How can we explain both our disquiet about the new genetics and our enthusiasm biological explanations of human nature?by Kenan Malik / August 20, 2000 / Leave a comment
There were two broad responses to the unveiling, in June, of the first draft of the human genome. Some over-enthusiastic scientists and some gullible journalists gushed about having deciphered “the book of life.” Sequencing the human genome, they said, will enable us to “understand what it means to be human,” and will transform our ideas of man. “We used to think our fate was in the stars,” James Watson, co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, has said. “Now we know it is in our genes.”
For others, the success of the geneticists was an occasion for dread, not celebration. Many feared that genetic manipulation will lead not to medical advance but to social regression. The Campaign Against Human Genetic Engineering has called for a halt to cloning and genetic manipulation, because it worries about eugenics and genetic discrimination. The Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, questioned the morality of tampering with nature. “What will become of love and loss, of the sanctity of human life?” he asked. “If persons are no longer individuals but rather genetic types that can be replicated at will, what then becomes of our most central values?”
Both responses are mistaken. The Human Genome Project has immense potential, but it certainly will not reveal the secrets of human life; there is more to life than a string of genes. The fears about the project are equally misplaced. Genetic advance, like most technological advances, throws up many social and moral challenges. But that is exactly what they are: social and moral issues, not scientific ones. Holding back genetic research will not help us to tackle them.
What the two responses to the Human Genome Project reveal is the contradictory character of current attitudes to biological research. On the one hand there is a deep fear of the consequences of scientific innovation. Public unease about genetic experimentation, scepticism about scientific pronouncements, and the belief that scientists are too arrogant have all increased dramatically in recent years, particularly in the wake of the BSE scandal and the “Frankenfood” scares. Many people sympathise with Prince Charles’s admonition of genetic revolutionaries for “taking mankind into realms that belong to God and God alone.”
And yet, while people are fearful about the practical consequence of biological-and in particular genetic-science, there is equally great interest in and support for biological theories of human nature. Richard Dawkins, Steven Pinker, EO Wilson, Matt Ridley, Jared Diamond-evolutionary biologists are among the literary superstars of our age, as much entertainers as scientists, writing bestsellers and packing lecture theatres. They are called on to inject Darwinian wisdom into all manner of political and cultural debates. While Steven Pinker explains in the New Yorker why Bill Clinton shared a cigar with Monica Lewinsky, Helena Cronin debates on Newsnight about whether it makes evolutionary sense for women to have toyboys as partners.
How are we to understand this apparent contradiction between, on the one hand, hostility to biological experimentation and, on the other, enthusiasm for biological explanations of human nature? The answer is that both draw upon the same, almost mystical concept of nature-and particularly of the nature of genes. Both are also, in their own ways, responses to the sense of disorientation which pervades contemporary society. We live in an age of confusion and dislocation-moral, political and social-and this has helped shape the public’s attitude to science.
Few things have more changed our world than science. From Galileo to Darwin, from Newton to Einstein, scientists and their discoveries have helped transform material conditions and open up new social and moral vistas. Yet it is the very notion of human-directed change that many people find so troubling. A century of unparalleled bloodshed and destruction has created widespread scepticism about human capacities. Every impression that man makes upon his world seems for the worse. The attempt to master nature has led to global warming and species depletion. The attempt to master society has led to Auschwitz and the gulags. We no longer believe, Michael Ignatieff noted in Prospect last year, that “material progress entails moral progress.” “We eat well, we drink well, we live well,” Ignatieff observed, “but we do not have good dreams. The Holocaust remains a ghost at our feast; every time it slips from our mind it makes a terrible recurrence: Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, now Kosovo.” “We seem to be afraid of ourselves-of our uniquely human attr-ibutes,” the late ecologist Murray Book-chin noted. “We seem to be suffering from a decline in human self-confidence and in our ability to create ethically meaningful lives.”
Against this background, the contrasting reactions to genetic engineering and to evolutionary psychology begin to make sense. What many (often the same) people fear is a science which disturbs their moral compass, upsetting traditional ideas of humanity and nature; a science which promises new forms of control over nature, new means of mastery over human destiny. Hence the reaction against genetic engineering. What many people are drawn to is a science which seems to provide solace and comfort, which seems to turn an explanation about the human condition into a parable about fate. So they are drawn to evolutionary psychology. Tortured as we are by disorientation and self-distrust, we long for origin myths which can explain our place in the natural order and absolve us of responsibility for our destiny.
The common thread in these two views of science is a debased view of what it means to be human, and an exalted view of nature. In an age in which human activity is held in low esteem, there is a tendency to deify nature. In almost every aspect of life the “natural” is regarded as superior to the artificial, or human-from natural health treatments to organic foods and green energy sources.
The deification of nature has led people both to decry a science which seems to defile the purity of nature, and to laud a science which seems to make us more natural. Biotechnology that threatens to transform our relationship with nature is seen as unnatural-almost blasphemous. “Have we the right,” the molecular biologist Erwin Chargaff asks, “to counteract, irreversibly, the evolutionary wisdom of millions of years?” A 1989 European Parliament committee report on genetic engineering argued that “each generation must be allowed to struggle with human nature as it is given to them, and not with the irreversible biological results of their forebears’ actions.”
The writer Bryan Appleyard echoes this view in his book Brave New Worlds. “We cannot impose on future generations our conceptions of biological improvement,” he argued, “because to do so represents an assault on human dignity. For it is a struggle with the givens of human nature that defines humanity.” Such givens of human nature “demand, from geneticists in particular, a very cautious and humble approach.”
The idea that nature embodies certain verities, and that these verities define the boundaries which we cross at our peril, is at the heart of contemporary fear of the new biology. Jonathon Porritt, former director of Friends of the Earth and friend of Prince Charles, worries in his new book, Playing Safe, that “the ‘hard lines’ between different organisms and species are beginning to melt away.” We can “now pick and choose individual genes from one organism to introduce into a totally different and unrelated organism, crossing all biological boundaries, in combinations that nature never could and never would bring together.” In an age in which social and moral boundaries appear so fluid, it has never seemed more important to view natural boundaries as solid and permanent. “Living things are no longer perceived as birds and bees, foxes and hens,” the American writer Jeremy Rifkin observes in The Biotech Century, “but as bundles of genetic information. All living things are drained of their substance and turned into abstract messages.” In this new science there is no sense of “sacredness or specialness.” The demand that we rediscover a sense of the sacred in our relationship with nature is really a plea to restore a degree of structure and order to our lives. A strong God makes a firm boundary.
there is one boundary, however, that Rifkin, Porritt, Appleyard, Chargaff and Prince Charles, far from wishing to preserve, are eager to smash down: the boundary between humans and nature. They are appalled at the idea that humans see themselves as standing above nature, exploiting nature for their own ends. Scientists, Prince Charles claimed in his Reith lecture, must learn “to use science to understand how nature works-not to change what nature is.” Yet if there is one thing that makes us human, one thing that defines the “essence” of our humanity, it is the very opposite of this. As a species we have become human not by respecting nature’s dictates, but by challenging the “way things are” in the natural state of affairs. Charles’s contrast between “developing genetically manipulated crops” and “traditional systems of agriculture, which have stood the test of time” because they are “working with the grain of nature,” is a spurious one. All agriculture works against the grain of nature-the cultivation of crops, the domestication of animals, the breeding of new varieties, the transformation of the landscape. If it did not, we would still be living in the wilderness. (There we might meet a neolithic Prince Charles lecturing his neighbour who is sowing a field of barley: “This is unnatural! We should stick to hunting mammoths and foraging for berries.”)
This process of bending nature to suit our needs-of transgressing “nature’s boundaries,” as the ecomystics would have it-is also the process by which we carve out a boundary between ourselves and the rest of nature. Humans are unique because, alone among organisms, we are both objects of nature and subjects who can shape our own fate. We are biological beings under the purview of biological and physical laws. But we are also conscious beings with purpose and agency, traits which allow us to design ways of breaking the constraints of biological and physical laws. We are both inside nature and outside it. In trying to dissolve the line between human and animal, ecomystics deny this special quality of being human. Disillusioned with human capacities, they seek to make humans more natural.
unlike ecomysticism, which relies upon “intuition” and the sense of the sacred, evolutionary psychology is rooted in real science which, over the past three decades, has helped us better understand the character of human behaviour. Much of its appeal, however, rests on the same sense of social and moral dislocation as that which fuels ecomysticism. This context has also pushed contemporary Darwinian thinking in more irrational directions.
For many people, Darwinian explanations of what makes us human seem to map the givens of human nature. “Can a Darwinian understanding of human nature help people reach their goals in life?” the evolutionary psychologist Robert Wright asked in his book The Moral Animal. “Can it help them choose their goals? Can it help distinguish between practical and impractical goals? More profoundly, can it help in deciding which goals are worthy? That is, does knowing how evolution has shaped our basic moral impulses help us decide which impulses we should consider legitimate?” The answers, he believes, “are yes, yes, yes, yes and finally, yes.”
For thinkers like Wright, evolutionary explanations help to locate us in the world, and give us ready-made moral answers. The philosopher Michael Ruse, for example, believes that “our moral ideas are thrust upon us… as a function of our biology.” This is similar to the old Christian belief that reason and morality are created by God and that freedom lies in becoming conscious of God’s will. The difference is that, for Ruse, God has been replaced by Nature.
Evolutionary psychologists, as much as ecomystics, are attracted to the idea of fixed boundaries. Boundaries, EO Wilson suggests, “limit the human prospect-we are biological and our souls cannot fly free.” We cannot follow any path we wish to, Wilson argues. There are certain things we can do, certain things we are compelled to do, and certain things we are constrained from doing, either because our minds are not so designed or because to do it would be psychologically costly. Most evolutionary psychologists, for example, believe that attempting to abolish the family as the basic unit of organisation would court disaster. Humans are naturally inclined to love and protect their closest relatives. Thwarting this desire would be costly both to the individuals and to the society-which is why, Matt Ridley believes, communism failed.
But if thinkers like Wilson and Ridley believe that nature shows us what we cannot do, they also believe that it shows us what we can do. As a result, evolutionary theory is giving rise to visions of what might be politically possible. The east African savannah has become not simply the place where the first humans emerged; it is also the new terrain of political debate. For Matt Ridley, evolution reveals why governments are bad and markets are good. Socialism doesn’t suit human nature, he argues. Markets are written into our genes: “Man the hunter-gatherer, man the savannah primate, man the social monogamist-and man the exchanger. Exchange for mutual benefit has been part of the human condition at least as long as homo sapiens has been a species.” Socialism is for chimps; real men barter. The moral of Ridley’s evolutionary story is that governments should stop meddling in our lives. Peter Singer disagrees: he wants to reclaim Darwinism for the left, and suggests that “a readiness to cooperate seems to be part of our nature.” Marek Kohn, similarly, suggests that evolutionary psychology has “identified as key themes fairness, cooperation, differences of interests between the sexes, and equality. Those who want a fairer, more cooperative and less unequal society should gain confidence about what is possible as they become used to handling tools that sociobiological studies make available.”
Francis Fukuyama stands somewhere between Ridley and Singer. Like Ridley, he wants to dispense with government as far as this is possible; but like Singer, he pines for greater civic virtue. In his book The Great Disruption (Profile Books), Fukuyama bemoans the destruction of social life brought about by the break-up of the postwar order, a destruction which has led to increased crime and social disorder, the decline of the family and the weakening of social bonds and common values. The solution to these problems, he argues, lies as much in human nature as in social policy. Nature, he believes, has already given us “certain built-in capacities for solving problems of social cooperation.” If governments would only leave us alone, people will naturally recreate communities and social bonds.
Homo thatcherus, homo equalitas, homo communitas-all, apparently, have emerged from the savannah. Evolution allows us to dream it all. How convenient that on the African savannah of 100,000 years ago we should find the tools to remake the politics of today. How even more convenient that these tools should match exactly one’s own political inclinations. We should not be too surprised that political debate has been transposed back into the Stone Age in this fashion. As politics has become irrelevant to many people’s lives, so they are more inclined to look to natural selection as a new agency of change. If humans cannot do it for themselves, they feel, then perhaps nature will give us a helping hand. And in an age of uncertainty, when many people feel a sense of alienation both from social institutions and each other, evolutionary theory offers a kind of anchorage. It gives people a sense of who they are, where they have come from, and where they are going. Just as social uncertainties have made people eager for tales of nature’s innate wisdom, so it has created a space for evolutionary stories.
Where the new genetics seems to exacerbate our sense of impermanence by blurring traditional boundaries, the new Darwinism seems to establish a new set of constraints, and hence to provide a sense of certainty. It creates a new myth about what it means to be human. “People need a sacred narrative,” EO Wilson argued in Consilience. “They must have a sense of larger purpose, in one form or other, however intellectualised.” Such a sacred narrative, he believes, can be either a religion or a science. “The true evolutionary epic,” he writes, “retold as poetry, is as intrinsically ennobling as any religious epic.”
Where Prince Charles wants to restore a sense of the sacred in our dealings with nature, Wilson wants to naturalise the idea of sacredness. The result is not so much evolutionary psychology as evolutionary theology: a new (or perhaps New Age) religion for mankind. This is ironic because Wilson, like most evolutionary biologists, is hostile to religion. But in replacing God with Nature, Wilson has turned science into faith. Like eco-mysticism, what we might call evo-mysticism has also become a means of setting limits to human accomplishment, of providing solace in anxious time.
There are few things more human than science. To be human is to disturb the universe, to humanise it, to bend it to our will. Only through transcending nature, do we begin to realise ourselves as human beings-as creatures who make our history, rather than simply act it out. There are, therefore, few things more dispiriting than turning science into faith. Faith disempowers humans, snatching from their hands the responsibility for their fate. It sets up limits to human possibilities. Making a faith of science is particularly invidious because it turns the party of reason into the high priests of myth, transmuting an open-ended, quizzical view of the world into a narrow, closed dogma. It is this which we should be truly worried about. n