Issue 199 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published July 1996 Copyright Socialist Review

Feature Article: Born or bred?

John Baxter

Hardly a week goes by without another press report of some behaviour or other being genetically determined. The list is ever growing but includes: violence, arson, infidelity, tendency to tease, intelligence, being a couch potato, alcoholism, exhibitionism, sinning, being a victim of violent crime, and so on and so on. Many of these claims are created by reporters caught up in the fashion to label everything as genetic. But even the more serious scientific claims are often later disproved without the facts ever reaching the popular press.

One famous case was the claim that a family had been found in which some members carried a gene which caused manic depression. The claim had to be withdrawn when two members of the family developed the condition who did not carry the gene.

The initial claim was splashed over the front pages of national newspapers, the later retraction didn't make it out of the pages of the specialist scientific literature.

Chris Brand, the self confessed scientific racist lecturer from Edinburgh University, recently caused an outcry when he tried to publish a book which argued that the differences in recorded IQ between black and white Americans could be explained by differences in their genes. A successful campaign by students at Edinburgh forced the publishers to withdraw the book. The extreme nature of Brand's comments has led many to label him as an irrelevant crackpot, but Brand's views reflect an emerging consensus that human characteristics and behaviour are to a greater or lesser extent determined by their genes.

In America the publication of the book The Bell Curve gave backing to both Democratic and Republican politicians wishing to attack the 'ideology of equality', the idea that all people should be treated equally irrespective of their race or class. Its authors Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein argued that the inequalities in society are all due to differences in inherited capabilities. If blacks and Latinos are poor, if they do not do as well at school, if they are more likely to be in prison, it is all down to their genes.

They argue that there is no point in spending money on welfare or affirmative action schemes because these people are programmed to fail. The only solution is to develop policies to stop them from breeding.

Since its publication serious scientists and sociologists have been almost unanimous in their condemnation of the book. It contained no original research and exclusively used the results of other 'race scientists' who use pseudo-science to justify their racism.

But unfortunately, while Brand and The Bell Curve may appear to be on the fringes of the academic world, mainstream academics are not so far behind. In Britain one of the government's research councils published a report in December 1995 by Peter Saunders of Sussex University. He argued that Britain is a meritocracy with only the brightest and the best rising to the top of society.

He uses statistics to show that children of middle class parents achieve better results at school. His conclusion is that this must be because they have inherited greater intelligence. The middle class have become a self perpetuating group because of their genes. He goes on to argue that the tiny minority of working class children who are brighter have an equal chance of rising into the middle class.

There are a number of glaring holes in the research: for example, he ignores the fact that better off parents are able to secure better education for their kids either as a result of paying for it directly or by virtue of the fact that they live in more expensive places. Given the crisis in the education system and that both Labour and Tories are attacking progressive education and calling for more selection, Saunders' survey is plainly a political intervention in the debate dressed up as science.

On both sides of the Atlantic politicians are trying to exploit the perception that violent crime is soaring. Establishment politicians can latch on to this unease that people feel by blaming individuals or families for the outbreak of 'lawlessness'. So we see Jack Straw calling for curfews on the ten year olds who are apparently causing a crime wave. Labour is following a tradition established in America, following Clinton's 'tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime' policy. It is easy to see that Straw is being tough on crime with his calls for curfews, but less obvious how he is being tough on the causes of crime. In fact increasingly for Labour the causes of crime are not the traditional social democratic ideas of deprivation, but of bad kids and bad families. Bad individuals are the cause of crime.

Given this political situation, and the general fashion for genetic explanations of human behaviour, it is not surprising that huge sums of money are being poured into research which claims to link violent and criminal behaviour to genes.

Whole conferences have been staged to examine the genetics of crime. The biggest was perhaps the CIBA Genetic Factors in Crime Conference which took place last year. After public protests and accusations of racism in America, the US National Institute for Health had twice refused to fund it. Eventually it took place in London. Even though one of the organisers stated that there could be 'no such thing as a gene for crime', the conference heard repeated claims that genes predisposing people to crime could be detected. Participants claimed that there are good prospects for developing drugs to control excessive aggression, and for tests which could detect the genes in foetuses.

Some scientists have gone as far as to argue that some murders are in some sense because of natural instincts. One points to the fact that stepfathers are 60 times more likely to murder their stepchildren than a natural parent. He interprets this as the man's instinct not to waste his time raising children carrying another man's genes. He makes no attempt to look at the social factors in families with stepfathers. Given the pressures to raise kids in a standard family, and the stresses which can result from parents splitting up, it is not surprising that these families are more likely to break down into violence.

The political implications of this science are clear. Crime is not related to poverty. Poverty and crime are both symptoms of bad genes. Right wing politicians, particularly in the US, are keen to use this pseudo-science as an excuse to attack welfare schemes.

But it is not enough to demonstrate that the politics of reducing people's behaviour to their genes is right wing. It is also necessary to show that it is bad science.

Firstly, it is bad science because it looks at society today and makes no allowance for the fact that the behaviours being studied are not necessarily ones which have existed for all time and in all societies. For example, one pattern of behaviour which has been reduced to genes is homosexuality.

Scientists have claimed that there is a gene for being gay. But the idea is ludicrous. The idea that there is a separate group of people who can be labelled homosexual has only existed for the last couple of hundred years. Same gender sexual relationships have existed in all societies, but the idea that gay people exist as a separate group is a relatively new one. It would be nonsense to suggest that the gene has only appeared in the last 200 years.

Secondly, some scientists lump together a group of behaviours, assume that they are all the same, and ignore other patterns of behaviour they assume to be different. Crime is a case in point. They lump together behaviours seen as criminal in our society, and look for genetic explanations. They tap the spinal fluids of violent prisoners to test for levels of a chemical which they believe reduces violent behaviour. But their choice of violence is completely socially determined. They do not look at the spinal fluids of the policemen who beat up blacks in custody or those of the soldiers who fought in the Gulf War. Violence in these instances is seen as justified. The idea that you can lump together a whole series of behaviours and label them as crime or violence is clearly flawed.

In the case of racial differences, most scientists would reject the crude racism of the likes of Brand. However, many accept the idea that there are differences between races and that these are somehow biologically significant. But this is simply not supported by the facts. Genetic research has shown that the variation amongst the genes of one of the so called races is greater than that between the races. The idea of race has a political history, reflecting the needs of the capitalist system, particularly in justifying the slave trade. In previous societies the idea that the colour of someone's skin was significant was completely unheard of. Why then should we believe it now?

Underlying all this work, which attempts to explain our behaviour in terms of our genes, is the idea that we can understand society by reducing it down to its constituent parts. If society is violent, it is because individuals within that society are violent. If individuals are violent it can be reduced down to the properties of their genes. This is an example of reductionist logic. But this logic simply does not work, even for simpler organisms.

Bacteria are simple single celled organisms. If a drop of sugar is placed on a dish containing bacteria, the bacteria will move towards the area of highest sugar concentration. They will digest the sugar and excrete waste products. As the concentration of the waste products builds up, the bacteria will move away from the new environment they have created. Genes are undoubtedly involved in this pattern of behaviour, but they do not cause it.

One of the ways in which genes are involved is in the process of creating the enzyme which allows the bacteria to digest the sugar. The presence of sugar in the environment causes a complex chemical process in which the gene is 'switched on'. The gene contains the chemical information necessary to construct the right enzyme. But the gene itself does not make the enzyme, it is merely a part of the process. In turn it cannot be said that the sugar in the environment causes the enzyme to be produced, because the bacteria has selected an environment containing sugar. Neither the gene nor the environment causes this behaviour. There is an inseparable dialectical interaction between the two.

If complex dialectical processes are needed to explain the behaviour of single celled organisms, how much more complicated will be the behaviour of a human being containing many millions of cells?

Modern determinist arguments can appear superficially more sophisticated, claiming that of course environment has an effect but that it is possible to separate the effects of environment from those of the genes. So Charles Murray will argue that intelligence is 80 percent genetic and 20 percent upbringing.

But this too is nonsense. Human beings are the result of a complex dialectical interaction between internal chemistry and environment. The two cannot be separated. If you bake a cake you cannot argue that the properties of the sponge are 30 percent due to the flour, 30 percent to the fat and 30 percent to the sugar. The final product is a result of the chemical combination of ingredients which occurs during baking.

Even if we could accept that human behaviour can be reduced to genes, much of the research in this area is highly dubious. Currently the majority of reports of genetic explanations of behaviour involve statistical analysis of groups or families. Once a link between a family or racial group and a perceived behaviour is made, the assumption is then that there must be genes involved. But this is science in a vacuum. It can be shown that statistically the children of Roman Catholic families are much more likely to be Roman Catholic than other members of the population. This does not mean that they carry a gene predisposing them to Catholicism.

The difficulties in doing genetic research on humans mean that even when scientists do directly examine human genetic material and try to draw correlations with behaviours they do so on tiny groups of individuals, in some cases on a single family. Drawing meaningful conclusions from such tiny samples would not even be considered in any other field of research.

These sorts of biological explanations of human behaviour are as old as the science of biology itself. In the late 19th century Darwin's cousin Francis Galton argued that intelligence is inherited and attempted to prove it by tracing the histories of famous English families. He founded the eugenics movement which campaigned for selective breeding to improve the human race. His ideas were taken up enthusiastically by scientists all over the world, particularly in America and Germany. In the US thousands were compulsorily sterilised in an attempt to wipe out what was labelled as 'feeble mindedness'. In Germany these ideas were taken up by the Nazis who used them to justify the Holocaust.

The barbarism of the Nazis' eugenic policies discredited eugenics for a generation after the Second World War. But since the late 1960s biological determinist arguments have repeatedly been thrown up.

The current wave of determinism is in part due to the massive technical advances which have taken place in genetics in the last 15 years. But it also reflects the social and economic crisis in society. The growing inequalities between rich and poor expose the realities of the capitalist system, but the ruling classes have to have an ideology which can explain their position. Once again science can step into the breach. While religion was used to justify the system under feudalism, science is the great legitimator under capitalism.

This is why it is so important that socialists have something to say in the debate. Recently scientists like Steven Jones have accused the left of 'lying to itself', claiming that we reject the science simply because we do not like its conclusions. He caricatures the left as arguing that genes and biology have no effect on the way we live our lives. But there is a tradition in biology of criticising both the conclusions of biological determinism and the bad science on which it is based. There is a tradition which goes back to Marx which argues that we are influenced by our biology but not determined by it.

The starting point of Marx's materialist analysis is that human beings are animals who have to eat and drink, who need shelter, who need to procreate. Exactly how we meet these needs changes as society changes, and so is shaped by human history, which is in turn shaped by the conscious activity of human beings.

Our biology does place limits on what we can do as individuals, but it also gives us the capacity to transcend those limitations. Individual human beings cannot fly, but our biology means that we have large brains and hands that can create a society that can produce aeroplanes. The greatest limitation on the development of the capacities of individual human beings is the capitalist system. Fortunately our biology and our history have given us the tools we need to change that system.

The XYY files

Attempting to find genes for criminality are not new. One relatively recent attempt was the XYY hypothesis. Biological gender is one trait which is determined by our genes. Gender is determined by a series of genes on the sex chromosomes. Men carry a chromosome called the Y sex chromosome. A tiny proportion of males carry an extra copy of the Y chromosome and are labelled XYY.

Given that in our society maleness is associated with aggression (although in many other cultures this has not been the case), it is not surprising that XYY men were examined for violent tendencies. In the early 1960s a number of articles were published which proposed that XYY males were excessively aggressive and showed a tendency toward 'criminality'. One report stated that in the prison population in Scotland there were 20 times the number of XYY males as in the general population. They claimed these men also tended to be unusually tall, show mental illness and retardation.

There was an explosion of press reports on the finding of the 'criminal gene'. In Boston two scientists launched a study to examine every new born boy for the XYY syndrome. They planned to then observe those tested positive for signs of abnormal behaviour. At the same time parents (who were not told the nature of the study) would be counselled if their child became aggressive. The project was eventually stopped after a number of protests.

Subsequent research demonstrated that most prisoners showing the XYY trait were not in prison for crimes of violence, and that in the wider population all but a tiny fraction of XYY men lead normal lives.

However, the power of the initial press reporting lives on. Despite the widespread acceptance amongst geneticists that the original research was wrong, current A-level biology textbooks are still reporting that 'the XYY syndrome predisposes men to be criminally insane'.

Return to Contents page: Return to Socialist Review Index Home page