Biology as Ideology [ePub]

by Richard C. Lewontin

This is the forth book based on the Massey Lectures that I’ve read.There has only been one that I didn’t really enjoy. All of the others have been utterly fascinating.This is particularly interesting – not least because for a couple of years now I’ve been meaning to finish reading Dawkins’ The Extended Phenotype and have struggled because I fundamentally disagree with its premise.Dawkins wrote The Extended Phenotype as a more strictly scientific defence of his idea that we are essentially large transport systems for our genes, that in as far as evolution is about replication that it is genes that replicate and that genes are essentially selfish (though, as he repeatedly points out – this doesn’t mean WE have to be).All of this is familiar territory from his The Selfish Gene.From this, and although Dawkins does not literally say this, it is not a great leap to saying that all of human culture is an extension of the needs of our selfish genes – or what he does literally say, “The doctrine of the extended phenotype is that the phenotypic effect of a gene (genetic replicator) is best seen as an effect upon the world at large, and only incidentally upon the individual organism—or any other vehicle—in which it happens to sit.”

To make this clear, although Dawkins says, “I agree with Pulliam and Dunford (1980) that cultural evolution 'owes its origin and its rules to genetic evolution, but it has a momentum all its own’” it seems to me an odd thing for him to say in a book called The Extended Phenotype.The main thesis of which does seem to be that much of what we see in the world is our genes extended out before us.

Lewontin and Dawkins come from opposite ends of biological spectrum and their arguments are bitter and acrimonious.Something both of them claim gives comfort to the real enemy – Creationism.I think they are both wrong here, as Creationist don’t even try to understand the arguments of either side and just congratulate themselves on the fact that scientist can disagree.Whereas to me the fact there is this argument is the best defence of the scientific method against mindlessness of faith that I can think of.

When this book was written the hype about the Human Genome Project was in full swing – Lewontin quotes dozens of books that came out at the time spruiking this most important scientific project since the Apollo mission.But being a sceptic when it comes to the extent that we are determined by our genes (the other book of his I have read is bluntly called Not In Our Genes) meant his being much less convinced that the supposed benefits of this project would automatically appear once the map had been produced.

The ‘promise’ of a mapped genome is that we will be able to cure a series of genetic disorders and illnesses once we compare its contours with those of a sick individual’s map.The logic of the argument runs a bit like this.We map the genetic code of a standardised human.We find people with genetic disorders.We compare their genes to those of the standardised human’s genes we have mapped.Any difference between the two is where the problem lies.Genes make proteins. So, when we work out which protein isn’t being made or is being improperly made due to the genetic stuff-up we can correct it and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well.

The problem is that this ‘simple’ model of how things will go papers over the cracks of the difficulties – and not just the practical difficulties, but also the deep theoretical problems this model raises.

Firstly, we have mapped the DNA of a kind of no man – a kind of standardised person.What we did not do was find the perfect human being and map their DNA – not only because such an individual does not exist, but also because such a concept simply doesn’t make sense.So, what do we have in our map of the human DNA?Well, this isn’t as easy a question to answer as it might seem.Let’s say you have a disease.We find the gene we think might be responsible for your disease and compare it with the mapped gene taken from the Genome Project.The idea is that the error will be immediately obvious, except when we have tried this the error isn’t at all obvious.The example given in the book is of people with haemophilia - that is, a disorder we know to have a genetic origin and one in which we can even identify the gene responsible.But we still have been unable to see what is wrong with the gene despite being readily able to compare ‘good’ and ‘bad’ genes.The problem seems to be that there are lots of ways these genes can be either ‘good’ or ‘bad’ and it is not all that clear what makes one good and the other bad.

The other problem is that genes come in pairs.So you get one pair from mum and one from dad.Let’s say the one you get from mum is faulty – well, then there is a pretty good chance the one you got from dad will be just fine and all will be well with the world.Except, that the Genome project mapped one of this pair of genes.So, which one has been mapped?What are the chances that the gene on the standard map is a dysfunctional gene?Well, that’s the question, isn’t it?A question I guess that will only be answered after a very long time and many, many comparisons between well and unwell people.

Lewontin makes a very strong case that what get called genetic disorders are much more complicated than just problems with our genes and often ought to be called social disorders.This is mostly the case because it is very hard to tell what is genetic and what is environmental.In fact, Lewontin feels this distinction (the nature / nurture distinction) is overstated or rather a misstatement of the issues that are better looked at as social issues.

Organisms often literally make there own environment.This was one of the most interesting ideas in the book, and one at least superficially similar to that quoted from Dawkins above.What is the environment that organisms live in? This sounds like an all too obvious question, except it is not nearly as obvious as it seems.We don’t live in THE environment and not just because we have built houses and cities, but because our bodies produce their own environment.He gives the example of wind chill.We literally create our own environment around our bodies, a warm coat of moist air.But given a little wind this environment is blown away and it makes us feel uncomfortable.More than this he points out that two organisms living in the same ‘place’ do not live in the same ‘environment’.He gives the example of phoebes and thrushes that may live in the same place, but for one a stone is not part of its ‘environment’ as the existence of the stone is quite irrelevant to it – but to the other, which may use the stone to break open a snail’s shell, it definitely is part of its environment.Often books on genetics and evolution make a much more strict boundary between internal gene and external environment – it seems this boundary is anything but fixed and obvious.

Dawkins, in The Extended Phenotype, makes the somewhat disingenuous statement that, “Homosexuality is, of course, a problem for Darwinians only if there is a genetic component to the difference between homosexual and heterosexual individuals.”I think this is disingenuous because this is exactly the kind of example that is always thrown up in support of Sociobiology.Sociobiology rarely has a problem with declaring just about everything has a genetic foundation.This is made very clear from a quote Lewontin provides from Daniel Koshland in defending the Human Genome Project from claims the money would have been better spent on the homeless, “What these people don’t realise is that the homeless are impaired … Indeed, no group will benefit more from the application of human genetics.”I, for one, find the implications of this nonsense chilling.In my world we fought the Second World War to overcome such monstrous ideas, but admittedly, that probably is only true in my world.Our culture’s obsession with eugenics has been washed clean of its stink of death and now parades in fresh garb re-branded as evolutionary psychology or meme theory.I find the whole thing quite disturbing and admit to being unable to ignore the heredity of these ideas.

This is a short, powerful and fascinatingly interesting book.What he has to say about medicine’s rather meagre impact on our increased lifespan is worth the price of the book alone.We have been promised much by those who believe in the doctrine of DNA, we have spent many billions of public money that has gone into the pockets of many of those most likely to tout its benefits – but whether a mapped genome is capable of living up to such promises is something only time will tell.As ideology it has many problems.Ideologically, I prefer the biology offered by Lewontin, where we are the interplay of our genes and our environment in a dialectical relationship of mutual interconnection and change.We are social creatures and society operates on quite other rules than those that manifest from our genes.If the choice is between Lewontin’s view that society creates relations for humans that are inexplicable by our genes and Dawkins view that society is to a great extent the extension of our genes - not just of a multiplication of individuals, but of individual genes then I’m always going to be more drawn to Lewontin.

22.06.2016

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