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Is it All in the Genes?

Genetics allows us to understand the ever-continuing development of life. The evolution of life meant the appearance of a self-replicating molecule which could transmit the characteristics of the life-form to future generations. Such a mechanism is deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA). This self-reproducing DNA molecule is not concentrated in a particular part of the body, but is contained in every animal or plant cell. At adulthood, humans are made up of a trillion cells, but at conception there existed only a singled-celled embryo. How does this happen? Within this single cell was contained the DNA molecule that held the genetic code for the construction of a human being. The genetic information carried by the genes is stored in a chemically coded form. One gene is a section of DNA that has the information to make a particular type of protein.

The genes contained in every cell are that part of the organism that contains all the necessary information for creating animals and plants. Most genes carry information that direct cells to make proteins. Some genes tell the cells in an embryo where they are and whether they should grow into an arm or a leg. The gene is the unit of heredity. The entire collection of genes possessed by an organism is called the genome.

The effect of sexual reproduction is to mix or shuffle the genes. The sex cells (egg or sperm) fuse to form the embryo. The new cell is a mosaic of maternal genes and paternal genes. As the two sets merge, if two gene signals differ, then one characteristic will prevail over the other. The gene for brown eyes, for instance, is dominant to that for blue. They are what is termed as recessive and dominant genes. Sometimes a hybrid compromise is produced.

The Selfish Gene
Richard Dawkins, who came to fame with his controversially entitled book The Selfish Gene, has been at the centre of a heated polemic over genetics. Since Charles Darwin propounded his theory of evolution, it has been believed that new species are created through the process of natural selection. In this process only those species survive, which are conferred with an evolutionary advantage because of certain characteristics. These characteristics are mediated through genes. Some molecular biologists, prominent among them being Dawkins, have now started arguing that all natural selection acts ultimately at the level of the DNA. This has led a number of scientists to have become obsessed with the wondrous nature of the gene. Some have given the gene mystical qualities from which reactionary ideas are drawn.

Scientific research into genetics shows the possibilities for medicine, where gene disorders such as Huntington's chorea, Duchenne's muscular dystrophy, and others have been identified. However, there are widespread assertions that in some way genes are responsible for all kinds of things, like homosexuality and criminality. This genetic determinism reduces all social problems to the level of genetics. Some argue that genetic factors as a whole were responsible for 40-50% of criminal violence. It has even been suggested that abortion should be considered when antenatal testing indicates a child is likely to be born with genes predisposing it to aggression or antisocial behaviour. Biologists like Steven Rose have described such assertions as "troublesome, disturbing and unbalanced."

Richard Dawkins' The Selfish Gene, originally published in 1976, makes some startling assertions. "We are born selfish," says Dawkins. Although he says that "genes have no foresight" and "they do not plan ahead" Dawkins imbues genes with a consciousness and a "selfish" identity. They strive to replicate themselves, as if they are consciously planning how best this could be achieved. Because for Dawkins individual organisms do not survive from one generation to another, while genes do, it follows that natural selection acts on what survives, namely, the genes. Therefore, all selection acts ultimately at the level of DNA. At the same time, each gene is in competition with each other to reproduce themselves in the next generation. In this view, the replicator of life is the gene; thus the organism is simply the vehicle for the genes. An animal, for Dawkins, is only DNA's way of making more DNA.

There is no doubt that genes have a powerful effect in the form of the organism. But it needs to be understood (something that Dawkins and his ilk ignore) that its entity will be decisively influenced by the environment. For example, if two identical twins are placed into two totally different environments, two different characters will be produced. In reality, selection acts at a multitude of levels. Whether a particular gene survives or does not, depends on its interaction with millions of genes that are present in an individual.

Dawkins was forced to backtrack to some extent, modifying his arguments in the later editions of The Selfish Gene (1989). Dawkins now says "genes may modify the effects of other genes, and may modify the effects of the environment. Environmental events, both internal and external, may modify the effects of genes, and may modify the effects of other environmental events." But this concession aside, Dawkins' main thesis remains.

For instance, he says: "Contraception is sometimes attacked as "unnatural". So it is, very unnatural. The trouble is, so is the welfare state. I think that most of us believe the welfare state is highly desirable. But you cannot have an unnatural welfare state, unless you also have unnatural birth control, otherwise the end result will be misery even greater than that which obtains in nature." He continues, "the welfare state is perhaps the greatest altruistic system the animal kingdom has ever known. But any altruistic system is inherently unstable, because it is open to abuse by selfish individuals, ready to exploit it." Dawkins also believes that natural selection would favour children who cheat, lie, deceive and exploit.

Comment on Nature of Capitalist Society

These comments are interesting not so much for what they tell us about genes, but for what they reveal about the state of society in the last decade of the 20th century. In certain societies, powerful muscles or the ability to run fast can confer a genetic advantage. If a similar advantage is attributed to the propensity to lie, cheat and exploit, it must mean that such features are the qualities most necessary to succeed in modern society, and this is perfectly correct from the standpoint of the advocates of "market values." While it is extremely questionable that such qualities can, in fact, be passed on through the genetic mechanism, it is certainly the fact that they form the most essential features of modern society under Capitalism. The "war of each against all," is the basic standpoint of capitalist society.

Is it true that such a mentality is a genetically conditioned part of "human nature"? Let us not forget that capitalism and its values has only existed at most for a few hundred years out of approximately 5,000 years of recorded history, and 100,000 years of human development. Human society, for the overwhelming majority of its existence, has been based on the principle of co-operation. Indeed, human beings could never have raised themselves above the level of animals without this. Far from being an essential component of the human psyche, competition is a recent phenomenon, a reflection of a society based on the production of commodities, which perverts human nature into patterns of behaviour which would have been considered unnatural in the past.

What is "Human Nature"?

It is too easy to blame some mysterious phenomenon such as "our genes" for the self-centred morality of the market-place. Moreover, this is not a question of zoology, but of social class. Individual capitalists compete against each other and do not hesitate to use any methods to ruin their rivals -- lying, cheating, industrial espionage, predatory takeovers -- these are considered to be normal commercial practice. From the standpoint of the working class, things are very different. It is not a question of individual morality, but precisely of social survival (the sociological equivalent of "the survival of the fittest"). The only power the working class possesses against the employers is the power of unity, that is precisely of co-operation.

The workers' need to combine in the defence of their interests is a lesson that has to be learned over and over again. Selfishness and "individualism" is self-defeating for the working class. Every strike-breaker is presented as a great defender of "individual freedom" by the bourgeois press because it is in the interest of the employers to atomise the working class, to reduce it to its component parts, utterly at the mercy of Capital. Here too, the dialectical law holds good that the whole is greater that the sum of the parts. Consciously or not, those who present selfishness as an ideal, or at least as "human nature," have taken up a definite position in relation to the struggle between wage labour and Capital.

Not "Just in the Genes"

Dawkins discards the Darwinian principle that individuals are the units of natural selection in the evolutionary process. This is a fundamentally false idea. Natural selection deals with organisms, with bodies. It favours some bodies because they are better suited to their environment. The gene is a piece of DNA enclosed within the cell nucleus, large numbers of which contribute to the development of most body parts. This in turn is affected by a whole series of environmental factors, internal and external. Selection does not work directly on parts. Natural selection works on bodies because they are in some way "fitter". If there is a particular gene for strength or other such specific attributes, then Dawkins may be correct. But that is not the case. There is not one gene for one bit of anatomy. For instance, the instructions for the construction of the ear is contained in a host of separate genes, half of which have come from either parent.

As the renowned evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould explains: "It (natural selection) accepts or rejects entire organisms because suites of parts, interacting in complex ways, confer advantages -- organisms are much more than amalgamations of genes. They have a history that matters; their parts interact in complex ways. Organisms are built by genes acting in concert, influenced by environments, translated into parts that selection sees and parts invisible to selection."

Dawkins' method leads him to further argue that human culture can be reduced to units he calls memes, which, apparently, like genes, are self-replicating and compete for survival. Memes, according to Dawkins are memories of social practices (or instincts) that animals inherit. This is clearly wrong. Human culture is passed down from generation to generation, not through memes, but through education in the broadest sense. It is not biologically inherited but has to be painstakingly relearned and developed by each new generation. Cultural diversity is bound up not with genes but social history.

For Dawkins and others in his tribe, human nature and motivation are to be understood by analysing human DNA. They never allow the existence of either multiple levels of analysis or complex modes of determination. They ignore the essential relations between cells and the organism as a whole. This empirical method, which emerged with the scientific revolution at the birth of capitalism, was progressive in its day, but has now become a fetter on the advancement of science and the understanding of nature.

It is too easy to blame some mysterious phenomenon such as "our genes" for the self-centred morality of the market-place. Moreover, this is not a question of zoology, but of social class. Individual capitalists compete against each other and do not hesitate to use any methods to ruin their rivals -- lying, cheating, industrial espionage, predatory takeovers -- these are considered to be normal commercial practice. From the standpoint of the working class, things are very different. It is not a question of individual morality, but precisely of social survival (the sociological equivalent of "the survival of the fittest"). The only power the working class possesses against the employers is the power of unity, that is precisely of co-operation. The workers' need to combine in the defence of their interests is a lesson that has to be learned over and over again. Selfishness and "individualism" is self-defeating for the working class. Every strike-breaker is presented as a great defender of "individual freedom" by the bourgeois press because it is in the interest of the employers to atomise the working class, to reduce it to its component parts, utterly at the mercy of Capital. Here too, the dialectical law holds good that the whole is greater that the sum of the parts.

Consciously or not, those who present selfishness as an ideal, or at least as "human nature," have taken up a definite position in relation to the struggle between wage labour and Capital. Dawkins discards the Darwinian principle that individuals are the units of natural selection in the evolutionary process. This is a fundamentally false idea. Natural selection deals with organisms, with bodies. It favours some bodies because they are better suited to their environment. The gene is a piece of DNA enclosed within the cell nucleus, large numbers of which contribute to the development of most body parts. This in turn is affected by a whole series of environmental factors, internal and external. Selection does not work directly on parts. Natural selection works on bodies because they are in some way "fitter". If there is a particular gene for strength or other such specific attributes, then Dawkins may be correct. But that is not the case.

There is not one gene for one bit of anatomy. For instance, the instructions for the construction of the ear is contained in a host of separate genes, half of which have come from either parent. As the renowned evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould explains: "It (natural selection) accepts or rejects entire organisms because suites of parts, interacting in complex ways, confer advantages -- organisms are much more than amalgamations of genes. They have a history that matters; their parts interact in complex ways.

Organisms are built by genes acting in concert, influenced by environments, translated into parts that selection sees and parts invisible to selection." Dawkins' method leads him to further argue that human culture can be reduced to units he calls memes, which, apparently, like genes, are self-replicating and compete for survival. Memes, according to Dawkins are memories of social practices (or instincts) that animals inherit. This is clearly wrong. Human culture is passed down from generation to generation, not through memes, but through education in the broadest sense. It is not biologically inherited but has to be painstakingly relearned and developed by each new generation. Cultural diversity is bound up not with genes but social history. For Dawkins and others in his tribe, human nature and motivation are to be understood by analysing human DNA. They never allow the existence of either multiple levels of analysis or complex modes of determination. They ignore the essential relations between cells and the organism as a whole. This empirical method, which emerged with the scientific revolution at the birth of capitalism, was progressive in its day, but has now become a fetter on the advancement of science and the understanding of nature.