Hidden Truths | Genes: The Preconceived Biological Unit of Heredity
It seems to me (and it seems rather clear) that the grounding of one’s beliefs in an epistemological foundation is essential, not just for our development as thinkers but for the process of unlocking our minds so that we can become the individuals we are capable of being. There’s little point in regurgitating the same old talking points when, for example, the changing times have brought along with them new facts and data that have worked to dismantle old paradigms in their entirety. Case in point, the topic to which I shall now progress.
GENES, DNA, and their hidden truths
For more than 50 years, popular science has promulgated the belief that our DNA (which they refer to as genes) is the biological determining unit which is singularly responsible for all of our inherited traits. This idea has become so powerful that it has been (wrongly) co-opted by many to use genes to explain differences in intellect and socioeconomic outcomes between races.
For instance, in 1994, Charles A. Murray (an American political scientist and author) published his infamous book The Bell Curve which, at its heart, posed the theory that blacks, and minorities, have (on average) lower IQ than whites. Much of his argument was based on IQ as an innate, predetermined hereditary component, one with which whites were intrinsically hard-wired with superior cognitive ability. You can only imagine how such concepts serve to reinforce racial stereotypes under the garb of science.
Murray has also gone on to use ‘genes’ to explain the divide in socio-economic class structures. He posits the notion (a priori) that individuals below the poverty line have a different set of genes when compared to individuals above the poverty line. This is somewhat like saying that poverty is inherent in your DNA.
Arguments like these have also been weaponised in justifying gender bias. Larry Summers, the 27th President of Harvard University from 2001 to 2006, famously delivered a 2005 speech in which he suggested that the under-representation of women in science and engineering could be due to a "different availability of aptitude at the high end", and less to patterns of discrimination and socialization. Soon after delivering this speech, Mr Summers resigned from Harvard in the wake of a no-confidence vote by the Harvard faculty.
Misconceptions pertaining to Genes and DNA
Throughout the recent past (and even today) the idea of genes as the Holy Grail of biology – the single unit of heredity – has been employed in explaining everything from the examples above to obesity, athleticism, aggression, and criminality. It has placed ‘biological determinism’ (nature) as singular and superior to ‘environmental circumstance’ (nurture). However, what is most surprising, is that despite what you might believe by listening to the media today, this theory of DNA as the ‘gene supreme’ has been categorically debunked. Who we are and what we are is NOT singularly determined by our DNA to the exclusion of all other factors. This is quite shocking to hear but it is nonetheless true.
In order to explain this rather confusing state of affairs, I shall step back a little bit and provide brief context:
In 1822, Gregor Johann Mendel, a scientist and Austrian monk, conducted experiments with peas which showed that inheritance of certain ‘traits’ in pea plants (such as plant height, pod shape and colour) follows particular patterns. In the publication of his findings in 1866, Mendel had demonstrated the actions of invisible ‘factors’ in predictably determining the traits of an organism – in his case, peas. The significance of Mendel's work was not recognised until the turn of the 20th Century with the rediscovery of his law of Mendelian Inheritance which became the foundation for the study of heredity.
20th Century scientists immediately latched on to Mendel's findings, and assumed (a priori) that Mendel's conclusions applied, without qualification, to humans. The enamoured 20th Century scientists took Mendel's theory of ‘invisible factors’ as it pertained to peas and, applying this to humans, hypothesised about the existence of genes as the biological unit which is singularly responsible for determining traits in humans. In other words, genes were NEVER discovered. The notion of ‘genes’ was a theoretical preconceived construct inspired by the work of Mendel - with peas.
DNA: The so-called biological unit of hereditary
The establishment of the preconceived concept of genes immediately set into motion a race to find the right candidate to fit the conceptual box already labelled ‘GENES’. Over time, DNA was discovered, Nobel Prizes presented, and the scientific community were rhapsodic in labelling DNA as the perfect candidate. And so, it was, DNA had been cast as the ‘Singular Biological Unit of Hereditary’ - the sequence of chemical code which singularly, uniquely and predictably determines all our inherited human traits.
The mythology about DNA, which scientists now called genes, as the exclusive molecule which contains hereditary information for cells, grew over the decades. This erroneous belief about the unique and singular centrality of DNA in determining all inherited human characteristics led to the establishment of the Human Genome Project (HGP). Unfortunately, nature always has a way of confounding expectations. Instead of validating the common beliefs about DNA as the singular biological unit of hereditary, HGP threw up contradictory and unwelcome results, casting all previously held assumptions into disarray.
In a brief but nonetheless fascinating example, it was reasonably assumed that, as complex creatures, humans would have 100,000 + of DNA/gene sequences. However, it turns out that humans carry about the same amount of important DNA sequences (19,500) as the common house fly (20,000). These results and findings of a similar nature proved to be an unwelcome realisation, to put it mildly.
Of particular interest is the direct repudiation of the frankly racist concepts proselytized by the likes of the previously mentioned Charles A. Murray. HGP revealed that, from a biological perspective, all races are the same. In other words, what has become apparent, is that (contrary to previous assumptions) there is no identifiable sequence of DNA ubiquitous in a single race population which marks them as different (or separate) from another race population. Race and biology are different. Outwardly, we may group into varying races, however, from a biological standpoint, we are all the same.
And thus, a 50-year-old myth was finally debunked - DNA does not singularly, uniquely or predictably determine all of our inherited traits. Certainly not within the confines of our current (and evidenced based) understanding into the complex nature of DNA. DNA is not the exclusive solution to the preconceived notion of genes (the theoretical biological unit of heredity) as inspired by Gregor Mendel's work of 1866.
Our biological emancipation
So where does this leave us now and where does it leave DNA? Let's answer the latter first. DNA, whilst not the assumed secret code of life, is still a hugely important biological marker. For one thing, the fact that each individual’s DNA serves as a unique biological finger print has revolutionised medical fields such as forensic science. Finally, it is clear from HGP’s findings (and ongoing work) that whilst DNA plays some kind of role in hereditary, its nature, processes and protocols of function are far more complex than we had hitherto considered and/or understood.
As for us, well, for now, as there is no identifiable singular, exclusive and unique biological unit which (to the exclusion of all other factors) predictably determines all our inherited traits and characteristics, such as propensity for love, aggression, criminality, and intelligence, the findings suggest that we are much ‘freer’ than we once thought. We are not biological slaves pre-programmed to live out a certain destiny. What a liberating notion! We are the masters of our own destiny and can truly accomplish anything we set our minds to, but only once we cast off the shackles of past apocryphal axioms and embrace our newly-found biological emancipation.
In a complete role reversal, it now appears that environmental circumstance (nurture) plays a much more significant role than biological determinism in determining life outcomes. Imagine the impact on social policy such a revelation permits! Now, we can see that rather than ‘inferior biology’, it is differing access to opportunity that more accurately explains the difference in economic outcomes for those below or above the poverty line. It is also this same unequal access to opportunity that explains the bias towards males occupying positions of authority compared with their equally competent female counterparts.
As powerful and important as these findings are, they have still not made their way fully into the public’s consciousness. No doubt it will take some time for academic textbooks and media pundits to modernise their teachings. Until then, despite what you might hear about the interchangeability between the phrases DNA and genes - please know that they are NOT necessarily the same thing. We are still on the lookout for what shall fit into the conceptual box ‘genes’ - the theorized singular biological unit of heredity.
Image Credit: Wellcome Images