Science in Society Archive

I-SIS Scientific Preprint

Nurturing Nature

How Parental Care Changes Genes

Essay in honour of Ruth Hubbard By Dr. Mae-Wan Ho

To appear in Myths of the DNA Paradigm: Essays on the Uses and Misuses of Genetic Explanation (Sheldon Krimsky and Jeremy Gruber eds), Council for Responsible Genetics, Washington, USA.

Ruth Hubbard a leading light against genetic determinism

It has been 30 years since I first met Ruth Hubbard and her husband George Wald at a conference on Towards a Liberatory Biology in Bressanone in the Italian Alps [1, 2]. Ruth was already a leading light in the radical critique of genetic determinism – the idea that organisms are hardwired in their genetic makeup - from a broad socio-political perspective. As a research scientist who had worked on visual pigments for many years, she was by no means unaware of hormones and enzymes encoded by genes that enable an organism to transform energy, grow, and develop in a certain way. But she insisted that there are social determinants for what people are, or perceived to be, much more powerful than biology and genes.

I suspect that she was getting rather impatient with the anodyne and frequently opaque rhetoric of sociologists that fail to come to grips with the real issues, not to mention the obfuscation by ‘bio-ethicists’ who were a contradiction in terms. The unsuspecting public was left to the mercy of slick propaganda from vested interests intent on profiting by blaming people’s ills on their genes and selling them both the diagnosis and appropriate remedies: abortion for  the unborn, gene drugs and gene-therapies for adults scared witless after having tested positive for genes that will give them incurable diseases. Ruth Hubbard’s book co-authored with Elijah Wald - Exploding the Gene Myth: How Genetic Information is Produced and Manipulated by Scientists, Physicians, Employers, Insurance Companies, Educators and Law Enforcers [3] - is admirable for delivering its important message clearly, succinctly, and with punch and panache, true to how she is in real life [4].

How scientific and social critiques converge

My own critique of genetic determinism [2, 5] (see also [6] Genetic Engineering Dream or Nightmare? The Brave New World of Bad Science and Big Business) is much more based on science, which I take broadly to be reliable knowledge of nature that enables us to live sustainably with her (see  [7] Towards a Convention on Knowledge, ISIS discussion paper). That is certainly not to understate the large influences that society and politics have on science and more to the point, what passes as science, which can be very much mistaken and unreliable as is the case of genetic determinism. Science as what I have prescribed is what we live by, and hence has large implications on how we live, and choose to live.

Our two critiques converge, because social and environmental influences are indeed powerful determinants on how we grow and develop, precisely as Ruth has been saying; so much so that they can mark and change our genes for life. That’s what the Human Genome Project to sequence the entire human and other genomes has ended up telling us, despite the fact that it was inspired and promoted by genetic determinism.

The new genetics of the ‘fluid genome’ had already emerged by the early 1980s, long before the human genome project was conceived [6, 8] (see Living with the Fluid Genome , ISIS publication).  It belongs in the organic paradigm of spontaneity and freedom (see [9] Quantum Jazz Biology, SiS 47) that defies any kind of determinism, biological or environmental.

The complete fully referenced article can be downloaded here

Article first published 21/07/10

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