Issue 178 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published September 1994 Copyright © Socialist Review

Good breeding?

Can crime or drug addiction be explained by biology or inheritance? Some scientists would argue that the way to solve these problems is through genetic engineering. Phil Gasper shows that such ideas have a dangerous history, while John Baxter examines the Human Genome Project

The true faces of crime
The true faces of crime

Eugenics--the idea that it is possible to use scientific knowledge to breed 'better' human beings--is back. Developments in technique over the past decade or so have given geneticists much greater knowledge of the specific genes--segments of the DNA in our cells--that are involved in the production of various biological effects. The successes of the new genetics have led to a revival of the idea that everything important about us is determined by our biological inheritance. This ignores the fact that even most physical diseases are not genetically determined, and that there is not a shred of convincing evidence that any complex human behaviour is biologically hardwired. Indeed, quite the contrary is true.

Lack of evidence, however, has done nothing to stop researchers making a series of well publicised claims that everything from intelligence to alcoholism and from criminality to homosexuality is genetically determined.

One of the implications of such claims is that social problems are not due to the way that society is structured--the distribution of income and wealth, for example, or access to jobs, healthcare and education--but are the consequence of defective individuals. The solution is thus not to change society but to improve the population through biological manipulation. In a recent editorial in Science Magazine Daniel Koshland explicitly drew this conclusion, claiming that genetic research can help to eliminate problems such as drug abuse, homelessness and violent crime.

The term 'eugenics'--which literally means 'good birth'--was originally coined by Charles Darwin's cousin, Francis Galton. In his most famous book, Hereditary Genius, Galton attempted to demonstrate that intelligence is inherited by tracing the genealogies of well known English families and showing that, generation after generation, the members of such families tended to acquire prestigious social positions. The alternative explanation, that what is inherited is not intelligence but access to social power and influence, seems not to have occurred to him.

Since biological explanations assume that existing inequalities reflect fundamental facts about human nature, it is not surprising that Galton reached racist conclusions. He claimed that 'the average intellectual standard of the negro race is some two grades below our own.' A few years later he wrote that 'the Jews are specialised for a parasitical existence upon other nations'.

Eugenics was adopted most enthusiastically in the United States. One of the principal advocates was the Harvard biologist Charles Davenport, a serious scientist who demonstrated the heritability of eye, skin and hair colour. But he was obsessed by the idea that our destiny lies in our genes. He claimed, for example, that the capacity to be a naval officer is an inherited trait, composed of two subtraits: thalassophilia (love of the sea) and hyperkineticism (wanderlust). Because there were no women in the navy, Davenport concluded that the trait is unique to males.

Davenport's tendency to assume a genetic basis for nearly everything would be amusing if the consequences had not been so tragic. Against evidence that pellagra--an often deadly disease that was at epidemic proportions in the Southern US--was caused by dietary deficiencies, Davenport (who was also head of the US Pellagra Commission) argued that there was a genetic susceptibility to the disease. Successive administrations used Davenport's false claims to avoid spending money on nutritional programmes. As a result hundreds of thousands died unnecessarily between 1915 and the mid-1930s.

Like other eugenicists, Davenport held that characteristics such as 'pauperism', criminality and 'feeble-mindedness' are biologically inherited. On this basis the eugenics movement encouraged nearly 30 states to enact laws permitting the forced sterilisation of thousands of people in prisons and mental hospitals who were judged to be defective.

Eugenicists in the US also urged the federal government to restrict the immigration of 'undesirable' races. Their arguments dovetailed with those of psychologists like H H Goddard and Lewis M Terman, who developed the first standardised intelligence tests. These tests reflected the racist and cultural biases of their designers. Even when testing led to the conclusion that half the US population--including most blacks and immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe--were of substandard intelligence, the results were taken seriously. Terman advocated vocational training and placement for such unfortunates, warning that they could 'drift easily into the ranks of the anti-social or join the army of Bolshevik discontents'.

Others went further. Carl Brigham of Princeton University testified to Congress that 'American intelligence is declining, and will proceed with an accelerating rate as the racial admixture becomes more and more extensive.' Politicians relied heavily on such pseudo-scientific nonsense to justify passage of the viciously racist Immigration Restriction Act of 1924.

By the early 1930s leading eugenicists were praising Nazi race laws. In fact the Nazis themselves based their laws on those already passed in the US. Frederick Osborn, secretary of the American Eugenics Society, wrote, 'The German sterilisation programme is apparently an excellent one. Taken altogether, recent developments in Germany constitute perhaps the most important social experiment which has ever been tried.'

In 1935 the American Eugenics Society argued that 'crime and dependency keep on increasing because new defectives are born, just as new cancer cells remorselessly penetrate into sound tissue.'

Two years later Charles R Stockard, president of the board of the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research, warned that the human race faced 'ultimate extermination' unless 'low grade and defective stocks' could be 'absolutely prevented' from reproducing. Eugenicists in the US were advocating the sterilisation of millions of Americans right up until 1940.

The disgusting idea that society's problems are due to biologically inferior individuals played an important role in paving the way for the massive barbarism of the Nazi Holocaust. But, largely because the Nazis took these ideas to their logical extreme, the eugenics movement was discredited for a generation after the end of the Second World War.

Biological determinism first began to make a comeback in the late 1960s as part of the ruling class response to the movements for social change in the US and elsewhere. In 1969 Arthur Jensen, a professor at Stamford, published a paper arguing that blacks are innately less intelligent than whites. Jensen's article, however, was soon subjected to withering criticism. The most devastating blow came in the mid-1970s when it was shown that research by the British psychologist Sir Cyril Burt, purporting to demonstrate that intelligence has a high degree of heritability, had been faked.

A second wave of biological determinism was soon launched with the development of sociobiology. E O Wilson and others claimed that evolutionary theory provides the key to understanding human behaviour. They argued that certain patterns of behaviour--such as hostility to outsiders, competition and male domination--were advantageous in the past and were now coded into our genes.

Ideas like this were taken up by the mass media. Business Week published an article titled 'A Genetic Defense of the Free Market' which claimed that 'self interest is the driving force in the economy because it is ingrained in each individual's genes'. Sociobiology was also enthusiastically embraced by far right and Nazi groups.

The claims of sociobiology are not only flawed, they are not consistent with the huge variability of human societies through history. Not every human society has exhibited the same sexual division of labour as our own, for example. Indeed, there has been tremendous cultural evolution in the past few thousand years which cannot be explained in biological terms.

We are now confronted by a third wave of revived biological determinism, a product of the new genetics and the continued need for the ruling class to search for explanations of social crisis that do not question the established order.

In the US, for example, the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) and the Centre for Disease Control have spent tens of millions of dollars on the 'Violence Initiative'. This project aims to study the biological roots of violence. Unsurprisingly, its subjects are not the Pentagon or the Los Angeles Police Department, but young blacks.

The claims of the genetic determinists are scientifically worthless, but politicians will use them in an effort to justify right wing policies on a whole range of social issues, from crime to education. The re-emergence of such ideas at a time when fascists have entered a Western European government for the first time since 1945 is particularly ominous. For this reason, these ideas must not go unchallenged.

But the challenge to these ideas cannot simply be an intellectual one, because science itself does not develop in a vacuum. It is not simply that under capitalism the fruits of science are frequently used by the minority who run society to dominate and exploit, although this is certainly true. For example, the most likely outcome of recent genetic research will be new forms of discrimination in employment and insurance, not cures for debilitating diseases. Social and political forces directly or indirectly affect the kinds of questions that are asked, the presuppositions that guide research and the interpretation of experimental results. In capitalism, the forces which shape science predominantly represent the power and interests of the ruling class. Those interests include a need to mystify the way in which society really functions. That is why the ideas of biological determinism constantly reappear, despite their lack of intellectual merit.

If we want to defeat biological determinism and its offspring, eugenics, we have to argue against its ideas while simultaneously attacking its material roots.


More than its parts

Mapping the human gene in the search for profits
Mapping the human gene in the search for profits

The Human Genome Project is the biggest scientific project since the space race. In the US its managers are planning a budget of $200 million a year for the next 15 years. The project is an attempt to chemically map a typical human's genes. Genes consist of DNA, a complex chemical that consists of a long series of chemical units called bases. The order of the bases specifies the composition of proteins in the body. A single gene contains the DNA specifying the composition of a single protein. The ultimate aim of the Human Genome Project is to define the order of the 3 billion bases contained in human DNA.

The project was launched almost simultaneously in two competing American institutions--in both cases for reasons of prestige and profit. In 1984 the University of Santa Cruz had just lost a bid to build a giant telescope. It was casting around for another big money, prestige project and it hit upon the Human Genome Project. The nuclear research laboratories of the American Department of Energy (DOE) were also looking for new work. The end of the Cold War meant that much of the money for nuclear weapons research was drying up. The DOE also had some experience of research in human genetics--it did the research into the effects of radiation on human genes.

Vast fortunes will be made, not least by the leading scientists who run the project. These are not disinterested searchers after truth. Biotechnology companies, the companies which exploit the new genetic technology, have developed directly out of university research labs. Almost without exception the leading molecular biologists have prominent positions in these companies, which stand to reap huge benefits.

The project is the practical outcome of the idea that everything worth knowing about human beings is determined by, or at least limited by, the genes. Put at its simplest the idea is that the so called universal features of human nature--heterosexuality, selfishness, violence in men or submissiveness in women--are carved in our genes.

Medical conditions like cancer and heart disease are treated in the same way. It may well be that these diseases have a genetic component. But genes do not cause cancer or heart attacks. Cancer generally develops after exposure to triggers like radiation or certain chemicals. Heart disease is brought on by poor diet and stress.

The idea that the actions and biology of human beings can simply be reduced to the structure of their genes is an example of reductionism. This is a form of logic which says that to understand anything we have to break it down into its smallest parts. To understand the properties of matter we break it down into molecules and atoms.

We can trace the rise of reductionism to the bourgeois revolutions of the 17th and 18th centuries. Before this time the natural philosophers who looked at nature saw it as one mystical whole. Everything was ordained by god and the job of the natural philosopher was to try to understand the world god had created.

Under the emerging capitalist society a new view arose. The new factories needed individuals who were free to sell their labour. Society was seen as being made of atomised individuals free to move from role to role. The properties of society resulted from the sum of the properties of the individuals. The new science mirrored this view. Rather than seeing nature as a mystical whole, it saw nature as something which could be explained by breaking it down into its constituent parts. This way of thinking has to a large extent persisted to the present.

Explaining where reductionism comes from is not the same thing as proving that it is wrong. Indeed reductionism has proved tremendously powerful at tackling simple systems. But it falls down when dealing with complex systems.

An alternative way of approaching genetics has been outlined by Steven Rose, R C Lewontin and others in the dialectical biology group. Instead of making DNA the master molecule and describing genes as making proteins, they describe genes as simply a part of a complex biochemical system. By themselves genes make nothing. It is only by interacting with the other chemicals inside the cell that proteins are produced. In turn, which proteins are synthesised and which are not is determined by a complex dialectical interaction between the cell and its environment.

The reductionist philosophy behind the Human Genome Project leads to a number of problems. The first is trying to sequence the human genome. But there is no one single genome. Every human being has a unique genetic constitution. If gene sequencing is to lead to detection of inherited conditions then it would have to compare the genomes of thousands of individuals before they could pick out which differences are significant and which are not--a waste of time and money.

More efficient, targeted techniques exist which have already pinpointed the genes for a number of simple inherited conditions like cystic fibrosis. Rather than wading through the billions of bases of DNA, targeted techniques start from the symptoms of the disease and work back to the genetic errors.

This type of research has already yielded valuable results. It has also demonstrated that reductionist logic in its simplest form is wrong. Haemophilia B is an inherited condition which can be traced to a single gene. So far the reductionist logic works. But if we follow the logic we would predict that there would be a single error on the gene. Not so. In fact research in Sweden has shown that in 216 individuals 115 different chemical errors lead to indistinguishable symptoms. If 115 different errors lead to the same disease, what hope is there of finding the relevant mistakes in the 3 billion bases of human DNA?

It is claimed that the Human Genome Project will lead to a greater understanding of inherited conditions and therefore to their treatment. But greater understanding doesn't necessarily lead to treatment. Fibrosis is a single gene inherited condition which is very well understood, but treatments are still far from satisfactory. In fact medical advances have often come without any great understanding. In the 1940s scientists found that certain chemicals killed bacteria but not human beings. Antibiotics were born. It was 40 years before they began to understand how they worked.

Eventually some treatments may emerge out of the project. But more efficient, targeted methods exist which could achieve the same results. The project receives backing because it reinforces ruling class ideas about the world, and because governments and big business are frightened of being left behind in the biotechnology race.

In a sane society genetic research would be carried out to help humanity, not to feed the coffers of huge institutions. Research would be carried out without a multitude of competing research groups ploughing through an unimaginable number of chemical bases, many of which are irrelevant.

Socialists don't oppose all genetic research. The work on cystic fibrosis means women can now make an informed choice about whether to continue with a pregnancy. However, under capitalism such choices are often not free.

Genetic engineering has allowed scientists to programme bacteria to produce vital human proteins like insulin, clotting factors and growth factors vital in the treatment of a number of diseases. The fact that they are produced by giant biotechnology companies means that exorbitant prices are charged.

Without the developments of science and technology socialism would be impossible. Genetic science can increase our understanding of the way our bodies work and can increase our ability to shape the world around us. But until science is controlled democratically, by the vast majority in the interests of the majority, much of our human ingenuity will be wasted.


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