Genetic Science And Its Political Implications

We live in an era in which science and technology have achieved an unprecedented degree of influence over human societies. For those who subscribe to the view that most of human history can be explained as the struggle to dominate Nature by conquering disease and famine, it must appear that we are close to winning. But rather alarmingly, rather witnessing the triumph of reason, we’re in fact seeing a loss of faith in the beneficence of science by a very significant fraction of the population. On one side there’s been an unexpected revival of religious fundamentalism, which denies science’s evolutionary explanation of the descent of Homo Sapiens, and on the other an identification of science as part of the enemy among sections of the political Left.

What became abundantly clear during the twentieth century was that science and technology create problems as well as solving them – and that in some cases they may even create problems that they cannot solve. One of these problems is the application of science to warfare. At least part of the current distrust of science dates from the end of World War II with its revelation of the awful power of nuclear weapons. Of the Four Horsemen, War is the one that science has so far done the least to overcome and the most to exacerbate. Indeed there are those who would explain scientific progress as being principally driven by the needs of warfare, while others would reply that the problem lies in ‘human nature’, which contains an irrepressibly violent component, prone to abuse the power of science.

Now the science of genetics and its related technologies promise to open up even human nature itself to the possibility of modification. Genetic modification has of course been practiced by human beings for millennia, as the selective breeding of domesticated animals (and even to a lesser extent of ourselves via the closed marriage practices of aristocracies and sects). Even so, the mechanism by which living things pass on their characteristics to their offspring wasn’t fully understood until the nineteenth century, when Charles Darwin [1] proposed his theory of evolution by natural selection, and then Gregor Mendel [2] uncovered the precise way in which these characteristics are transmitted. It remained for James Watson and Francis Crick [3] in 1953 to disclose the actual chemical structure of the human genetic substance, deoxyribonucleic acid or DNA, and the code by in it stores the information required to construct each creature’s body and those of its children.

Briefly summarized chromosomes, the units of inheritance, consist of long chains of DNA organised into shorter sequences called ‘genes’, each of which encodes the recipe for making a particular kind of protein. The total set of genes in any creature is called its ‘genome’. Proteins form much of the structure of all living creatures, and most importantly, they also manage the chemical reactions through which other, non-protein body constituents are built, like the bones of animals or the cellulose cell walls of plants. Watson and Crick’s discovery lead directly to the possibility of so-called ‘genetic engineering’, in which molecular biologists replace a naturally-occurring gene in the genome of some creature with another deemed more desirable, for example to correct a defect that causes some genetically-transmitted disease in a human, or perhaps in a bacterium to make it produce a particular protein of commercial value as a drug. Genetic engineering has become possible thanks to modern biochemical techniques that enable scientists to read the sequence of long DNA chains, and also to synthesise artificial lengths of DNA of known sequence and splice them into natural genomes.

The crucial step toward the practical application of genetic engineering was the mapping of the whole human genome, which was completed in 2003 by a multinational consortium co-ordinated by the US National Institutes of Health and the UK’s Wellcome Trust. The Human Genome Project identified all of the 20,000-25,000 genes that make up human DNA, determined the three billion nucleotide base-pairs of which they are composed, and stored this information in a gigantic computer database, the analysis of which will continue for decades to come. However it must be stressed that identifying a gene sequence is not at all the same as identifying what the protein for which it codes actually does, which is what will be needed before all the miracles anticipated in the popular imagination could come true. The situation has been compared to asking someone to explain how to fly a Boeing 747 airliner, given only its parts-list.

Nature v Nurture
From the moment Darwin first published his Origin of Species a debate raged between those who believe that heredity determines almost all of human behaviour, and those who say that because Homo sapiens differs from the other animals in having created culture, that therefore social influences now predominate over those of heredity. This debate was quite explicitly political in its earliest stages. On the one side were those conservatives who believed that the fate of each individual was predestined by their genetic makeup, so that the poor were poor because of inferior genes, and some ‘races’ were genetically inferior to others. On the other side were those optimists, in the tradition of the Enlightenment, who believed that human nature was not a fixed thing, but could be reformed by reason and knowledge: most of the founders of the socialist movement adhered to this camp. The former position, often called Social Darwinism, is often associated with the British philosopher Herbert Spencer [4] (though in fact Spencer’s thought was somewhat more complex than this suggests). Social Darwinism was invoked by conservatives from Victorian times up until the 1930s to justify an extreme form of laissez-faire capitalism in which welfare policies and regulation of markets were seen as futile attempts to interfere with the natural process of ‘survival of the fittest’. Following World War II the optimists camp gained the upper hand, seeing human nature as something that could be reformed and elevated via education, and by alleviating the corrupting effects of poverty through welfare programs such as the British National Health Service.

The rapid expansion of genetic science that followed Watson and Crick’s 1953 revelation injected a more objective element into this debate. Through experiments, particularly those that involved studying pairs of identical and non-identical twins (identical twins share the same genes), it became possible to put an estimate on what portion of the behaviour of a person is due to their genetic make up and what to their upbringing, that is to social influences, and the answer rather conveniently turns out to be roughly 50:50. However it must be said that such attempts at quantitative measure miss the stupendous complexity of the actual interactions between genome and environment, which cannot be reduced to a pastry recipe of 8oz nature, 8oz nurture. Better is this summation by the philosopher George Santayana: ‘A materialistic interpretation of politics need therefore not be especially climatic or economic or Malthusian, but may take account of those important circumstances in letting loose or suppressing [my emphasis] the various instincts and powers of human nature. The initiative of individuals and the contagion of words and actions must not be excluded ... The environment fosters and selects; the seed must contain the potentiality and direction of the life to be selected’. In recent years Jared Diamond has published important studies that highlight the complex ways in which climate, geology, geography and biology interact with human psychology to determine the course of development of societies [5].

In the 1970s, coincident with a sharp turn to the Right in politics whose figureheads were Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, a new and more sophisticated form of Social Darwinism made its appearance. In 1975 Edward O. Wilson [6] published Sociobiology: The New Synthesis and Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene [7] appeared the next year. Both these works suggest that a rigorous return to Darwinian first-principles would benefit the social sciences, and make strong claims for the influence of genetic makeup in all areas of human life. Dawkins title was intended as a metaphor – from the detached perspective of the geneticist the evolution of life on earth can be viewed as the activity of by a vast population of genes, which cause individual bodies to be built in order to propagate themselves and then ‘selfishly’ sacrifice the finite lives of these organisms (which include you and me) to ensure their own immortality. This is an interesting and valid scientific metaphor, but like all metaphors it risked being taken literally and many of Dawkins’ readers and followers have done just that, believing him to be saying that human nature is incorrigibly selfish. Neo-conservatives latched onto such ideas to stress that competition is the driving force behind the evolution not only of species but of societies too. A handful of left-wing geneticists, lead by the late Steven Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin [8] have cogently opposed such educationist interpretations.

Evolutionary psychology is an outgrowth of socio-biology which holds that much of human behaviour can be explained genetically, as the way that genes program individuals to select the most appropriate mates. There’s a great deal of truth in some of these findings, particularly those regarding the attitudes of men and women to monogamy and childrearing, but again the interactions between genetic and social factors in the real world are so complex that any simple formula is doomed to miss many other truths [9].

Just how complex this interaction is is suggested by recent discoveries and theories from the world of developmental neurobiology. Contrary to the belief of hard-core sociobiologists, the human brain is not in any simple and direct way the product of our genes. Considered as an information-processing organ, the brain is perhaps the most complex single entity in the universe, containing as it does around three billion neurons which can potentially connect to each other in ten-to-the-billionth-power (one followed by one billion noughts) different ways. Elementary calculations based on Information Theory indicate that the human genome is nowhere near large enough to encode the detailed structure of such an object, and that therefore the development of the brain must be not directly specified but rather guided by the execution of a much simpler set of rules within each growing individual. In a remarkable series of books between 1987 and 1989, Gerald Edelman [10] has suggested how this might happen, starting from his discovery of cell adhesion molecules or CAMs that enable neurons to organise their own connections. It appears that the brain develops by a process analogous to the evolution of species, but in which natural selection is replaced by neuronal selection under the pressure of sensory inputs: the brain’s structure as well as it content is moulded by the environment in which it grows up (if the distinction between content and structure can even be made). This implies for one thing that every human brain is structurally different from every other, and it also explains how we can so easily learn, say, English, German, Japanese or Urdu without their grammars needing to be encoded in our genes.

More recently Antonio Damasio [11] has extended Edelman’s insights to propose that human consciousness is intimately linked with, and indeed evolved out of, the system of emotions (which in primitive animals are simple fight/flight mechanisms). The implication is that every memory trace and thought automatically gets labelled with a moral value, and that pure reason is an evolutionarily late (possibly non-essential) development made possible by the acquisition of language. His schema lends support to the Freudian notion of an unconscious [12] and offers the beginnings of a biological explanation for the tenacity of humans’ attachment to religion, myth, tribalism and other ‘irrational’ behaviours. It should also stand as a corrective to the extreme rationalism displayed by many advocates of science, although it does not sanction that anti-rational, anti-humanist, Counter-Enlightenment stance adopted by many postmodern critics.

The fact that we are genetically predisposed to make value judgements wouldn’t prove that our predatory and destructive behaviours are genetically unavoidable, because such urges are as likely as any other to determined by the interaction of nature with nurture. There’s excellent evidence – for example in the work of Frans de Waal [13] with his chimpanzees – that instincts for empathy and co-operation just as genetically determined as aggression. It’s even possible that scientific rationality itself may amplify our worse nature, an argument developed by some moral philosophers on the responsible wing of the environmental movement: for example Mary Midgley [14] contends that scientific atomism is inappropriate outside of the ‘hard’ physical sciences and that its metaphorical application to the social sciences leads to a view of humans as isolated social atoms: ‘In the real world, as many biologists have pointed out, co-operation and competition go together as two sides of the same coin and, of the two, when things get at all complicated, co-operation must usually come first, because it makes other interactions possible’.

Advances in genetic science have been of enormous assistance to anthropologists studying human origins: the discovery that we share 96 per cent of our genome with the chimpanzee has passed into public knowledge and provides excellent confirmation of the correctness of Darwin’s theory (though it’s unlikely to convince those creationists and ‘intelligent design’ proponents who are currently gaining so much influence in the USA). The comparative study of gene sequences in modern humans provides a powerful new tool for studying human migration in the remote past, tracking the global distribution of particular DNA segments that include non-fatal genetic changes called ‘founder mutations’ [15] (sickle cell disease is one of these). The results confirm archaeological evidence for successive waves of diaspora radiating from Africa, but they have also added previously unknown connections such as that between the Celts and the Basques. There’s growing evidence that the enormous expansion of relative brain-size that began in humans around two million years ago was associated with repeated and rapid climate fluctuations (not unlike the one causing so much anxiety today) [17]. In unpredictable environments the increased flexibility of behaviour conferred by a big brain more than compensated for the disadvantages (high nutritional demands, difficult birth, prolonged infant helplessness).

DNA comparison has also become an essential tool for identifying individual humans in the present day, and is widely used in forensic work: there are bound to be heated debates in future over whether or not one’s DNA ‘footprint’ should be added to other bureaucratic markers of identity such as passports and ID cards.

Genetic Engineering
No subject has aroused more wrath in recent years than that of genetically-modified (GM) foodstuffs. It’s seldom remarked just how effective the informal and spontaneous boycott of GM crops outside of the USA has been. However the subject is seldom discussed in a satisfactory way because it’s become a touchstone for deeper political attitudes toward science, progress, capitalism and nutrition. The best that can be said is that much of the opposition to GM foods is irrational, even superstitious, but that perhaps an equal part of the support for GM is motivated by dubious commercial agendas.

GM crops are plant species in which biologists have deliberately introduce a gene from a different species, to impart some desired characteristic such as salt tolerance, drought resistance or immunity from a particular pest. In essence they are no different from the domesticated species created thousands of years ago by traditional selective breeding procedures: in one case a new gene entered by accident, in the other it was put in place by a scientist. There is therefore nothing inherently poisonous about GM food. It is however indeed possible for a scientist to deliberately introduce a gene for, say, a scorpion toxin, into a plant (something which would never have occurred in nature since scorpions don’t mate with plants) and the plant may express that gene and make the toxin. Such experiments have been performed, in pursuit of pest-resistance, though such products have not found much commercial use. However it’s the public knowledge of the mere possibility of such experiments that leads to paranoid speculations and generates much of the heat in the anti-GM argument. This wrath is stoked further by the equally true fact that when GM crops are planted in open fields, it becomes effectively impossible to prevent them from hybridising with surrounding plants and thus spreading their new gene. It’s also unquestionably true that some agrochemical companies like Monsanto have exploited GM techniques to produce new crop varieties which are genetically tied to the firms’ other products, such as a particular herbicide or fertiliser, in order to increase their profits.

On the positive side, genetically-modified bacteria, which can be safely confined within a fermentation vessel, can be used to make complex drug molecules far more cheaply than by conventional chemical synthesis, and drought-resistant crops could make a huge contribution to the nutrition of the developing world, just as the ‘green revolution’ rice strains did several decades ago. It would appear that GM food production has achieved that same unhappy political status as nuclear power: they are both technologies that if used with sufficient care could contribute greatly to the human good, but are unlikely to be deployed because the necessary public trust that such care would be taken is no longer forthcoming (and with good reason).

The controversy becomes hotter still once genetic engineering techniques are applied to the human species itself. The least controversial such application is perhaps gene therapy for hereditary diseases like cystic fibrosis. Where a disease can be shown to be caused by a single defective gene, the possibility exists of inserting a good copy of that gene using GM techniques. In the laboratory much progress has been made in such replacement methods, in most cases employing a modified virus to carry the desired gene into the recipient’s cells (many viruses reproduce by inserting their own DNA in the host’s genome). Virus strains tried as vectors include retroviruses (the group to which HIV belongs), adenoviruses and herpes simplex (cold sore viruses). The potential dangers of such treatments should be clear, because such a modified virus may behave in unexpected ways – and sure enough the progress of gene therapy was set back enormously by the 1999 death of an 18-year-old patient in a trial, who suffered a catastrophic immune response to the adenovirus carrier (as well as by suspicions that other trials may have induced leukaemia). The US Food and Drug Administration has so far failed to approve any human gene therapy product for sale.

The logical conclusion of such techniques would be the science-fiction scenario of modifying the genome of healthy people (or their eggs) to impart desirable characteristics like greater intelligence, good looks or athletic performance. As explained earlier, such interventions would require not merely knowing the complete sequence of the human genome, but also what all these genes do and how they interact with one another, which is still a very, very long way away. The difficulties faced by gene therapists are only a taste of the dire consequences that might be expected when intervening in a system of such unimaginable complexity with only partial knowledge. Even so, the ethical implications of human genetic modification are so serious that it’s necessary to perform the thought-experiment of assuming that it will happen.

Some commentators, for example Francis Fukuyama [18], have pointed out that once, say, manipulation of an ‘intelligence’ gene becomes possible it will create an enormous market demand from wealthy parents to impart it to their children, and the private sector will cater to this regardless of any government regulation: biology could reinforce class differences in a market-led version of the Nazi eugenic program. It’s not at all clear how such a development could be resisted on purely legal grounds. On the other hand for optimists like Edward O. Wilson [19] genetic technologies hold out the possibility of perfecting both human nature and physique by replacing faulty genes, and the abolition of material scarcity through GM crops, leading to a new Golden Age for mankind (perhaps we’re still too close to the disastrously failed utopian projects of the twentieth century to place much credence in such claims).

A related problem thrown up by human genome modification is the question of Intellectual Property in genes. The race to map the genome was won by a group at the Sanger Centre in Cambridge lead by (Sir) John Sulston, in competition with the private American firm Celera lead by Craig Venter. Sulston is a passionate advocate of freedom of information in science, who often came into conflict with his funders over his policy of releasing gene sequences as soon as they were obtained for other teams elsewhere in the world to use: Venter by contrast insisted on patenting each gene discovered to prevent others from catching up [20]. Patents normally encourage competition by protecting an invention for a period but leaving others free to better it. However every gene is unique, so patenting one bestows a total monopoly. If gene therapy ever overcomes its current difficulties, such patents will become extremely valuable, but to the detriment of further research efforts.

When Charles Darwin was thinking through the theory of natural selection, one of the obstacles he had to clear out of his way was the idea advanced by Jean Baptiste Lamarck that evolution proceeds by the inheritance of acquired characteristics. This notion is untrue, but still plausible enough to be rather hard to dispel: to reduce it to the absurd, we know that professional boxers’ children are not generally born with broken noses and cauliflower ears. Anti-Lamarckism has become enshrined as the central dogma of molecular biology – which has served the science very well – that information only flows from DNA out into the world, never the other way around.

Lamarckism made one disastrous comeback during the twentieth century, when Joseph Stalin fell for the Lamarckian heresies of the agronomist Trofim Lysenko, and based Soviet agricultural policy around the possibility that wheat varieties could be improved via their growing environment rather than their genes, and hence grown in a different season. They could not, and Soviet agriculture was held back for many years.

In recent years though geneticists have discovered, or remembered, that there are mechanisms by which information from the external environment can appear to be ‘written back’ into the DNA, although these are not truly Lamarckian and they preserve the central dogma. These discoveries go by the collective name of ‘epigenetics’ [16]. Not all the genes in an organism’s genome are expressed all the time, and there are some genes that act only to switch other genes on and off. These genetic switches operate through special proteins called histones that surround the DNA strands, and it now appears that histones can be affected by the cell’s external environment (unlike the DNA sequence itself) and this may change the switch state of their associated gene – this switch state can then be passed from a mother to her baby via her chromosomes, to affect its metabolism throughout its life.

Indeed the very shape that any multi-cellular organism takes on at birth depends upon epigenetic effects: every cell in your body contains exactly the same set of genes, but some of them must become brain, some bone and some liver. Their epigenetic switches were flipped in the correct sequence while you were developing in the womb, to make the right tissue types at the right time. Unsurprisingly epigenetic effects are also deeply implicated in the formation of tumours (carcinogens can switch genes on and off). Much of the recent research on epigenetics has employed data from nutritional studies: a mother’s diet may throw epigenetic switches on that are passed on to her baby and affect the child’s own nutritional state, such as obesity or height, in later life. One such study found a correlation between Dutch mothers’ impoverished diet during World War II and the size their children attained as adults. The implication for social policy should be obvious: epigenetics may offer biological support for what was already suspected by many progressive thinkers, namely that the deleterious effects of poor nutrition and work environment can be passed down the generations and turn class into caste. Regrettably though, the subject of epigenetics attracts more than its fair share of crankery from those who are overly keen to deny Darwin and refute genetic determinism – and it’s often not easy to sort out what’s real science from fringe opinion (hint: whenever you see the word ‘holistic’, run like the wind).

To conclude, genetic science has huge implications for future politics. Like most other branches of science it will create as many new problems as it solves, and the solutions to those additional problems will often need to be political, not scientific. Science can will us whether we can make our children smarter through gene replacement, and whether that will create dangerous side-effects, but only the body politic can decide whether we even want to allow people to do it. Politics must rule in the moral world and science in the world of matter – getting them the wrong way round, as King Canute demonstrated, doesn’t really work.

Dick Pountain 14 December 2005


[1] Darwin, Charles: On The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection1859; The Descent of Man, 1871; The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, 1872.

[2] Mendel, Gregor: ‘Versuche über Pflanzenhybriden’ (‘Experiments with Plant Hybrids’), Transactions of Natural Science Society, Brunn, 1866.

[3] Watson, James: Molecular Biology of the Gene, 1965.

[4] Spencer, Herbert: Social Statics, 1851

[5] Diamond, Jared: Guns, Germs and Steel, 1999; Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive, 2005.

[6] Wilson, Edward O: Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, Harvard University Press 1975

[7] Dawkins, Richard: The Selfish Gene, Oxford University Press 1989.

[8] Gould, Stephen Jay: The Panda’s Thumb: More Reflections in Natural History, 1980;
Lewontin, R.C: Biology as Ideology: The Doctrine of DNA, 1998.

[9] Pinker, Steven: How the Mind Works, 1998; The Language Instinct, 1994.
Angier, Natalie: "Woman: An Intimate Geography", 1999.

[10] Edelman, Gerald: Bright Air, Brilliant Fire, 1992.

[11] Damasio, Antonio: Looking for Spinoza, Vintage 2004.

[12] Phillips, Adam: Darwin’s Worms, Faber and Faber 1999.

[13] de Waal, Frans: Good Natured, Harvard 1996.
Trivers, R: ‘The evolution of reciprocal altruism’, Quarterly Review of Biology 46, 1971.

[14] Midgley, Mary: Science and Poetry, 2001

[15] Drayna, Dennis: ‘Founder Mutations’, in Scientific American, October 2005

[16] Jablonka, Eva and Lamb, Marion: Epigenetic Inheritance and Evolution, The Lamarckian Dimension, Oxford University Press, 1995

[17] Calvin, William H: A Brain for All Seasons: Human Evolution and Abrupt Climate Change, University of Chicago Press, 2002.

[18] Fukuyama, Francis: Our Post-Human Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution, Picador 2003.

[19] Wilson, Edward O: ‘Consilience: The unity of Knowledge’, Vintage 1999; The Future of Life, Vintage 2003.

Rose, Steven: The 21st Century Brain: Explaining, Mending and Manipulating the Mind, 2005

Dennet, Daniel: Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life, Penguin Science 1996

Lovelock, James: Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth, Oxford University Press 1979.



Evolutionary Psychology

Human Genome

GM Crops

Gene Therapy

Gene Patents


Scientific American is a reliable source of readable articles covering latest genetic research. [Note: a subscription may be required to read whole articles]

Dick Pountain was born in 1945 in Chesterfield, Derbyshire. Educated at Chesterfield Grammar School and Imperial College, London (BSc Hons Chemistry). Columnist and book/film/music reviewer for underground magazines Frendz, Ink and Oz 1968-72. Co-founded Bunch Books (now Dennis Publishing) with Felix Dennis; Production Director of Bunch/Dennis 1972-81. Managing Editor Personal Computer World 1981-83 and software magazine Soft in 1983. Contributing Editor to Byte 1983-98 (150 feature articles). Now Real World Editor and columnist PC Pro magazine, and non-executive director of Dennis Publishing. Lives in Camden Town, London.

Object Oriented Forth, Academic Press 1983
A Tutorial Introduction to Concurrent Programming in Occam, Blackwell Scientific 1987
Cool Rules: anatomy of an attitude, with David Robins, Reaktion Books, 2000.