The self-righteous gene


Consider the following. An American Aids researcher, Dean Hamer, working at the prestigious National Cancer Institute, studies gay male twins and their brothers. He shows, in 1993, that gay men carry an identical segment of the X chromosome, known as Xq28. He publishes his study in a prestigious science journal, suggesting that males who inherit this section of the X chromosome from their mothers are genetically determined to be gay.

Everyone hails the ground-breaking "discovery" of the "gay gene". Hamer becomes an international celebrity; and scientists compete with each other to be the first to discover genes for other forms of human behaviour - genes for violence, alcoholism, criminal activity, religious bigotry and what have you. Documentaries are made explaining the gene's evolution and the genetic nature of homosexuality. Gays rejoiced at a breakthrough that explained why they were gays.

But now we have a crash landing. In a paper published recently in Science, the gay gene is debunked by a team of clinical neurologists led by George Rice from the University of Western Ontario. In a study of 52 gay brothers, using methods similar to those employed by Hamer, Rice and his team "found no evidence of linkage of sexual orientation to Xq28". Earlier, in an unpublished study reported last June at a meeting of the American Psychiatric Association, the University of Chicago psychiatrist Alan Sanders also failed to verify Hamer's result. Sanders' team studied 54 pairs of gay brothers and discovered only a statistically insignificant link with Xq28. Taken together, Rice says, the results "suggest that if there is a linkage it's so weak that it's not important". So the gay gene is all but dead.

But why were we so ready to believe in this piece of genetic determinism, which now turns out to be a biological fiction, in the first place? The birth and death of the gay gene tells us a great deal about both our own prejudices and how we perceive science. While we often react strongly against religious fundamentalism, we seem ever ready to swallow all varieties of scientific fundamentalism.

Consider how we treat two kinds of truth claims. If someone claims that homosexuality is a sin to be punished by death because it says so in the Bible, which is the word of God, most of us (rightly) react with horror. We tend to see such a person as a religious nut who needs psychological management rather than convincing. If, on the other hand, someone claims that homosexuality is a genetically determined trait, caused by a particular sequence in the DNA, we tend to think of this as a reasonably rational claim to truth. Even if we disagree with such a position, we nonetheless view the person adopting it as someone who needs convincing rather than a straitjacket.

Let's suppose it goes further. If someone claimed that we must follow the Bible's commands to execute non-virgin brides, troublesome sons and those guilty of blasphemy, you would really look for his keepers. But if instead he merely told you that genes determine our sexual preferences, propensities to violence, reading disabilities, drug and gambling addictions, attention-deficit disorders and post-traumatic stress disorders, you would consider him a bit extreme, but (especially if he is a reputable American scientist) not beyond the pale. All such claims are in the scientific record, published as facts.

Why such a difference? Because we are conditioned to believe that any statement that sounds scientific, however ill-founded or pernicious, should be respected and given the benefit of the doubt. After all, if it is based on experiments and mathematical deduction, it can't be all wrong, can it? So those who make such statements are entitled to a respectful hearing.

On the whole, I would say, this is sound counsel. The rigorous controls on scientific research have produced know-ledge that is both more soundly based and more effective in practice than anything from other modes of inquiry. But just as science can produce baneful effects, so it is possible for scientists to delude themselves that they are producing scientific facts when they are only confirming their prejudices. In his wonderful book, Mismeasure of Man, Stephen J Gould gives many examples of sincere scientists producing total rubbish in conformity with their prejudices; their theories and results fitted their sense of how things have to be, usually concerning the inferiority of non-white-Protestant-male people.

The new genetics is very prone to this tendency. Let us extend the analogy still further. For biblical fundamentalists, the text of the Bible embodies the units of truth, whose meaning is contained quite simply in the words they form. Problems such as integrity of texts, veracity of interpretations, changes of meaning and all the other considerations that go into critical scholarship are for them irrelevant or blasphemous. For the genetic fundamentalist, the units are the particular base-pairs which make up the "genes", and these cause, directly and unambiguously, all the properties of the whole organism. All talk of the complexity of the processes whereby bits of DNA induce physiological changes, or of our ignorance of the way these things happen, is just waved aside by the fundamentalist's simple faith.

The more sophisticated genetic scientists will say that this is a caricature of what responsible geneticists believe and claim. But unfortunately sophisticated genetic scientists are few and far between. The genetics landscape is dominated by the likes of fundamentalists such as Richard Dawkins and Steve Jones who are ready to attribute every human trait to our genetic make-up.

Indeed, genetic fundamentalism can show up in the most surprising places. One never knows when some scientist, if scratched, will reveal his simple faith. Even Sir Robert May, UK chief scientific adviser, seems to believe that genes are like beads on a string, capable of being shuffled around, with no effects from the changes in their context. In his Office of Science and Technology report on genetically modified (GM) food, May claims that, "we can transfer two or three precisely identified genes to a plant's typical total of around 20,000 genes (the functions of most of which are not understood). The added genes are extremely well understood. In this sense, the production of new GM plants is a much more controlled and understood process, with less potential for unforeseen consequences, than conventional artificial breeding." Although May would doubtless disagree with American colleagues on the existence of a gene for homelessness, he seems not to part company with them on fundamentals.

Religious fundamentalism is easily recognisable. It is both an easy instrument as well as an easy target for those who would manipulate popular prejudice. But we should remember that fundamentalist thinking does not respect boundaries of modes of thought. Scientific fundamentalism may well be an enemy within, more dangerous than the other sort because we are deprived of the means of recognising it for what it is.

Ziauddin Sardar, writer and broadcaster, describes himself as a ‘critical polymath’. He is the author of over 40 books, including the highly acclaimed ‘Desperately Seeking Paradise’. He is Visiting Professor, School of Arts, the City University, London and editor of ‘Futures’, the monthly journal of planning, policy and futures studies.

This article first appeared in the 24 May 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Luvvies, stop moaning