DNA, the genomic age and human behaviour – time to move beyond the framework of the selfish gene

We are all familiar with the dominant paradigm of our genomic age – it’s in the DNA. This claim – it’s in the genes – has washed over the fields of psychology, sociology, biology and everyday conversation. This metaphor is closely related to the tenet of the selfish gene, popularised by Professor Richard Dawkins. Let’s dig deeper into this subject – and by doing so, we will find that we have been thinking about genes and DNA incorrectly.

As Pankaj Mehta wrote in Jacobin, we have resorted to the ‘it’s in the DNA’ as a ready-made, intellectually lazy explanation for the entire gamut of human behaviour:

If you want to understand why humans wage wars, there is a gene for that. Want to understand why men rape women? There is a gene for that. Want to understand why the “national characters” of East Asia, the West, and Africa are different? We have those genes covered too. Indeed, if we are to believe most popular media, there is a gene for just about every inequality and inequity in modern society.

The one book which solidified our notion of humans driven by their DNA is the bestselling book by Professor Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene. In that book, Dawkins explicitly summarises the Gordon Gekko ‘greed is good’ philosophy, stating that we are nothing but vehicles for the replication of our underlying genes. Genetic determinism, now backed up by the successful mapping of the human genome in 2003, has made a strident comeback.

The economic and moral framework of our age has been strongly influenced by the selfish gene narrative. Surely capitalism, and the inequalities that is produces, are the inevitable products of our genetic makeup?

This view is not only a misappropriation of biological understanding to justify socioeconomic inequities, as the biologist the late Richard Lewontin pointed out. It is also flawed from a scientific point of view; human evolution, (and evolution generally), rather than being driven by ferocious competition, is actually the product of cooperation and mutually reinforcing networks of life.

When Darwin published his famous book On the Origin of Species, he was unaware of genes passing on adaptive traits. What he did do was incorporate the social ethos of his Victorian England, then an emerging industrial power, with its strict class differentiation. Social classes demonstrated, it was believed, the inevitably hierarchical structure of human society.

The popular notion of ‘struggle of the fittest’ was transposed onto the biological world. In particular, Herbert Spencer, an English anthropologist and philosopher, advocated a view of society as a harsh individualistic competition, where the ostensibly ‘strong’ would crush the ‘weak.’

Social Darwinism may have lost its original allure, given the horrific experiences of the twentieth century, and how sociobiologic misconceptions about race have lead to traumatic outcomes. However, the claim of evolution as competition was provided a boost by the discoverers of the double helix structure of genes.

As we all know, the gene was not popularised until the 20th century, with the publication of the work of the obscure Austrian monk, Gregor Mendel. Working away with peas, he discovered dominant and recessive genes. Dying in 1884, his work remained unknown until the early 1900s. Ironically, he never actually believed in evolution, but his work has done as much as Darwin’s to solidify evolutionary biology in the popular consciousness.

DNA became the most iconic biological molecule, with its deployment as metaphor ubiquitous in modern literature.

When Francis Crick and James Watson (not forgetting the crucial role of Rosalind Franklin) published their findings in the early 1950s, they borrowed metaphors from the newly emerging fields of computing and information theory. Our genes are ‘information’, much like the algorithms of a software platform – and humans are analogous to the computer, which houses and executes that software.

To be sure, the challenge to the idea of evolution as ruthless individual competition came, not from English scientists, but from Russian science. Darwin’s contemporary, the anarchist Peter Kropotkin (1842 – 1921), himself a serious scientist and scion of Russian nobility, presented the findings of his field research. Working the vast lands of Siberia, he found that individual cooperation, not competition, was the norm.

In the harsh geography of Siberia, individual organisms developed networks of cooperation in order to survive. He elaborated his results in his book Mutual Aid (1902). The late biologist and science writer, Stephen Jay Gould, emphasised that Russian scientists – no, not exclusively from the Marxist or socialist tradition – rejected the gladiatorial view of nature propounded by English Social Darwinism.

Kropotkin was not some muesli-eating, hippie-dippie stereotype that we associate with anarchism. He emerged from a serious scientific tradition in Russia, but because of political hostility between the UK and the western world generally against Russia, their scientific achievements, particularly during the Soviet period, are overlooked.

Prokaryotes and eukaryotes

Today, the growing field of epigenetics is a fundamental, if belated, recognition that genes are also influenced by the environment – our behaviours and milieu impact the way genes express themselves. There is no linear relationship straight from the gene to specific human social behaviour.

How about something very basic, such as the transition from single-celled organisms lacking a nucleus, prokaryotes, to multicellular organisms, eukaryotes? Surely there was competition at that level, so many billions of years ago? Yes, there was. However, the change from the overwhelmingly predominant type of life on Earth – prokaryotes – to eukaryotes, occurred not because of vicious competition, but through the emergence of a symbiotic union.

Eukaryotes had been devouring their prokaryotic neighbours for millions of years. However, a type of prokaryote was swallowed – the mitochondrion, and instead of being digested, the eukaryotic host and its new inhabitant began to work together. As every biology student knows, the mitochondrion is an energy powerhouse, and has its own DNA, and multicellular life took off. This is one of the most important transitions in the history of life on earth, and it occurred cooperatively.

Today, the term endosymbiosis is making its way into the popular lexicon. Eukaryotic cells emerged from different types of prokaryotic cells working together – an early biological example of teamwork.

Let’s wrap this up – the notion that we are all the inevitable product of genes which are programmed to reproduce and pass on to the next generation a predestined set of traits is a simple idea. However, it is fundamentally flawed and leads to a serious underappeciation of the role of cooperation in the emergence of life.