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 Earlier, in an unpublished study reported last June at a meeting of the American Psychiatric Association, the University of Chicago psychiatrist Alan Sanders also failed to verify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

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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.