Republishing the first of a major series of articles, Steve Arnott argues for a new left prospectus based on a synthesis of Marxist and Darwinist ideas, and that in the field of biology and human nature, the left needs to abandon some cherished myths and shibboleths for a greater degree of scientific understanding.
"Origin of man now proved - Metaphysic must flourish - He who understands baboon would do more towards metaphysics than Locke."
Charles Darwin- Notebooks
“The human being is in the most literal sense a political animal, not merely a gregarious animal, but an animal which can individuate itself only in the midst of society.”
marxdarwin/darwinmarx; montage by the author
What has Darwin ever done for us?
If the work of Charles Darwin, its implications, development and modern synthesis, have traditionally been neglected by the media, then, six years ago, the year of the bicentennial of Darwin’s birth, more than made up for it.
Particularly in the television sphere (and most notably from public sector broadcasters) there was a plethora of programming on Darwin. Almost everything was covered, from the voyage of the Beagle and his observations in the Galapagos Islands to the vital and imaginative experiments he carried out at his country house to prove aspects of natural selection; from his family life and his gradual retreat from religion (he begun early adulthood with the ambition to be a country pastor) to analysis after analysis on the great debates and distortions his key work has engendered since publication.
The comedian Harry Hill quipped on his Saturday night family show TV Burp at the time ‘too many Darwin programmes on the telly at the moment’ – and got a good laugh from his live audience. It was back handed compliment – the old naturalist and his work had impinged on the realm of mass consciousness in a way rarely seen before.
The evolutionist intensity has barely receded. Given the brutal honesty with which the BBC has shown to its audience since then, particularly as a partisan cheerleader for the British State, perhaps we should also be suspicious of the crowning of Charles Darwin as a great champion of scientific reason?
Maybe we could? Some siren voices will suggest we should.
But that would be completely wrong.
From all these ‘too many’ Darwin programmes a consistent picture of Charles Darwin emerged.
He was a thorough and industrious intellect, but no natural self promoter and certainly not an instinctive polemicist like his contemporary, Marx. He was diffident, and careful, in parsing his conclusions. As a middle class English country gentleman of means and an already established naturalist of note, he was almost painfully aware of what publication of his ideas on the origin of species would mean in terms of its challenge to the cultural paradigms of the day - the religious explanation of creation, human exceptionalism and, arguably, West European white exceptionalism (though, of course, Darwin would not have thought of it in precisely these modern terms.)
The Origin of Species was published in 1859. It concentrated on presenting Darwin’s accumulated evidence for evolution by natural selection (and sexual selection) in the animal and plant kingdom, but one animal was notably absent from the discussion – homo sapiens. Darwin referred to natural selection and humankind only once in hundreds of pages of text in the splendidly isolated sentence ‘Light will be thrown on man and his history.’
Could Darwin have had any idea just how all-encompassing his ‘dangerous idea’ – to use philosopher Daniel Dennett’s now celebrated phrase – would become in the sphere of human discourse and history, not just in science, but in psychology, politics, sociology and economics? Sitting in his garden at Down house on a drowsy summer’s day, halfway through the nineteenth century, perhaps jotting down notes from his latest experiments, could he possibly have had even a glimmer of either the predictive power or political potency of the simple, elegant idea he was shortly to unleash on the world?
We can never know, of course, but I open this series of articles on Darwinism, Marxism, their connections and possible synthesis, with the quote that heads up this chapter for a very good reason. I want to indicate that at least once - perhaps in the passing - Charles Darwin entertained the idea that the explanatory power of his new approach to the natural world was a thoroughly revolutionary one for human ideas and philosophy.
Similarly, I want to indicate from Marx’s own words in the second quote, that, if we are to take his own careful language ‘literally’, then Marx was well aware of humankind’s biological status and origins, and of the multiply thirled dialectic that is the human animal given by nature and the human animal within society: our ‘species-being’ and social being.
Two long human lifetimes have passed since these words – the quotes from the two Charles’ that head up this chapter - were written. The distortions of Social Darwinism and the evils of Nazi eugenics did the same kind of damage to Darwin as Stalinist and state totalitarianism did to Marx. Nevertheless, particularly since the discovery of genetics, the ideas of Darwin have proven to be one of the most enduring and powerful scientific paradigms in the history of human cultural achievement. The huge majority of biologists and commentators now routinely make the point that Darwin’s theory of adaptive evolution through natural selection has such a weight of evidence to support it, from biology, the fossil record, and the expanding libraries of decoded genomes of increasing numbers of species, that it long since made the qualitative leap from theory to established and undisputed scientific fact.
Yet the key memes of Darwinism, particularly in its modern developed form, its synthesis with the science of genetics and emerging discipline of evolutionary psychology, remain largely misunderstood – or perhaps, at best, only selectively understood – by the left. It will be the purpose of the first chapter in this series to show why this is the case and to begin to supply the necessary corrective.
A statement of intent
It will be the ambition of the piece as a whole – probably stretching over a number of issues of The Point magazine - to argue that a Marxism fit for the 21st century and capable of appealing to the mass of humanity after the scars of the 20th must be completed by a thorough understanding of human nature and psychology. And I will argue that that is best and most readily supplied by the rich, powerful, thoroughly dialectical and materialist picture of human consciousness and psychology that has emerged from the neo-Darwinian syntheses of the last twenty to thirty years.
My method will be to argue, stage by stage and topic by topic, that
a) the left has nothing to fear and a world to gain by abandoning its historically half baked approach to modern Darwinism, particularly the tired and redundant nature versus nurture debate. It should be prepared to revisit with open minds, study (and critique) key modern evolutionary thinkers such as Dawkins, Dennett, Ridley and Pinker, and the work of the neuroscientists, Gerald Edelman and others
b) socialism can only make a claim to be scientific if it is prepared to integrate the secure findings of science into its world view
c) the findings of modern Darwinian science have much to commend themselves to the left, particularly the discovery of evolutionary strategies for co-operation in species, including homo sapiens
d) one of the key reasons both revolutionary and social democratic movements of the left failed in the twentieth century was that they lacked an accurate understanding of human psychology – both individual and social – from evolutionary biology
e) Marx’s great elucidation and analysis of the labour theory of value, surplus production, class society, and how the particular mode of appropriation and exploitation within capitalist class society both produces the social power of capital and perpetuates humanity’s alienation from its ‘species-being’ meets/joins/collides with the modern Darwinian syntheses at three junctures: the division of labour, modern neuroscience, and an evolutionary science-led understanding of the balance in human nature between the social instincts of co-operation, empathy and sympathy, and human individuality and ego
f) consequently, for the first time in history a unified Theory of Persons becomes possible that has explanatory and predictive power (within limits) for the behaviour of individual conscious beings, both as individuals and in their social life, and for the social and economic development of the aggregate bodies (societies) in which those individuals have their collective social being
g) if the historic goal of ending the social power of capital over humankind is to be realised in the century ahead, and we are to create a united, progressive international society ‘that harnesses our collective energies, talents and wealth for the benefit of all our citizens while safeguarding and respecting individual freedom in all its aspects’, then such a Theory of Persons - a Darwinist/Marxist synthesis - will not only be necessary, it will be indispensable. Such a theory would not wholly replace existing critiques from the left of Stalinism, Leninism or Social Democracy. It would view such critiques as necessary but insufficient and offer the possibility of modifying or completing them.
I should perhaps pause here and reassure readers of a deconstructionist or post-modernist bent. I am absolutely not calling here for a new ‘totalising’ or foundationalist theory (in the language of that oeuvre) to replace those of the past. It is my hope and intent that any Theory of Persons that emerges from this work, subsequent work, or work of others will be open, dynamic, non-dogmatic and embedded in the scientific method. That is, I propose theses, not dogma.
Similiarly, I should recognise that by this point, that there may be readers from an academic, philosophical or scientific background who will already fear I am well on the way down the road to two gargantuan errors. Firstly, the conflation of a scientific theory (Darwinism) with a social and philosophical but non-scientific theory (Marxism). Secondly, that I have committed the dreaded ‘naturalistic fallacy’ exposed by David Hume and am deriving my moral ‘oughts’ from my scientific ‘is’s’.
On the first point I intend to take on Karl Popper and others and show that the key propositions in Marx are scientific propositions about the world in any meaningful sense of the word, but that will require a whole chapter in itself in a future issue. Secondly, I am aware of the dangers of the naturalistic fallacy. Part of my own argument in the following section - that the left should stop wasting its time poking the straw man of biological determinism - will be that it has acquired a habit of falling into naturalistically fallacious thinking on certain scientific issues. It will be up to me to couch my arguments carefully over this and the other forthcoming chapters to convince my readers that I haven’t made the same mistake.
There will be a third category of sceptic, more than likely: the dyed-in-the-wool, self-titled ‘Bolshevik’ who will already either be dismissing me as a petit-bourgeois academic or shaking her or his head in disbelief that someone could be so ignorant as to consider Marxist theory to be incomplete. Or probably both.
I can only appeal to readers who come from a vanguardist tradition and who will undoubtedly – at least at first – consider some of my propositions to be heretical, to stick with it; to follow the arguments and evidence in the pages and chapters ahead; to allow that marvelous evolutionary organ, your own brain, not some central committee, to do your thinking for you; and to make up your mind at the end (which admittedly, given the scope of this undertaking, will be several Point issues down the line). Even if you end up completely disagreeing with me I would argue you owe it to yourself to wrestle with serious challenges to your accepted world view.
Investigating, considering or appropriating critical elements of Darwinian thought for political purposes - of course - has dangers. However, I will neither be the first person or the last to do so. As Gillian Beer notes in her introduction to the Oxford University Press 1996 edition of The Origin of Species
Different readers can find their hopes and fears confirmed by extending the implications of Darwin’s thought in one direction or another; and, it would later prove, those readers might be individualists, Fascists, Marxists, imperialists or anarchists – or indeed quietists. There is something fascinating and perturbing in a text that, while pursuing, in Darwin’s words ‘one long argument’,
ballasted by multiple evidences, can generate such a variety of ideological potentialities…
Darwin himself insisted always on constraining the extra scientific implications of his work and resisted any overt politicisation (itself, of course, a political position).
Darwin, of course, was not a socialist, and while Marx was an admirer of Darwin and sent him an autographed copy of Capital Part One, there is no evidence of reciprocation. Indeed, it would seem highly unlikely that the canny Victorian gentleman scientist, concerned as he was about the scandals generated by his own work, would have given a second thought to corresponding with a revolutionary German émigré promoting his own very unique and dangerous idea.
Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Matt Ridley, Steven Pinker and Gerald Edelman, upon whose writings important parts of this work is based, are no Marxist revolutionaries either – though my educated guess would be that they are all socially progressive liberals of various political shadings. The precise political stance of individual figures, living or dead, however, is not the issue. The science, how it relates to our understanding of persons and their societies, and how, clearly understood, it can help the left correct its historic errors, is very much the issue.
For that science I am indebted. The political conclusions – and any scientific errors or misunderstandings – are very much my own.
Towards a Theory of Persons?
A debate still stuck in the 70’s and 80’s
In 1994 I attended a weekend school organised by SML (Scottish Militant Labour) in a hostel in Strathpeffer, in Ross-shire. Attending the event along with me were many others who are still active in politics and are scattered across the various organisations of the left in Scotland, including Solidarity, the SSP, the CWI (Committee for a Worker’s International), as well as supporters of what is now The Point online magazine. It was an excellent event in many ways and though many that were there have now parted ways I suspect all who participated will have fond memories of it. One of the most anticipated and well attended sessions of the weekend was a ‘debate’ on nature vs. nurture, led off by Bruce Wallace (a good friend, theoretical pugilist, and someone to whom I will always be grateful for my early Marxist education).
The word debate above is in speech marks intentionally, however. There was no serious debate at all, but much agreeing with one another around the following basic propositions
That in the nature vs. nurture debate, nurture clearly won out. Although Darwin’s theory of evolution was accepted in some vague, limited sense, Human beings and their consciousness were essentially malleable and would be thoroughly changed in a socialist society. Bad things about human beings could be wholly attributed to their existing in a class society.
Genes could be used to explain inherited characteristics like height, eye colour and so on, but played no part in intelligence, personality, learning etc. Marx’s oft paraphrased dictum ‘conditions determine consciousness’ was to be understood purely in social/environmentalist terms. Once society changed, human beings would change fundamentally too.
‘Good’ evolutionary biologists were people with clear left credentials like Steven Rose and Stephen Jay Gould; ‘bad’ evolutionary biologists were ‘reactionary reductionists’ like Richard Dawkins and E.O. Wilson. Not in our Genes by Rose, Lewontin and Kamin was the bible on all things nature and nurture related.
evolutionary biologist, Richard Dawkins
Almost everyone there held these views and I was one of the most enthusiastic proponents of them. The phrase ‘There is no such thing as human nature’ was heard more than once. To accept that human beings had a nature was to cede ground to the capitalist ideologues’ argument that socialism was impossible because human beings were essentially greedy and selfish.
There was just one dissenting voice. Another good friend of mine, Tommy Paterson, had actually read what Dawkins had written instead of just other people’s commentaries on what he had written. He pointed out that it was silly to argue that there was such a thing as orang-utan nature or wolf nature, but not human nature, or that genes had some influence over the body but not the brain and its capacities (as if the brain were not part of the body). He argued that far from the work of Dawkins leading to reactionary conclusions it could be seen as strengthening the case for universal health care and quality education for all, and the eradication of poverty.
His voice was a voice in the wilderness, however. The terms of the nature vs. nurture debate had been set on the left in the 70’s and 80’s and it was the sea in which we all swam. Our collective but malleable mind had settled on a fixed idea and we were having none of it. The evil doctrine of biological reductionism had to be resisted with all our revolutionary fervour.
But ‘facts are chiels that winna ding’ as Burns wrote, and even then the scientific evidence was mounting that there was such a thing as human nature, that far from that nature being irredeemably greedy or selfish, human beings had genes that were strongly selected for cooperation, altruism and reciprocation, that innate mechanisms existed in the brain – evolved by natural selection – for learning, language acquisition and behaviour modification (from the work of Chomsky, Pinker, Edelman and many others) and it was precisely those innate mechanisms that allowed us to develop, grow and interact with our environment as individuals in a social and cultural context
Tommy Paterson was right and we were wrong. The ‘biological reductionism’ we were determined to reject was a straw man, even then. It rested on a misunderstanding – and at times even a wilful misrepresentation - of what our ‘opponents’ were saying.
Looking back, we did not even seem to see some of the contradictions in our own positions. Freud was the subject of much informal and enthusiastic discussion at our Highland Summer retreat in 1994 – but surely Freud’s great insight into human nature - the existence of the sub-conscious and its hidden sway over our conscious selves - rests on an understanding that the brain is an evolved organ with an evolutionary history, and innate, inherent and universal workings? Without Darwin, no Freud. And though Freud had no access to the techniques that allow for the mapping of brain function and it’s correlations to reported subjective experience, and therefore had to develop a psychological, non-physicalist approach to the human psyche, surely his key assumption – that the animal sexual drive underpins all human behaviour – is the mother of all evolutionary psychology theses?
At the time, I had just started work on my undergraduate dissertation on human consciousness and was basing it on the neuroscience of Edelman – this would take me to a lifelong interest in this and related fields which would eventually lead to the position I take today. Back then however, there was a line – conceptually, philosophically, and politically – that we were not equipped or ready, or indeed, encouraged, to cross. That line has hobbled the left both theoretically and in terms of its practice for decades. I don’t just want to cross that line or encourage others to jump over it. I want to rub it out entirely.
I want to show that modern Darwinism and neuroscience renders the nature vs. nurture debate as we’ve known it redundant.
I want to show that Marx’s dictum ‘conditions determine consciousness’ is best understood thus: not only our social environment and society acting upon our brains to produce our consciousness, individually and socially, but also, as natural selection having responded to the environment over evolutionary time to produce the structures of a human brain capable of sensible and conscious interaction with its environment, and with a repertoire of adaptive innate behaviours and modes of perception, understanding and interaction that may broadly be termed ‘human nature’.
And I want to show that the gene centred view of Darwin evolutionary thinking is not just compatible with a democratic, libertarian and thoroughgoing socialism, but encouraging, even inspiring, for socialists and social progressives.
The need to promote new thinking and a new discussion around these ideas gathers even greater urgency when we realise that, despite the scientific debate having moved on leaps and bounds since the entrenched positions of the seventies and eighties, tragically, nearly twenty years on from the events I describe above, the left is still mired in those simplistic terms of debate, still tilting at illusory windmills, still poking with a burning stick at the straw man of ‘biological reductionism’; a biological reductionism that no serious evolutionary thinker actually believes in these days (if they ever did).
To show that the left hasn’t moved forward in its thinking on these issues at all I have picked out two quotations from left publications below, taken from around the time of the Darwin bicentenary. This is not to have a pop particularly at either the authors or the particular publications. Both articles contained much reasonable comment and pedagogy on Darwin, but both are also typical exemplars of the kind of misleading articles written on the left recently on this subject; that is both contain basic scientific errors and demonstrate a misplaced political ideology that generates confusion and misunderstanding. The first quotation is from Socialist Worker.
But Darwin is also suspected by many on the left. They fear that his ideas have served to legitimise a succession of reactionary ideologies.
These start with “Social Darwinism” in the 19th century – the attempt by various ideologues to prove that biological evolution justifies capitalist competition and the imperialist domination of “inferior” races.
Then, much more recently, there has been the development of sociobiology. This involves reducing the behaviour of human beings in society to the demands supposedly put on them by their genes.
The reactionary implications of this kind of approach are well brought out by Richard Dawkins’ portrayal of people as “lumbering robots” driven unconsciously by the “selfish genes” that use them as means for their reproduction.
None of this has much to do with Darwin.
Alex Callinicos, Socialist Worker 14th Feb 2009
The first two paragraphs here might be fair comment in another context. Indeed, we’ll return to the very theme of the fears the left have of some of Darwin’s ideas at various points in this extended narrative. However, look at how ‘Social Darwinism’ – a mistaken 19th century distortion of Darwin’s real ideas that reached its apotheosis with the Nazis and has been in the dustbin of history ever since – is here immediately associated with a wholly different conception, socio-biology, which, we are told, ‘involves reducing the behaviour of human beings in society to the demands supposedly put on them by their genes.’ Further ‘the reactionary implications’ are exemplified by ‘Richard Dawkins portrayal of people as ‘lumbering robots’ etc etc.
‘None of this has much to do with Darwin’ the writer then tells us, and he is absolutely right. Unfortunately for Alex Callinicos (and his readers) none of this has much to with Richard Dawkins or E.O. Wilson, the author of socio-biology, either!
No-one who has actually read Sociobiology or The Selfish Gene, or any subsequent work with an open mind and an unjaundiced eye would conclude that either author believes for a minute that human behaviour, in all its rich complexity, can be reduced solely to the action of genes or that we are simply ‘lumbering robots’ at the mercy of a ruthless genetic determinism. In an otherwise readable and informative article what we have here is either genuine ignorance of the real scientific discourse taking place, or wilful misrepresentation for ideological reasons. The result is that neither politics nor science is well-served
Our second quote is from a bit closer to home and is a variation on the same refrain
Wilson’s new synthesis purported to apply evolutionary theory to social behaviour, both in animals and in human beings – and to explain a large range of behaviours in terms of Darwinian fitness and evolutionary advantage. The sociobiological idea reached a much larger audience the following year with the publication of Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene (1976).
The “big idea” of the sociobiologists was to attempt to explain supposedly “altruistic” behaviour in animals and humans with reference to evolutionary advantage. The first attempt was termed kin selection, an idea seemingly based on some off-hand remarks by British Marxist biologist JBS Haldane and formalised into a mathematical model by William Hamilton in 1964...
Of course it is necessary to make some assumptions in order for this idea to be taken seriously as way to explain aspects of animal and human behaviour. Primarily it requires the gene-centred view of evolution, later popularised by Dawkins, to be accepted as absolute. That is, selection occurs only at the level of the gene, and that individual organisms (whether human beings, animals, plants or bacteria) are simply “lumbering robots” or “survival machines”, whose only purpose is to serve as transient vehicles for the “selfish replicators” that are our individual genes.
The conceptual leap necessary to accept this argument does a great disservice both to the study of evolutionary theory and the richness and diversity of the way the living world has evolved. Genes do not, and cannot, function in isolation. They are not, as some popular-science writers would describe them, controlling “Master Molecules”. Rather genes and their protein and RNA products only work in the context of the cellular environment – which includes the products of all the other genes of the organism, working in concert. Selective pressures can act a variety of different levels, including individual genes, groups of genes, the entire genome of an organism, the living organism itself (remember genes can only exert their influence via the organism, and the whole organism is the only thing in nature that can really be said to be capable of “self-replication”), as well as groups of organism, populations and entire species. While genes are the basic units of inheritance, they are not the basic units of evolution – as there is no such thing. (my emphasis)
Moreover, an organism’s behavioural characteristics and other qualities are determined by more than just their genes.
- Neil Bennett, Frontline Dec 2008
Once again, the sound of straw men being rapidly set up and enthusiastically thumped to the ground is deafening. In order to invite us not to take the work of these bad evolutionary scientists ‘seriously’ Neil Bennett produces a ridiculous and simplistic distortion of their ideas. Case proved! In fact, Dawkins and his followers would have no problem with much of the last two paragraphs outlining the various levels at which genes operate and the complex cellular and developmental environment they operate in– except for the line I have highlighted above because, tellingly, it is a basic scientific error. Of course, genes are the basic units of inheritance – and since natural selection can only work through inheritance or non-inheritance (favourable adaptations give organisms a survival advantage which allows them to live long enough to pass those adaptations onto descendants), reductio ad absurdum, the gene is the basic unit of evolution.
Once again, I’m not picking on either of these two writers. Fifteen years ago I would have probably written the same kind of thing. They are simply swimming in the same misinformed sea that a handful of us managed to evolve from by actually reading the list of disapproved works and achieving at least a reasonable understanding of what, in reality, these terrible genetic determinists were getting at.
Far from being the new Nazi party in disguise, E.O. Wilson was on the liberal wing of the Democratic party in the States, was a social progressive, and even talked about the inevitability of large scale public ownership in the one chapter of Sociobiology in which he discussed homo sapiens, yet everywhere he went after the book’s publication in the seventies he was met by left wing demonstrators and cries of ‘racist’ and ‘fascist’.
This treatment didn’t extend to him alone but to the scientists, William Hamilton and Robert Trivers, whose research into the evolutionary behaviour of altruism in the animal kingdom he had drawn upon in the book. As Steven Pinker points out in The Blank Slate
As the notoriety of Sociobiology grew in the ensuing years, Hamilton and Trivers, who had thought up many of the ideas, also became the target of picketers…The insinuation that Trivers was a tool of racism was particularly galling because Trivers was himself a political radical, a supporter of the Black Panthers, and a scholarly collaborator of Huey Newton’s.
Trivers had argued that socio-biology, is, if anything, a force for political progress. It…subverts the comfortable belief that those in power rule for the good of all, and it throws a spotlight on hidden actors in the social world, such as females and the younger generation. Also, by finding an evolutionary basis for altruism, socio-biology shows that a sense of justice has a deep foundation in people’s minds and need not run against our organic nature.
No-one has been more sinned against in the misrepresentation stakes by our own left in our own country than Richard Dawkins, however. Recently his atheist bestseller The God Delusion and a number of television programmes he has made on modern Darwinism and its implications have opened up some on the left to the realisation that he’s not some wild eyed Thatcherite determinist after all. Dawkins often complains that many of his critics get no further than the title of The Selfish Gene and assume it’s a polemic in favour or ego and self-interested social or economic behaviour in scientific guise. In the preface to the 30th edition he muses that he now wishes he had called the book The Immortal Gene instead and points out that the title makes a scientific – not a social or political - argument
Emphasise ‘selfish’ and you will think the book is about selfishness, whereas, if anything, it devotes more attention to altruism. The correct word of the title to stress is ‘gene’ and let me explain why. A central debate within Darwinism concerns the unit that is actually selected: what kind of entity is it that survives, or does not survive, as a consequence of natural selection.
One of the more recent developments in this debate has been around the new and exciting science of epigenetics. Epigenetics is the study of genes within an organism that change in response to environmental stimuli and then are passed on to successive generations. For instance, studies of rats by the Twin Studies unit at St.Thomas’s Hospital have shown that mothers who lick their babies more can produce a change in rat brain structure associated with less stress, which in turn is reflected in a change in the baby rat’s genes associated with that structure. Those genes are passed on when the rat becomes adult and breeds.
Epigenetics and its study are a truly thrilling development – one which may conceivably in the future open the door to a whole new world of gene therapies that eradicate congenital disease and infirmity. But there are more than a few on the left, sensing the traditional boogieman of biological reductionism gaining ground, who have grasped upon epigenetics as a fortress for their last stand. After all doesn’t this prove that environment triumphs over the innate; that nurture, after all, wins out over nature?
I will say more about epigenetics further down the line in this series of articles, but for now I would simply wish to say that such attitudes, again, are really a product of misunderstanding the fundamental propositions of modern Darwinism in the first place.
All genes in all organisms that ever existed are a product of their environment.
It’s worth saying again. This time I will add another couple of words for emphasis.
All genes in all organisms that have ever existed are an adaptive product of their historic environment.
We were already well on the way away from a static notion of genes in any case. We already realised that many genes act upon other genes. The discovery of epigenetic features now allows us to complete our statement.
All genes in all organism that have ever existed are an adaptive product of their historic or somatic environment.
This does NOT mean that Trofim Lysenko was right, and that wheat can be trained to grow better. Epigenetic effects have only been shown (so far) to apply to a small number of genes in a small number of organisms. The majority of your genes will stay unchanged throughout your life. Nevertheless, epigenetics is an important addition to our picture, but one that exists within, and is complementary to, the genetic paradigm - not one that surpasses or replaces it.
It is simply yet another proof – they seem to arrive now almost by the week - that evolution by natural selection is even more powerful than we previously conceived.
We shall find this in even greater evidence, when in a few chapters time, we come to look at the brain, but we can see that plasticity within organisms itself is a powerful adaptation for survival.
Press and Media myths
But it would be wrong toblame the left solely in isolation for the confusion that exists on the genetics issue. Of course, there have been political reactionaries who have seized and used the work of biological scientists to justify their own political agenda. The media too are often very unhelpful, distorting carefully worded scientific press releases into claims that give a misleading impression to the general public ‘gene found for colon cancer’, ‘gene for homosexuality’, ‘gene for baldness’, ‘gene for journalistic licence’ and so forth.
Of course, what scientists mean when they speak colloquially about a gene or set of genes being ‘for’ something they mean a gene that is associated statistically with certain feature, or predisposes us to a certain illness, condition or behaviour. In each and every case, genes require an environment in which to express themselves. No-one who has genes associated with predisposition to certain cancers has an automatic death sentence. Yet the simplistic genetic determinism often expressed by the press compounds the difficulty genetic scientists and evolutionary psychologists have in getting the balance and complexity of their ideas across
Similarly, exaggerated claims are often made for the triumph of the environment over heredity, or nurture over nature. When the Human Genome was first mapped one newspaper gleefully parsed Craig Venter, whose private company had been the first to complete the genome mapping. ‘Environment, not genes, key to our acts’. The basis for this epoch-making claim was that only 30,000 genes had been found in the Human Genome – too few to account for the diversity of human behaviour, according to Venter. Of course, no-one ever had argued that genes alone could account for the diversity of human behaviour. Matt Ridley, in his own excellent deconstruction of the sterile nature vs. nurture debate (Nature via Nurture) quickly points out the sheer absurdity of the argument
In truth, the number of human genes changed nothing. Venter’s remarks concealed two massive non sequiturs: first, that fewer genes implied more environmental influences, and second, that 30, 000 genes were ‘too few’ to explain human nature where 100, 000 would have been enough. As Sir John Sulston, one of the leaders of the Human Genome Project put it to me just a few weeks later, just 33 genes, each coming in just 2 varieties (such as on or off) would be enough to make every human being in the world unique. There are more than 10 billion ways of flipping a coin 33 times. So 30, 000 does not look such a small number after all. Two multiplied by itself 30, 000 times produces a number larger than the number of the particles in the known universe.
Besides, if fewer genes meant more free will, that made fruit flies freer than people, bacteria freer still, and viruses the John Stuart Mills of biology.
Ridley, in the same book, goes on to explain that there is no simplistic one to one correspondence of genes with body features. That some genes encode for other genes, that some act as ‘transcription factors’ telling genes when to switch on and off, or limiting the period of time in which a gene operate in the development of the organism. The skulls of chimpanzees and the skulls of humans, for instance, are grown by the same gene, but in the case of human beings the gene is switched on for longer during development of the foetus.
To make grand changes in the body plans of animals, there is no need to invent new genes, just as there is no need to invent new words to write an original novel (unless your name is Joyce). All you need to do is switch the same ones on and off in different patterns…here is a mechanism for creating large and small evolutionary changes from small genetic differences…These changes might be sufficient to create a wholly new species without changing the genes themselves at all.
And to reiterate, there is no Chinese Wall separating genes from brains. Genes don’t tell us what to think, our how to think, or what to learn or believe, but they do encode for the development of the human brain and its various innate systems for learning from the world. A supposedly ‘dialectical materialist’ argument that says genes encode for every bodily feature we are born with except our brains is neither Darwinist nor Marxist. It is unscientific human exceptionalism, and a return to 17th century Cartesian Dualism by the back door. Pinker, once again, from The Blank Slate notes just a few discoveries and studies in genetic science that have confounded any notion that genes have no effect on human consciousness or behaviour.
(There is compelling) evidence that differences in mind can come from differences in genes. A single wayward nucleotide in a gene called FOXP2 causes a hereditary disorder in speech and language. A gene on the same chromosome, LIMkinase1, produces a protein found in growing neurons that helps install the faculty of spatial cognition: when the gene is deleted, the person has normal intelligence but cannot assemble objects, arrange blocks or copy shapes. One version of the gene IGF2R is associated with high general intelligence, accounting for as many as four IQ points and two percent of the variation in intelligence among normal individuals. If you have a longer than average version of the D4DR dopamine receptor you are more likely to be a thrill seeker, the kind of person who jumps out of airplanes, clambers up frozen waterfalls or who has sex with strangers. If you have a shorter version of the stretch of DNA that inhibits the serotonin transporter gene on chromosome 17, you are more likely to neurotic and anxious, the kind of person who can barely function at social gatherings for fear of offending someone or acting like a fool.
More recently, Professor Franck Polleux and his team at the Scripps Institute in California, researching human specific neuronal development made what could be a very important discovery. It had long being known that human neurons tend to have 40-50% more connectivity than our closest cousins, the chimpanzee. What they found was that a specific gene associated with the development of neural connectivity called SRgap2 which exists in our chromosome number one, and which all mammals have one copy of, is duplicated in that chromosome a further three times – for humans and only for humans.
Strong empirical evidence for the theory that these additional copies of SRgap2 was obtained when they spliced an additional copy of the SRgap2 gene into the chromosomes of mice. The mice showed massively increased neuronal connectivity compared to their unspliced control group.
Further, as the Polleux Lab website points out:
The group of Dr Evan Eichler has dated the emergence of these human-specific gene duplications to approximately 3.4 and 2.4 million years ago respectively (Dennis et al., 2012) (Figure 1A-B). Of particular interest, the second duplication that gave rise to SRGAP2C arose 2.4 mya which corresponds approximately to the time during evolution where the Australopithecus and Homo lineages diverged and in the fossil record corresponds to the beginning of brain expansion characterizing the Homo lineage (Dennis et al., 2012).
This research is at any early stage, and it’s probably not the whole story, but if we believe that the human brain is an adaptive organ, and that human consciousness and intelligence is an adaptive feature in the evolutionary sense, then it is not a huge leap to see that minor differences in the efficacy of SRgap2 (x4) may account for heritable differences in cognitive skills, intelligence, personality and so on. At the very least it would be an interesting path of research to follow.
I should probably pause here. The very mention of genes ‘coding’ for intelligence (though the claims made by Pinker, for instance, are very modest) will be enough to send certain readers into a moral apoplexy, and they will need to catch their breath.
Isn’t this just the kind of thing we should be combating? If we allow that some difference in some forms of intelligence may be heritable through genes doesn’t that open up the argument that it’s a waste of time educating some people, or that there is no point in egalitarianism, because some people are born superior? And what about the vexed questions of race and gender?
In the next chapter I shall attempt to show that such fears are groundless, that they stem from the left’s own mirror image of Hume’s naturalistic fallacy – that we determine what we allow as the scientific ‘is’s’ about the natural world from our moral ‘ought’s’. I will argue that a rich view of Darwinism that places both nurture and nature as central and essential to the development and well-being of human beings and human societies, is both possible and desirable.
In the meantime let me reiterate, modern evolutionary biology, far from being determinist or reductionist, is showing us in ever more complex and fascinating detail the dialectical interaction between nature and nurture, the innate and the imbibed, the species-specific and the culturally specific, our human nature and our social being.
This concept is both fundamental and undeniably, biologically true, but I accept it is a big leap for some who will be reading this, (though I hope there will be others who understand it as blindingly obvious), and I accept I have more work to do in forthcoming chapters.
But let us at least consign the straw men of biological determinism and reductionism to the flames of history. Leftist theorists on nature and nurture unite; you have nothing to lose but your polemical chains, and a world of understanding to win.
From his own inspiring –perhaps even revolutionary – words that close The Selfish Gene, let’s finish with the very non-determinist promise of ‘lumbering robot’ Richard Dawkins:
We have…the mental equipment to foster our long term selfish interests rather than merely our short term selfish interests. We can see the long term benefits of participating in a ‘conspiracy of doves’, and we can sit down together to discuss ways of making the conspiracy work. We have the power to defy the selfish genes of our birth and, if necessary, the selfish memes of our indoctrination. We can even discuss ways of cultivating and nurturing pure, disinterested altruism – something that has no place in nature, something that has never existed before in the whole history of the world. We are built as gene machines and cultured as meme machines, but we have the power to turn against our creators. We, alone on Earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators.
(End of Chapter One)
An earlier and less detailed version of this article appeared in Democratic Green Socialist and Socialist Unity
A comprehensive bibliography will be appended to the final chapter of this series. Meantime, I will suggest some useful reading material to accompany each chapter.
Some of the books mentioned in this introductory chapter are good places to start
Not in our Genes by Steven Rose, Richard Lewontin and Leo Kamin present the traditional left view and should be read from that standpoint.
The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins presents the majority scientific view. (the thirtieth anniversary edition is best)
Nature via Nurture by Matt Ridley and The Blank Slate by Steven Pinker are essential for anyone who wants to get a grip on both the up-to-date science and the political philosophical discourse.
Finally, as a bonus, this documentary from BBC Horizon What makes us Human is very good, particularly from about 40.20 mins in.