The Human Genome Map, the Death of Genetic Determinism
Mae-Wan Ho, Institute of Science in Society
The complete human genome map was announced just before Valentines
day . But it was an anticlimax for the proponents, despite much effort
to keep up the hype. The scientists declared themselves surprised.
The "book of life" turns out to have as few as 30 000 genes.
Craig Venter, whose company Celera raced the publicly funded sequencing
consortium to the finishing line, was the only one to read the
implications correctly. The number of genes is far less than needed to
support the extravagant claims throughout the past decade that individual
genes not only determine how our bodies are constructed, what diseases we
suffer from, but also our patterns of behaviour, our intellectual ability,
sexual preference and criminality.
Facts of Life 
The human genome has about 30 000 genes, twice as many as a fruitfly
and 10 000 more than the simple roundworm.
There are only 300 unique genes in the human (genome), which are not
in the mouse.
Forty percent of the genes are previously unknown.
113 genes have been transferred into the human genome from bacteria.
There is no genetic basis for race, humans all over the world share
99.9% of their DNA.
The complete sequence is still riddled with gaps.
The fugu fish has the most concise genome, it has no junk
More than 95% of the human genome is junk DNA
The coding regions for proteins occupy only 1.1% of the human genome.
About 50% of the human genome are proviral sequences and transposable
elements, many with reverse transcriptase.
One of the most common transposable element, Alu, tends to
cluster where there are genes.
Chromosomes vary widely in the number of genes they contain.
Most mutations occur in males.
There are 250 000 proteins made by the 30 000 genes.
The dog is 85% identical to a human in terms of genetic sequence and
many of the 380 inherited diseases in dogs are similar to those in
There are more than four million genetic differences between humans
found so far.
1 778 genes have been identified with diseases so far, from asthma to
"We simply do not have enough genes for this idea of biological
determinism to be right," said Venter, The wonderful diversity of the
human species is not hard-wired in our genetic code. Our environments are
critical." Many of us have been saying the same decades before the
idea for the human genome project had ever been conceived of.
John Sulston, Head of the Sanger Centre in Cambridge in the public
consortium, attempts to save face by appealing to executive
genes that do very sophisticated management work. "What
we are doing is to increase the variety and subtlety of genes that control
other genes."  But that only leads us into the infinite regress of
having to postulate genes that control genes that control yet other genes.
What Sulston should have added, at the end of his sentence, is the phrase
"that respond to the environment". Genetic determinism is dead,
and has been dead at least for close to twenty years .
Worse yet, "Mapping the genome could be route to disaster",
headlines another paper . Excitement in the drug industry could be
short-lived, according to a report compiled by investment companies Lehman
Brothers and McKinsey. The human genome project could be too big for the
biotech and pharmaceutical companies to handle, and could bankrupt the
industry. The "information overload" will cost much more than
previously thought. The report draws on interviews with experts throughout
the industry, and concludes, "Perhaps the most surprising and
compelling discovery is that, in fact, genomics threatens to increase not
only the associated research and development costs, but also the average
cost per new drug."
I have referred to human genomics as "a scientific and financial
black hole that swallows up all public and private resources without any
return either to investors or to improving the health of nations".
Now that the bubble has burst, it is time to take stock and seriously
The project to sequence the entire human genome has cost the public
$3billion in the US and hundreds of millions of pounds in the UK. Now,
scientists are telling us this is just the end of the beginning, and much
more money is needed before the goods can be delivered in terms of miracle
cancer cures, eradication of disease, genetic enhancement, gene therapy,
personalised medicine and a prescription of lifestyle based on our genetic
makeup. Indeed, the UK Government is investing at least £2.5 billion
over the next five years to human genomics in a misguided
attempt to identify all the genes that predispose the UK population to
disease . That, at a time when our National Health is in financial
crisis and research and development of other aspects of healthcare has
been sorely neglected.
But even if the goods can be delivered against all odds, they will be
beyond the means of the average taxpayer because private companies are
aggressively staking out their claims on our genome. The pace of gene
patenting has accelerated to a frenzy. Applications for patents in the US
have gone from an annual 150 000 in the late 1980s to 275 000 today. In
October last year, there were patent applications on 126 672 human gene
sequences. By Feb. 2001, there are 175 624, a 38% jump . The US has
granted patents for millions of SNPs (single nucleotide polymorphisms) and
gene fragments for which functions are unknown before it tightened the
patent laws in December 1999. The human genome is already covered with
dozens of times more patents than there are genes, because multiple
patents are being granted over the same stretch of DNA. Such patents are
seriously distorting healthcare and stifling scientific research and
Among the human genes and cell lines patented and sold by corporations
are those stolen from indigenous peoples under the pretext of providing
medical care, and even coercion is used. DNA databases of entire
populations such as those of Iceland and Tonga have been sold to private
companies. The Swedish Government is in negotiation with another company
for the ethical takeover of its population database, and the
UK Government is planning to establish one of its own.
Some 740 patented gene tests are already in the market, and hundreds
more in the pipelines. For cases where such tests can help to diagnose and
treat patients, exorbitant licence fees have prevented them from being
used. On the other hand, healthy people testing positive are denied
employment and health insurance. Insurance companies in the UK can now
require individuals to reveal the results of genetic tests. At the same
time, prenatal and pre-implantation diagnoses are eliminating human
foetuses and embryos carrying genes said to pre-dispose them to cancer as
Governments are diverting large amounts of tax money into human genomics
research which benefit the corporations. This is the real disaster for
public health. For it has narrowed the options for healthcare and
foreclosed other promising approaches. It is also a major distraction from
the real causes of ill-health, which are overwhelmingly environmental and
social, which will end up marginalizing and victimising those most in need
of care and treatment.
Long before we were told there arent enough genes to support the
genetic determinist view, many scientists have concluded that there are no
simplistic explanations for diseases in terms of single genes, because the
action of each gene is modified and affected by many other genes. The
connection between genes and disease becomes all the more tenuous when it
comes to conditions such as cancer, heart disease, diabetes,
schizophrenia, intelligence, alcohol abuse and criminal behaviour, where
environmental and social factors increasingly predominate.
There are hundreds of variants in each of the 30 000 genes in the
genome. Craig Venters Celera has identified over 4 million single
nucleotide polymorphisms, or SNPs variants of genes that differ by
a single base. Each person is genetically unique, except for identical
twins at the beginning of development, before they can accumulate genetic
mutations independently. It is impossible, in principle, to give the
prognosis for any disease for an individual, let alone predict his or her
lifestyle based on the persons genetic makeup .
More than a decade of somatic gene therapy has met with no
success. On the contrary, there have been deaths and numerous adverse
events, the causes of which remain largely unknown. Many hazards are
already evident from existing scientific findings. These include immune
reactions to GM constructs and creation of new viruses due to
recombination between artificial gene therapy vectors and dormant viruses
in the genome.
Nevertheless, arch genetic determinists and other prominent scientists
as well as bioethicists are advocating human germline gene
therapy and human cloning. They see the creation of a gene-rich class of
human beings to be inevitable due to the free reign of the global
marketplace. The rich will pay to genetically enhance their offspring, in
the same way that they will pay for expensive private education.
Consequently, there will be a genetic underclass - children of the poor -
that will eventually become a separate, inferior species. Social inequity
can thereby be translated into genetic inequity and vice versa.
Fortunately, this genetic determinist fantasy will never come to pass.
Unfortunately, it is fuelling the resurgence of eugenics and genetic
discrimination, giving rein to the worst prejudices of our society.
The cloning of Dolly the sheep first raised the possibility that the
same procedure could be used to create a human being. This met with
universal opposition from citizens and governments all over the world.
However, human cloning came back on the agenda as companies and their
scientists pushed for approval of therapeutic human cloning,
the creation of human embryos for the purpose of providing cells and
tissues for transplant. In January 2001, the UK became the first
Government in the world to pass a law that makes this legal, even though
the available scientific evidence indicates that such human cloning is
totally unnecessary and immoral . Human clones have even
been created, by transferring the genetic material of a human cell into
the egg of the cow and the pig. Apart from the moral objections, such
interspecific hybrids are well-known to result in gross abnormalities.
Against this background, the international trafficking of human organs is
already rife, and eggs and embryos will be added to the list. At least
fifty women are needed to provide enough empty eggs to clone a
single human embryo. Advertisements for egg donors have appeared on the
Another development is xenotransplantation, the creation of humanised
pigs by genetic engineering to supply spare organs and cells for
transplant into human beings. This is so clearly a case of bad science and
big business putting the world at risk from pandemics of viruses that
cross from pig to human beings that it should be banned immediately .
All the developments in and around human genomics stem from the
mechanistic paradigm that still dominates western science and the global
society at large. Mary Shelley´s brilliant novel, Frankenstein,
was not just a parable of the arrogant scientist playing God, it is also
about mechanistic science out of control today, in pursuit of corporate
The irony is that contemporary western science across the disciplines is
rediscovering how nature is organic, dynamic and interconnected. There are
no linear causal chains linking genes and the characteristics of
organisms, let alone the human condition. The discredited paradigm is
perpetrated by a scientific establishment consciously or unconsciously
serving the corporate agenda, and making even the most unethical
applications seem compelling.
It is high time scientists across the world free themselves from the
corporate agenda, to work in partnership with the organic uprising from
the grassroots, to recover and revitalize the holistic perspectives of
traditional knowledge systems, to secure food and health for all.
Cited in "Men and women behaving badly? Dont blame DNA"
Robin McKie, Observer, Feb. 11, 2001. See also "Gene code
opens new fields of medicine" Tim Radford, The Guardian
Feb. 12, 2001.
See "Genome project" The Guardian Feb. 12, 2001; "Unexpected
bits and pieces" Henry Gee, The Guardian Feb. 12, 2001; "Genome
discovery shocks scientists: Genetic blueprint contains far fewer genes
than thought DNAs importance downplayed" Tom Abate,
San Francisco Chronicle, Feb. 11, 2001; "Analysis of human
genome discovers far fewer genes" Nicholas Wade, The New York
Times, Feb. 12, 2001.
"Mapping the genome could be route to disaster" Leo Lewis,
The Independent on Sunday, Business, 11 Feb., 2001.