutions in the 17th and 18th centuries. He argues that the science of the Middle Ages saw nature as a mystical whole. It could not be understood by being taken to pieces. This reflected the relation of the individual to society. Individuals were seen as merely representatives of wider social classes, ‘individuals were seen not as the causes of social arrangements, but their consequence’.

With the rise of industrial capitalism a new view of society emerged. The individual was seen as primary and independent, the worker ‘free’ to sell his or her labour. From then on ‘society was thought of as the consequence, not the cause, of individual properties’. Only by looking at the properties of the atoms, molecules, genes and cells could we understand the whole organism.

Reductionism in science led to huge breakthroughs in our understanding of the world. Where previously much of the world remained mystical and inexplicable, science began to give answers. The idea that natural substances contain some vital life-force and were hence impossible to isolate or synthesise was discarded. The development of drugs and modern medicine was made possible.

But nowhere in modern science are the weaknesses of reductionism more apparent than in biology. It has lead to the numerous attempts to justify the prevailing order by explaining human behaviour as resulting from our genes. Thousands of millions of dollars are being poured into the Human Genome Project, the attempt to chemically map the human gene. Its backer, the US government, expects to be able to use this information to explain the behaviour of ‘social misfits’ like the Los Angeles rioters. A leading proponent of the project was asked if the money would not be better spent on the homeless. His reply was ‘What people don’t understand is that the homeless are impaired ... Indeed, no group will benefit more from the application of human genetics.’

Lewontin explains how even the ‘behaviour’ of the simplest bacterium can only be understood by looking at how the whole organism interacts with its environment. Whether or not genetic information is expressed is often determined by the environment. In turn, the environment an organism experiences is determined by its behaviour and its physiology. To understand complex systems we have to consider the whole and the parts together.

If predicting the behaviour and characteristics of a bacterium from simply reading its genetic code is a non-starter, how much more difficult for a human being! He argues: ‘we are not determined by our genes, though surely we are influenced by them. [Our] development depends not only on the materials that have been inherited from parents – that is the genes and other materials in the sperm and egg – but also on the particular temperature, humidity, nutrition, smells, sights, and sounds (including what we call education) that impinge on the developing organism. Even if I knew the complete molecular specification of every gene in an organism, I could not predict what that organism would be.’

This is not a dry scientific text book. It is an exciting and political account of the state of modern genetic research. It contains a detailed attack on the Human Genome Project, and on the ‘infallibility’ of genetic fingerprinting. It debunks the ideas of sociobiologists like Richard Dawkins. Unfortunately it was written before the most recent ‘gay gene’ claims. Nevertheless it’s a useful addition to any socialist’s bookshelf. Non-scientists should not be put off. It is simply written and contains some absolute gems of information.

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