The genetics of blame

A gene for homelessness?
Is this a joke?
Not entirely, for those who subscribe to the
burgeoning new mix of science and politics called 'neurogenetic determinism',
writes Steven Rose.

Early last December the science writer Matt Ridley contributed a column to the British newspaper, the Daily Telegraph. He argued that, contrary to long-held common-sense views, genetic research now proved that how we are brought up and the nature of our family background have little effect on the sort of people we become. All important aspects of our personality are somehow preordained by the genes in our bodies. Hence, he concluded bluntly, interventions by social workers into our lives would not solve these problems; it was time for political conservatives to abandon their residual moral authoritarianism and move towards policies more in accord with biological realism.

Ridley's views on the importance of genes are shared by much of the press. Week on week newspapers report what are seen as major breakthroughs in biological and medical understanding, though few draw out the seeming political lessons with such clarity. A random sampling of newspapers last autumn offered: the discovery of a gene contributing to IQ and another for schizophrenia, Edward Kennedy's belief that he carried 'the genes for alcoholism', and an announcement that mail-order gene tests would soon be available.

Genes have been located, it is claimed, not only for diseases like breast cancer but for homosexuality, alcoholism and criminality. And there is the notorious and only half-facetious speculation by Daniel Koshland, former editor of the prestigious Science journal, that there might even be genes for homelessness.

At the same time as drugs to extend life, improve memory, prevent compulsive shopping, make newspaper headlines, university scientists call press conferences in which they claim to have discovered the biological causes of sexuality or of violence in modern society.

In 1995 the London-based medical charity, the CIBA Foundation, announced that it was sponsoring a closed meeting of behaviour geneticists whose research pointed to a 'biological' origin for the incidence of violent crime - and of course its concentration in non-white inner city ghettos. An earlier attempt to hold a similar meeting in the US had to be called off when protesters objected to its racist assumptions.

The emerging synthesis of genetics and the brain sciences - neurogenetics - and its philosophical and political offspring, neurogenetic determinism offers the prospect of identifying, ascribing causal power to, and eventually modifying genes affecting brain and behaviour. In a world full of individual pain and social disorder, neurogenetics claims to be able to answer the question of where we should look not merely to explain but also to change our condition. Give social reasons their due, the claim runs, but in the last analysis what really determines things is biology. Urban violence, homelessness and psychic distress are desperately serious features of modern life to which solutions are required - although no-one to my knowledge is researching the genetic causes of homophobia, racism or financial fraud. There is a widespread despair at the failure of the socialist - or even social-democrat - project of remodelling society to alleviate these ills. Under such circumstances it is easy to understand the attractiveness of seeking explanations - and interventions - rooted in human biology. This drift from the social was memorably summed up by Margaret Thatcher when she claimed there is no such thing as society - only individuals and their families.

The question is whether such explanations are valid and useful or whether they merely exacerbate social distress whilst failing to provide meaningful scientific insights into the origins of the problems they seek to understand.

This is not a new debate; it has recurred in each generation at least since Darwin's day. What is new today is the way in which the mystique of the new genetics is seen as strengthening the genetic argument. At its simplest, neurogenetic determinism argues a directly causal relationship between gene and behaviour. A man is homosexual because he has a 'gay brain', itself the product of 'gay genes', and a woman is depressed because she has genes 'for' depression. There is violence on the streets because people have 'violent' or 'criminal' genes; people get drunk because they have genes 'for' alcoholism.

Such simplification, with its cheaply seductive dichotomies of nature or nurture, genes or environment, is fallacious. The phenomena of life are always and simultaneously about nature and nurture. Human existence and experience is always and simultaneously biological and social. Adequate explanations must involve both. Yet again and again one finds the simplistic, unqualified, determinist claim making the headlines and setting the research agenda.

The undoubted successes of molecular biology since the discovery of the double-helical structure of DNA in 1953 have fostered a gung-ho triumphalism amongst such genetic propagandists - the belief that their science can explain everything that is to be explained about the human condition. That they can rebuild humanity in an improved image if allowed. 'Give me a gene and I can move the world,' seems to be their claim. Furthermore, the new neurogenetic determinists want not merely to do their science but also to control its uses. Sociobiologist EO Wilson, for instance, advocates a code of ethics which is 'genetically accurate and hence completely fair'.

So is such neurogenetic determinism good science? I believe that it is not, that it constantly oversimplifies the complexity of human behaviour and shoehorns it into genetic models.

Take violence as an example. To make the claim stick, determinism has first of all to lump together many quite different activities - rape and arson, child-beating, pub brawls, strikers confronting police on picket lines, civil war. The US fighter pilot directing a smart missile at a Baghdad bunker is supposed to be showing the same biological propensity as a man beating up his lover. All are examples of some brain process going on inside 'the violent individual', a brain process that can be objectively quantified, separated into 'genetic' and 'environmental' components, and then potentially drugged or engineered away. As if anyone could really believe that genocide in Bosnia could have been prevented by manipulating the serotonin levels in the brains of Serbian generals or politicians.

Such determinism serves to relocate social problems to the individual, thus 'blaming the victim' rather than exploring the societal roots and determinants of the issues that concern us. Violence in modern society is no longer to be explained in terms of inner-city squalor, unemployment, extremes of wealth and poverty and the loss of the hope that by collective effort we might create a better society. Rather, it is a problem resulting from the presence of individual violent persons, themselves violent as a result of disorders in their biochemical or genetic constitution.

But in a strange way, the blame is simultaneously placed upon them and lifted from them. Where once a murderer might have been regarded as morally culpable, or the cause of his violence sought in an unhappy or abused childhood, now it is argued to be due to chemical imbalances in his brain, themselves the consequence of faulty genes or birthing difficulties. Thus in a recent US court case the lawyer of Stephen Mobley, sentenced to death for the violent murder of a pizza-parlour manager, seeks permission to mount a genetic defence against the sentence, claiming that the killer may carry a gene which predisposes him to violence. In which case Mobley would not be 'responsible' for the murder he committed. 'It was not me, it was my genes.'

Another interesting twist is demonstrated in the case of homosexuality. If it is 'in the genes' then there is no way a society, however homophobic, can justify condemning gay people for following their genetic dictates. It is not surprising therefore that certain sections of the gay and lesbian community have actively welcomed the genetic claims or that the Christian fundamentalist right are worried about just how far the determinist argument can be stretched.

The second immediate consequence of such determinism is that attention and funding is diverted from the social to the molecular. If rates of alcoholism are catastrophically high amongst native Americans or aboriginal Australians, the ideology demands funding research into the genetics and biochemistry of alcoholism. Of course one can offer multiple forms of explanation for any phenomenon in the living world. Of course there are likely to be differences in the brains and bodies of people who become 'alcoholic' or 'violent' compared with those who are not - and research exploring these differences can be informative. But it doesn't necessarily provide an explanation or point to a solution. For example, crimes of violence are more frequently carried out by men than by women. One may argue that this says something about the Y chromosome, carried by men and not women. But the overwhelming majority of men are not violent criminals, so the policy implications of research seeking to explore the Y chromosome in the context of crime - short of selective abortion of all male foetuses - are negligible.

Violent crime is much higher in the US than in Europe. Could this be accounted for by some unique feature of American genes? Well, possibly, but pretty unlikely granted that much of the American population originated by migration from Europe. But also the rates of violent crime have changed dramatically over quite short time periods. For instance the death rate from homicide amongst young US males increased by 54 per cent between 1985 and 1994. No biologically based explanation can account for this increase, so what has changed in the US over this period which might account for such an increase? What is different about the organization of US society from that of Europe? Could one important difference be the estimated 280 million handguns in personal possession in the US? Unlike genetic ones, such hypotheses may give clues for real solutions.

Good, effective science requires a better recognition of the variety of causes and possible solutions. Failing this it becomes a waste of human ingenuity and resources, a powerful ideological strategy of victim-blaming and a distraction from the real tasks that both science and society require.

Steven Rose is Professor of Biology at the Open University, Britain. His latest book Lifelines exploring the themes of this article, was published by Penguin, London, last September.

Contents - this Issue     Magazines Home