A few days ago, La 2 of Televisión Española (TVE) aired the documentary “A dangerous idea”, dubbed in Spanish under the title “Cuestión de genes” (you can see it here in Spanish until 24th May). This is a pamphlet intended to convince us that genes neither determine our traits nor have too much importance. And also to discredit scientists of the standing of James Watson (Nobel Prize in 1953, co-discoverer of the double helix structure of DNA), Edward O. Wilson (father of Sociobiology), Richard Dawkins (author of The Selfish Gene) and even indirectly the very same Charles Darwin, establishing links between their findings and repugnant things such as racial supremacism, forced sterilizations or eugenic delusions. As if the Nazis had invented natural selection and genes! The documentary aims to sell the idea that heritability of intelligence or differences between men and women are “ridiculous”, that gender is a social construct without a biological basis (penises, testicles, and vaginas would have little to say about it), that molecular biology has become a dangerous religion with prophets who are blindly followed…
Postmodernists and radical feminists will be delighted with an anthropologist called Agustín Fuentes, who happily says that “biology does not explain the difference of genres” and that “the idea that there is one thing within us that I pass onto my children and you pass onto your children (…) is not right, but a very powerful metaphor and a really good story”. Gender and cultural studies, increasingly influential in western universities in spite of being ideologically biased and theorizing behind all scientific evidence, are doing a disservice to the knowledge of human nature. According to @Yeyoza, they have come to affirm on Swedish television that women are smaller than men because of patriarchy.
It is nonsense to deny that we have, like any other living being, a genetic programming in our cells. Of course, humans do also have culture in addition to genes: in fact, the key to our evolutionary triumph appears to be in it, in our ability to cooperate on a massive basis thanks to language and shared myths (which, according to the historian Yuval Harari, would not have been invented without a genetic mutation – or perhaps a change in the expression of genes?- that 70.000 years ago allowed our ancestors the development of a new cognitive capacity: imagining things that do not exist). What we are is a product of the interaction between genes and culture, but genetic substrate is fundamental and culture emerges from it.
The genome of Homo sapiens is the code of instructions that makes us human and not squirrels, bacteria, or oaks. All featherless bipeds share the greater part of their programming, but there are small differences (only in around 0.1% of DNA) which explain the individual diversity of humanity. No one is genetically identical to another, except in the case of univitellin twins: there are people smarter -and sillier- than others, higher and lower, more peaceful and more aggressive, with greater or lesser tolerance to lactose or gluten… This variability exists in all the kingdoms of life and is the repertoire on which natural selection acts: there would be no selection or sieve if everything was the same. Noting that we are different, and in particular that men and women are different, does not mean that we should not enjoy the same rights.
If height, hair type or eye colour are inherited traits (I suppose postmodernists and radical feminists do not object to this), why not intelligence, aggressiveness or empathy? The fact that Massai are usually higher than Welsh, and Chinese more intolerant to lactose than Swedes, is a matter of genetics (of course, there will always be Welsh people higher than Massai, Swedes intolerant to lactose and Chinese who drink milk without any problem). But, as well as there are individuals more intelligent than others, do we dare to rule out the possibility that a people or group X is on average more intelligent than another Y thanks to a possible genetic advantage? (some already argue that there are cultures better than others, as I pointed in another entry on this blog)… I recognize this is entering into thorny ground because it could give ammunition to racist rabble, which usually are not very smart. Should truth always prevail however uncomfortable it may be?… In any case, I insist that differences in the capacities and skills of humans should not lead to distinctions in their dignity: moral comes into play here (remember that conventional speciesist speech deprives animals of the right to live by appealing to their lower intelligence).
In “A dangerous idea” they say that “the idea of DNA as an almighty gen (sic)” was severely questioned when it was discovered that the so-called junk DNA is in the majority, so that most of the genome would not encode proteins or play any known function. In fact, recent scientific research (such as that conducted by Ewan Birney, coordinator of ENCODE project) points in the opposite direction: the entire genome would be functional, so what we thought to do nothing seems to be involved in the regulation of the expression of genes and in the organization of the chromosome architecture. But even assuming junk DNA (there was speculation about it being simple parasitic accompanying material), why should we infere from it that we are not strongly influenced by genes?… Another alleged blow to genetic religion would have been, according to the pamphlet, the discovery that the number of human genes (about 20.000) was much smaller than initially expected and even lower than that of other animal and plant species. But does that mean that we are not to a large extent genetically determined?… Formerly we also used to think that a larger brain should be more intelligent, but that’s not necessarily so. Genome and brain are extremely complex realities still quite unknown.
We could define the gene as any piece of the genome (the human genome has more than 3 billion characters drawn from an alphabet of five letters – A, G, C, T, and U- which are the nitrogenous bases) that determines any feature of a living organism and is transmitted through inheritance from generation to generation. Of course there is not a gene of terrorism or a gene of God, but there is indeed a greater or lesser genetic predisposition to aggression, impulsivity or rationality that makes people more inclined – education and culture give the push- to the exercise of terrorism or the belief in God (or both at the same time). Certainly, there is not a gene of intelligence, since this is a multifactorial trait defined by diverse genes. And, of course, environment does influence, since genetic substrate can be culturally enhanced or inhibited. A genetic predisposition to high intelligence may be truncated if one suffers from malnutrition, does not receive adequate medical care or is not intellectually and emotionally stimulated in his or her early years. This explains the fact that intelligence tests made to individuals from the most disadvantaged social groups tend to produce bad outcomes. That is, poverty harms intelligence for the same reason that economic and social welfare is a benefit. But that should not make us forget that potential intelligence comes at birth.
Robert Pollack, expert on relations between science and religion, alert that we have not learned anything from the human capacity to do evil to the born different, supposedly fed by ideas related to genetics. He is unaware that this propensity to genocide is precisely inscribed in our genes and, unfortunately – although we would not be here otherwise!-, has informed our evolutionary history. He may also not be aware that our good instincts are also printed in our genome. Of course, ignoring human nature (that is both cooperative and selfish/evil) we will not learn too much and keep stumbling over the same stone. At the end of the programme you hear that it is “very liberating” to discover that genes carry not much weight, since this means that through education we will be able one day to eradicate violence and evil and achieve a happy and egalitarian Arcadia: we would all be good companions! But it is false that we are blank sheets at birth and that education can redeem all mankind (psychopathy, that has a genetic basis, is incorrigible). As Watson says, “we cannot be what we want to be”… unless we change our genetic programming. And it’s better to know this, so as not to mislead ourselves with unfeasible chimeras (some utopian dreams that, paradoxically, have led us to some of the most sinister dystopias).
In their attack on the prophets of gen, the authors of the documentary act in bad faith by putting immediately after an image of Richard Dawkins on a podium a poster of Monsanto, one of the sponsors of the event in which he was speaking. The subliminal message is clear: “You see the spurious interests behind these fanatics of gen”. It’s the cherry on top of this singularly grotesque pseudoscientific pamphlet that, although with the best of intentions (putting a stop to supremacist idiocies in American society), aims to label both genetics and evolutionary biology and psychology as pseudoscience.
(My thanks to biologist Antonio José Osuna Mascaró, author of El error del pavo inglés, for his careful reading of the text and valuable suggestions)