March 15, 2006

Thinking Outside the Gene

Only by eliminating genetic determinism from our thinking can we talk effectively and responsibly about genetic interventions

By George Dvorsky, January 5, 2004

It seems that every day a new gene is discovered that accounts for a certain ailment or behavioral tendency. These insights are a welcome and commonplace occurrence now. Following the mapping of the human genome, we live in the Genetic Age. The work of geneticists is helping us unravel our source code and discover what makes us tick. It will only be a matter of time before parents start using germline interventions to have healthier, stronger and smarter children.

But the way the media promotes these findings—this publication included—often gives readers an exaggerated sense of what the discoveries entail and how they can be practically applied to alter the human condition. Reading the news, we should be asking a number of questions. What does it really mean to discover the genes responsible for, say, schizophrenia, depression or vengefulness? To what extent can we really affect and impact human behavior at the genetic level? What do the discoveries mean to the nature versus nurture debate?

Now that the age of environmental determinism is coming to a close—a mass hallucination that fooled a large segment of society into buying the blank slate theory of human behavior while discounting biological propensities—the excitement over recent breakthroughs in genetics is causing another mass hallucination, this time at the other end of the spectrum: Genetic determinism.

Consequently, in these early days of human genomics and the pending accessibility of germinal choice technologies, two broad and disparate camps have emerged to battle it out: Those who support genetically modifying humans and those who are opposed. Interestingly, in each of these camps lurk genetic determinists, those individuals who—whether they know it or not—are drawing conclusions from the false belief that genes utterly dominate and dictate human morphology, psychology and behavior.

This is simply not the case. While genes represent the starting block for an organism, they are by no means the final say in how a person develops and navigates through life. This type of fetishizing needs to stop and be replaced by a more tempered appreciation of the complexity of human behavior, decision making and societal intricacies. Continual misunderstandings and exaggerations of the human genome's function will only result in ongoing hysteria emanating from bioconservatives on the one hand and unrealistic and utopian transhumanists on the other.

What you see isn't what you get

Listening to the genetic determinists talk, you get the distinct impression that we are large clumps of walking, talking DNA. Obviously, that's not the case. Rather, we are a phenotype, a morphological expression of a genome. It's vital that we don't equate genotypes and phenotypes.

A phenotype is a constantly changing and evolving entity. Genes, at any given time during a person's life, merely contribute to a person's physical and psychological makeup. As evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins describes them, genes are "statistical contributors to a complex, causal web." The mistake that genetic determinists make is overestimating the role of genes and regarding them as the absolute and autonomous causes of all physical, behavioral and emotional traits.

While the genome acts as the blueprint for an organism, a phenotype's development is susceptible to a wide number of environmental factors. Certain genes express differently—or not all—based on the feedback the body gets from the environment, including particular living conditions at a particular stage in development.

Making babies

Because of genetic determinism, much of the popular disdain for so-called "designer babies" is misguided. Parents have had a significant say in how their children are raised and subsequently "designed" for some time now. They are always trying to manipulate their children's environment to enhance their mind and body—determinants that cannot be qualitatively differentiated from genetic factors.

As noted in the book From Chance to Choice: Genetics and Justice, "How the child is fed, for example, will affect height, strength, and resistance to illness. How the child exercises will affect body shape, muscle development, strength and physical capabilities and even neurological development. How the child is spoken to, read to, and interacted with will affect the development of cognitive and emotional capabilities. There is no preexisting ('essential') 'best' that is brought out by parental manipulation of environmental causes; such manipulation has enormous effects in shaping phenotype."

In other words, in conjunction with the genome, a phenotype is very much a product of its environment. Those who would dismiss nurture over nature (or vice-versa), or those who fail to recognize the synergistic collaboration between the two are completely leaving out the complexity of how a biological being comes to be and lives out its life.

Unrealistic concerns

On a related note, part of the widespread negative reaction to the prospect of human cloning stems from the popular belief in genetic determinism. It's commonly held, for example, that a clone of baseball legend Ted Williams would have the same success at baseball as his genetic forebear. While a clone of Ted Williams might exhibit similar physical traits and behavioral tendencies, his life experiences would be profoundly different than the original. The clone might just become jaded by the whole affair and give up sports in favor of the fascinating world of dentistry.

Much of the apprehension here is the feeling that control over the genome will result in a loss of freedom and individuality, that dabbling in genetics will compel future citizens of the Brave New World to live out determined lives. This is simply not the case, as we already have genetic duplicates living among us, namely identical twins, who don't feel that they are any less of an individual or that they're living biologically dictated lives.

Another popular misconception—one that's been perpetuated by many bioethicists and biologists—is the notion that through genetic manipulations we'll eliminate integral features of human nature. Biologist W. French Anderson, for example, worries that through germline interventions we may engineer out our capacity for the "contemplation of good and evil."

Not only does this smack of genetic determinism—the allusion that human decision making is performed by the genome—but it's devoid of realism. It's highly unlikely that we would deliberately cripple our capacity for morality. Moreover, it's dubious to claim that our sense of "good and evil" resides in the genome, especially since notions of good, evil and morality are normative cultural constructs. As bioethicist Allen Buchanan has stated, "It is extremely unlikely in the short term that the effects of genetic re-engineering will be felt by the mass of humanity." A side effect of this is that if we start to hammer a nail into our hand, we'll see and feel the damage, and we'll stop.

The correlation between the loss of human dignity and the advent of genetic engineering is another example of genetic determinism at work. Some of the worst culprits here include the bioethicist Leon Kass, the political scientist Francis Fukuyama and the social activist Bill McKibben, who all insist, as does Anderson, that germline interventions could eliminate those qualities that make us "human."

As social critic Kenneth Silber notes, "This argument sometimes comes with a religious emphasis, and sometimes with a secular one." Silber continues, "But the underlying assumption either way is that humans are more than just simple automatons driven by genes. If we were such automatons, after all, how could we have much dignity to begin with?" It is only if genetic determinism is true, says Silber, that the bioluddite nightmare scenarios of genetic manipulation and future dystopias promoted by Kass, Fukuyama, McKibben and others become plausible.

Changing our minds about changing our natures

At the other end of the genetic determinist spectrum are some transhumanists, specifically those who insist that society's ills can be remedied by tweaking human nature. One such transhumanist is Mark Walker, who in his essay "Genetic Virtue" argues that we should select for behavioral traits that give rise to virtuous citizens.

Makes sense though, doesn't it? We could eliminate the genes that cause the "criminal mind" and antisocial behavior. While we're at it, we could get rid of greed, competitiveness and aggressiveness. Then we should promote those genes that we like, namely those for altruism, cooperativeness and initiative. Utopia, here we come.

Of course, there are many problems with this line of thinking. First of all, there is no such thing as the "criminal mind" gene or the "caring" gene. It is very unlikely that these traits are determined by one gene or even by a complex set of genes. As stated earlier, much of human behavior is regulated by the complex interaction of environmental factors upon genes for certain tendencies. Factors such as socialization, cultural norms, laws and the punitive system all have an important say in human behavior and decision making.

As the authors of From Chance to Choice point out, it is also a mistake to assume that people could actually reach a consensus about preferred traits. We are talking about individual parental decisions, after all, and not state imposed eugenic directives. At least I certainly hope so, as any state-driven attempt to modify the cognitive makeup of its citizens is tantamount to totalitarianism.

At best, we could probably reach a sort of superficial agreement as to which traits are desirable, but serious differences of opinion would surely surface once people begin to think about the sorts of psychological dispositions we should foster. One person might consider "initiative" to be a good thing, while others would surely regard it as excessive forwardness or even aggression. Similarly, what one person might believe to be the right proportion of altruism, others will criticize as weakness or a failure to stand up for oneself. And so on down the long line of psychological and behavioral traits.

But at a deeper level, the idea that human nature is what has caused all the bloodshed in human history is fallacious. As historian Richard Webster has noted, "While incidental insights are plentiful, Darwinian theory cannot yet offer any adequate or comprehensive explanation of the development of human culture or the extraordinary complexity of human behaviour." The work of E. O Wilson, Jared Diamond and Robert Wright, while groundbreaking and revealing, is a great start to the exciting field of sociobiology, but is by no means hard science.

Tempered approaches

Human history is a maelstrom of complexity. It is influenced by inexorable and dissonant forces, many of which are beyond human control. Human decision makers may act on their emotions, urges and weaknesses, but they also act on their rationality, perpetually dealing with the constraints of their resources, the limitations of the memepool, game theory arrangements and perceived threats and risks. They also make decisions via committees and votes, and they make decisions on behalf of organizations and other self-interested but unconscious collectives. We'd like to think that history has been controlled by us, but in many respects it is history that is happening to us.

Indeed, as the Prisoner's Dilemma though experiment has shown us, even when we make rational decisions—and it can be argued that virtuous behavior is rational—we can still make wrong decisions. And as we well know, "wrong" decisions in history have all too often been falsely equated with individual human failings and our ingrained propensity for evil. The belief that we can create utopia by engineering a species of virtuous citizens is as false as it is dangerous.

Instead of fixating on biological cures to the problems of human society, we need to focus on the failings that stem from our social practices and institutions. And instead of worrying that germline interventions will turn us into immoral and undignified automatons, we should better understand the complexity of human behavior and how it comes about.

Once we do this and eliminate genetic determinism from our thinking, then we can start to talk responsibly and effectively about the potential for genetic interventions. Only after we have moved past unfounded fears of dystopia and the false promise of utopia can we effectively start to work on continuing progress and improving the human condition.

Copyright © 2004 George Dvorsky

This column originally appeared on Betterhumans, January 5, 2004.

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