Biology as Destiny

Are we really slaves to our genes?

Content Tools

When scientists reported the discovery of the so-called gay gene in 1993, the ensuing debate was about more than what causes homosexuality. As many realized, the deeper issue was the very definition of what it means to be human. It suddenly seemed possible that we weren’t the creatures of free will we thought we were. Perhaps we’re just slaves to our genes.

Since then, driven in part by further advances in genetic research, a belief that genes control all human behavior and ability has swept the popular culture. Forget about nurture, in other words; it’s all about nature. In an era when congeniality, criminal impulses, and IQ have all been linked to genes, biology rules.

“The sudden switch from a belief in nurture, in the form of social conditioning, to nature, in the form of genetics and brain physiology, is the great intellectual event . . . of the late 20th century,” writes Tom Wolfe in Forbes ASAP (Dec. 2, 1996). What Wolfe calls “the neuroscientific view of life” has become “the strategic high ground in the academic world, and the battle for it has already spread well beyond the scientific disciplines . . . into the general public. Both liberals and conservatives without a scientific bone in their bodies are busy trying to seize the terrain.”

The effort of the gay rights movement to make political hay of the gay-gene study is one example of this intellectual maneuvering, as is the controversial thinking of Bell Curve authors Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein, who argued essentially that African Americans were genetically inferior to whites. But, while it has become popular to explain human behavior in genetic and biological terms, there are dissenters. The biblical creationists, for instance, reject all human-origin theories that contradict the Book of Genesis, including evolution. They, among others, believe that humans are more than just another animal, despite new genetic evidence to the contrary. In their view, we possess a special essence that’s not inherited but divinely bestowed.

Barbara Ehrenreich and Janet McIntosh, writing in The Nation (June 9, 1997), note that this argument is “eerily similar” to a view now held by many academics, most of them leftists and feminists. The new “secular creationists” argue that humans have no “essential” nature that has been passed down genetically over time. We are, instead, creatures entirely shaped by cultural influences. In their eyes, this “unique and miraculous freedom from biology” gives us a status “utterly different from and clearly ‘above’ that of all other living beings.”

The new creationism “emerged as an understandable reaction to excess,” Ehrenreich and McIntosh note. Ever since Darwin’s day, “conservatives have routinely deployed supposed biological differences as immutable barriers to the achievement of a more egalitarian social order.” Even now, “schlock genetics has become the default explanation for every aspect of human behavior from homosexuality to male promiscuity, from depression to ‘criminality.’”

By the 1970s, they write, “antibiologism had become the rallying cry of academic liberals and feminists—and the apparent defense of human freedom against the iron chains of nature.” But with the arrival of the intellectual movements lumped under the term “postmodernism,” antibiologism began taking on its current religious fervor. In the space of a decade or two, what began as a healthy skepticism about the misuses of biology has become “a new form of dogma.”

Ehrenreich and McIntosh see dogmatism as the barrier to real understanding. Giving “biology its due while taking cultural mediation into account requires inclusive and complex thinking,” they write. And in the current “climate of intolerance, often imposed by scholars associated with the left,” it also takes courage. Both are rare.

Stephen Jay Gould finds this new turn of events amusing. An evolutionary biologist, Gould has spent his career trying to explain the mechanisms of natural selection, including genes, to a popular audience. Nevertheless, the prevailing belief that genetic factors alone are the root of human behavior strikes him as a fad—and no closer to the truth than a tendency 20 years ago to see it the other way around. “Today, genetic explanations are all the rage,” he writes in Natural History (June 1997). “As any thoughtful person understands, the framing of this question as an either-or dichotomy verges on the nonsensical. Both inheritance and upbringing matter in crucial ways.”

Gould predicts that the “current emphasis on nature will no doubt yield to a future fascination with nurture” as social and scientific attitudes shift once again. Which leads one to ponder why we humans so often prefer absolute answers to the subtle ambiguities of real knowledge. Could it be in our genes?