Denis Alexander is this week’s guest blogger. He has spent 40 years in the biological research community in various parts of the world, latterly as Head of the Laboratory of Lymphocyte Signalling and Development at The Babraham Institute, Cambridge which he left in 2008. Since then he has been heading up the new Faraday Institute for Science and Religion at St. Edmund’s College, Cambridge, where he is a fellow.
I have always been fascinated with the public understanding of science, including the many and varied ways in which scientific ideas can migrate out of the lab to populate the worlds of politics, sociology, popular culture and religion. Since finally closing down my research group in immunology a few years ago, I have had the privilege of indulging some of these interests more fully in a way that the pressures of an active research life didn’t really allow.
Recently we brought a group of historians and philosophers to Cambridge to sit round a table for a few days and discuss all the varied ways in which biology has been used and abused for non-biological purposes from 1600 to the present day. So many are the examples that our challenge was not to find sufficient topics or authors, but to restrict ourselves to a series that would eventually lead to a book of reasonable length. The outcome was Biology and Ideology – From Descartes to Dawkins which came out last year [Denis Alexander and Ronald Numbers (eds), Chicago University Press, 2010]. In turn this interest is leading on to a grants programme in which competitive funding applications will be received during this coming year for research on contemporary ways in which biological ideas are being used for good or for ill, purposes well beyond their original scientific contexts.
The area of genetics is one that seems particularly prone to being reported in the media or in the public domain more generally in dramatised ways that often distort the actual science involved. I was therefore particularly pleased to be approached by a publisher recently to write an introductory book on genetics that would not only introduce the science for a general readership, but also address some of the wider ethical and other questions that genetics raises concerning human value and identity. The result is The Language of Genetics – an Introduction [Darton, Longman and Todd, 14 June 2011] published just a few days ago [N.B. although Amazon has some good offers the Faraday Shop is selling at £12/copy plus p&p starting soon after 27th June].
I am a great believer in making a clear distinction between science and the wider issues that arise from science, finding that when the language and concepts of different disciplines are co-mingled, confusion inevitably results. The Language of Genetics therefore has 11 chapters of straight explanatory science, whereas the wider questions arising from genetics are contained within the final chapter 12.
One of the topics I tackle there is the pervasive idea of genetic determinism – that there are such things as genes “for” musicality, intelligence or being a political liberal. Although I think biologists, with rare and unfortunate exceptions, are generally rather careful to describe in their scientific writings what genes actually do, by the time their discoveries get reported in the media, the head-line for the story too often ends up implying that some complex human behavioural trait is largely determined by a single gene.
The genome wide association studies (GWAS) that have proliferated over the past few years are instructive in this respect. One study was carried out on the variation in height between humans, a trait known to be around 70-80% inheritable. The study based on 180,000 individuals came up with 180 different variant gene regions that correlate with variation in height, yet taken together they explain only around 10% of the inheritability. There is a huge amount of “missing inheritability”. Where is it? Being a bit taller or shorter is complex, involving many aspects of our physical being.
Imagine now the genetics of some complex human behaviour which has a supposed element of inheritability, together with our brains with their 10¹¹ neurons and 10¹4 synapses (the precise number, rather unsurprisingly, depends on the precise volume of your brain) – such a scenario does not readily lend itself to interpretations that depend on genetic determinism.
None of this is to say that genetic variation is irrelevant to who we are as individuals – far from it. But The Language of Genetics highlights the way in which the fertilised egg, with its newly acquired unique genome, is from its very first day onwards in intimate interaction with its environment in all its myriad aspects. Rather than reifying the ‘genome’ and the ‘environment’ as if they were separate entities, it is biologically more accurate to see both aspects as thoroughly intertwined. The fascinating fields of evo-devo (chapter 3) and of epigenetics (chapter 10) do much to highlight that insight.
The science of genetics is a fantastic gift to humankind if used wisely. But the greatest gifts can be the most abused; the best protection remains continued awareness and vigilance.