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…