For more than a century, the concept of the gene has dominated biological science in the global North. Built on thousands of years of plant cultivation and animal husbandry—the original experimental biology—which itself followed hundreds of thousands of years of observational biology by hunter-gatherers, the rise of genetics was simultaneously a window into the inner workings of living systems and a hostile takeover of all biological knowledge that preceded it.
But despite its grip on the scientific culture of affluent societies, the gene’s reign as the supposed “secret of life” is coming to an end. The more we learn about natural systems—or, in many cases, relearn what was known traditionally—the clearer it becomes that genes are only one class of factors that causes development (changes that turn embryos into fully formed animals and plants) and evolution (transformation of simple organisms into more complex ones over the history of life). Alarmingly, however, even as the notion of the all-powerful gene loses scientific relevance, it is gaining new ideological traction in the appropriation and privatization of resources, helping to foster inequality among ethnicities and socio-economic classes. How this has occurred, and what can be done to stop it, is the subject of this article.
In 1931, the Soviet historian of science Boris Hessen described how Isaac Newton’s laws of motion, seemingly universal landmarks in our understanding of the physical world, were produced partly in response to the technical needs of the emerging English industry of the seventeenth century. Correspondingly, the theory was infused with the ideology of its era, and its static worldview presented obstacles to further advances. Hessen showed how scientific analysis of nonmechanical matter (he focused on thermodynamics, but his arguments also pertain to chemistry and biology) was impeded by the Newtonian paradigm. Even the concept of conservation of energy, a straightforward mathematical consequence of Newton’s laws of motion, was not articulated until after Newton’s death. This was likely an effect of early Newtonian theory’s undialectical character: only point masses were considered, and both dissipation (the degradation of energy) and nonmechanical productive practices, such as metallurgy or steam power, were excluded.
Ever since Hessen (and by extension, Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, whose philosophy inspired his analysis) it has no longer been possible for honest observers of science to ignore its ideological dimension. Certainly this applies to the gene. When Gregor Mendel conducted his plant breeding experiments in nineteenth-century Moravia, he employed methods essentially the same as those used by farmers for millennia. By recording his results quantitatively, he discovered consistent associations of “factors” (what we now call “genes”) carried by the plants’ seeds with choices exerted later in development between alternative traits, such as long or short stems, inflated or constricted pods. Simple reflection indicates that those who first produced maize from teosinte-family grasses in Mexico about 9,000 years ago were not stumbling on things randomly, but doing much the same as Mendel: breeding by selection and hybridization while carefully keeping track of the results, probably using the Mesoamerican record-keeping systems that were famously employed in calendars, astronomy, and large engineering and civic projects.
Early farmers thus implicitly recognized and adapted Mendel’s factors long before he or European civilization existed. What was at stake in traditional agriculture, however, were the properties of whole organisms (i.e., maize plants) in the context of their conditions of cultivation. Variations in external conditions such as temperature, humidity, or soil quality can elicit disparate phenotypes—structures and functions—as surely as genetic variation does. Furthermore, favorable forms were propagated socially, via families and communities, rather than commercially (as was increasingly the case in the North), and in multiple varieties, rather than as the monocultures compelled by industrial standardization. Among the peoples who brought these crops into being, preservation of “ecophenotypic” variety (that is, the range of phenotypes in their different ecological settings) was the paramount scientific value. They thus had little reason to attribute the vital nature of maize to hidden elements at its smallest and most quiescent stage of development.
It is not surprising, then, that Mendel’s work initially attracted scant notice among scientists and farmers. While this cool reception is often attributed to the challenging, radical implications of his ideas, it was more likely because the notion that latent factors in plant seeds (or the eggs and sperm of animals) inform the character of the developed organism was a familiar one, with ancient roots. And while Mendel’s discoveries of the numerical ratios of inheritance were indeed novel, they were not generally applicable. Indeed, although “Mendelian genetics” eventually became fetishized as the basis for all heredity, only a small percentage of biological traits are inherited according Mendel’s laws: even Mendel himself found exceptions to his “law for peas.” Those traits that behave in a classically Mendelian fashion are often curiosities or pathologies, though some, such as blood types, are of great medical importance.
During the late nineteenth century, industrialists in Europe and the United States increasingly faced demands from politically awakened workers for a fair share of the wealth they themselves created. Slaves had finally won their freedom and were taking their place in society as nominally, if not actually, equal citizens. Women were organizing for suffrage and seeking to throw off patriarchal constraints. It was in this milieu of rising resistance by oppressed groups that the British statistician Francis Galton devised the concept of eugenics, a program for the supposed biological betterment of the human species by hereditarian methods. For the first time, a mainstream scientist discussed humans in terms previously reserved for crops and livestock. Although Galton began his work with quantifiable characteristics like height, weight, and limb length, he soon proceeded to speculate about the hereditary basis of intelligence and beauty. Of course, belief in racial inequality and the selection and “breeding” of human beings were endemic to systems of slavery and colonial domination. But the elites of Galton’s day, who had come to see slavery—by then abolished in Britain—as an embarrassment, could now rationalize the social hierarchy from which they benefited as the natural right of their presumed membership in a genetic aristocracy.
Like Mendel, whose work he never knew, and like every plant and animal breeder who came before, Galton tracked the transmission of variation from one generation to the next, in his case using sophisticated statistical methods. But unlike Mendel, he was more concerned with continuous (changing only slightly in each generation) than discontinuous (abruptly changing) variation. This made Galton’s ideas compatible with the evolutionary theory of his cousin Charles Darwin, who was convinced that rare, discontinuous animal and plant variants (which British farmers termed “sports”) had little role in generating viable new forms.
Darwin’s gradualism has not held up as well as some of his other ideas. The consensus of twenty-first century evolutionary developmental biology holds that both abrupt and gradual transformations have molded organisms throughout their evolution. The origin of maize from teosinte is just one example of how abruptly appearing novelties were incorporated, under human guidance, into the phenotypic repertoire of different varieties, and much evidence suggests that the same process occurs during natural evolution. Contrary to Darwin’s theory of natural selection, phenotypically novel organisms do not always arise over many generations by competition between slightly different individuals within a common population. Often a novel subpopulation will prosper by inventing new ways of life in ecological niches that previously did not exist.
This alternative to Darwinism, termed “mutationism,” was widely discussed in the early twentieth century, but failed to take hold. This was in part a result of the aversion among bourgeois intellectuals and their sponsors to any theory, social or scientific, that emphasized radical change. But Galton’s biometric school was unable to devise a mechanism for heredity based on continuous determinants, so Mendelism with its discrete (“particulate”) factors became the mainstream view.
To forge a connection to biometrics and the popular Darwinian theory of evolution, however, Mendel’s model had to be so revised as to be almost unrecognizable. This assimilation occurred in several steps. The first move, initiating what came to be called the “modern synthesis,” was to assert that the characters considered by Darwin were influenced by many genes. Subsequent work has shown this to be true, though there is nothing discrete or particulate in the way these influences are exerted. The second step was to claim that the characters were determined exclusively by those genes. This is incorrect: nearly all characters are brought about by nongenetic as well as genetic determinants. Most morphological traits, for example, arise from inherent physical properties of living tissues (analogously to the way waves are inherent to water) which are released and refined by the action of genes, but not caused by such action. The third move, made after the invention of modern computing in the mid-twentieth century, was to postulate that organisms develop under the guidance of software-like “genetic programs.” This notion too is highly misleading: no such programs have ever been identified. Furthermore, to oversimplify, the latest understanding of how the structure of proteins (the products of genes by which they exert most of their functions) depends on which other proteins surround them makes it impossible for genes to act together in a program-like fashion.
While these misconceptions gained influence among scientists in the latter half of the twentieth century, the gene took on a life of its own in the public imagination. Writers like Richard Dawkins persuaded many people that organisms’ features evolved simply to serve as “selfish” vehicles for genes to propagate themselves.
When the concept of the gene—partly empirical and partly ideological—was being fashioned during the late nineteenth and into the twentieth century, European colonial empires were at their height. As they began to unravel in the decades following the First World War, academic researchers, with increasing governmental and commercial support, were devising ways to use genetics to limit their losses. This meant resisting the claims of indigenous and other marginalized domestic populations, including growing numbers of their agricultural and industrial workers, and adapting to the major powers’ reduced ability to plunder the resources of former colonies.
Eugenicist thinking among educated elites, used to justify ethnicity-based restrictions on immigration and forced sterilization programs in the United States and Europe (some lasting into the 1970s), also had the side effect of subverting solidarity among workers, who learned in schools and the popular media that some groups were inherently inferior to others. The proponents in Nazi Germany of the eliminationist projects of the Second World War freely acknowledged their debt to North American and British eugenicist writings of the early twentieth century, some of whose authors were, sadly, prominent biologists of the left. After the war, frank eugencism became unfashionable, but a subtler “genetic counseling” ethos emerged under which families were discouraged from transmitting certain genes to their prospective offspring. The academic fields of sociobiology and evolutionary psychology also gave rise to evolutionary narratives that asserted a genetic basis for the socially subordinate roles of women, which the Marxist biologists Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin likened to Rudyard Kipling’s fanciful “just-so stories” for children.1
Meanwhile, agricultural genetics provided leverage for agribusinesses in the metropolitan core. By the late 1960s, for example, 90 percent of the U.S. maize crop consisted of a single proprietary hybrid variety. But such monoculture courted disaster. In 1970, Southern corn leaf blight wiped out 15 percent of the country’s crop. Other gene-based strategies to increase agricultural output in the global South had predictably negative consequences, given their subservience to the needs of capitalist political economy. The “super seeds” of the Green Revolution, for example, often increased crop yields dramatically, thus initially alleviating some hunger in countries that planted them. But the expensive fertilizers and pesticides required by this agricultural model led, under business-oriented regimes, to the privatization of communal lands and subsistence farms. Consequently, agrarian social formations were destroyed, millions were displaced, and rural poverty markedly increased.
Beginning in the 1970s, scientists gained the ability to determine the precise order of subunits of DNA molecules, and by the 1980s to modify DNA (“genetic engineering”) in multicellular plants and animals. In the last decade, the rise of CRISPR/Cas9 high-accuracy genetic engineering techniques has enabled some beneficial applications, starting with the bacterial production of proteins used to treat certain diseases, and continuing more recently with use of “marker genes” to aid selection of natural crop variants and enhance cell-based immune responses against cancer. But the scale of these accomplishments is minor in comparison to the increasingly aggressive use of genetics and gene-centric ideologies to gain control of the world’s biological resources, including the genetic engineering of humans themselves, on the neo-eugenicist assumption that failure or unhappiness is attributable to inferior biological makeup.
In the agricultural domain, biotechnology companies have lobbied heavily for patent protections for genetically modified organisms (GMOs), through which they can compel farmers to purchase exorbitantly expensive new proprietary seeds each planting season. Farmers who plant conventional seeds that are inadvertently converted to GMOs by pollination from neighboring fields are threatened with legal action. Corporations have also sought to intimidate scientists whose work has cast doubt on the safety of GMO foods or the herbicides used in their production. Some scientists have been fired or had their funding terminated under pressure by corporations, while others have had their published papers “unpublished.”2 The U.S. government, in pursuit of world hegemony for its corporate clients’ crops, has negotiated treaties mandating acceptance of GMO foods and engaged in backstage diplomatic arm-twisting to force countries that have rejected such products, such as Mexico and France, to reverse their positions.
In the realm of human biology, the efficiency of the CRISPR/Cas9 technique has accentuated calls by scientists, venture capitalists, and even bioethicists to engineer human embryos to avert diseases or, more ambitiously, improve intelligence, beauty, or other predictors of economic success. This does not appear to have been achieved yet, but it may be not too far away. Already procedures that involve the transfer of the nuclear genes (the main set of genes in a cell) from one woman’s egg to another’s have been misleadingly sold to the public as “mitochondrial replacement” (focusing on one feature of the second woman’s egg, as if moving into a new house were referred to as “replacing your windows”). This maneuver is being implemented throughout the world, most recently in Mexico by a U.S. doctor who could not get permission to perform the procedure in his own country. What is rarely acknowledged in policy discussions around embryo engineering is that while intended to improve quality of life, in some percentage of cases it must inevitably lead to experimental errors. What will be the fate of children whose parents were promised “more” but got “less”?
Genetic science and genetic ideology arrived together in the capitalist countries of Europe and North America, whose ruling classes had recently suffered the loss of their slave systems and were confronting the rise of labor and women’s rights movements. Though it was decades before the science would inform the means of production, from the start its ideology was deeply informed by racism and sexism, however coded or disguised. By the Second World War, the capitalist nations were at each other’s throats, in part because of the decision of one power to act on the exterminationist implications of this genetic ideology. Afterwards, as genetic science reoriented toward crop improvement, it was employed to hasten the destruction of the social formations that gave rise to agriculture in the first place, and with them the cornucopia of plant varieties they had developed over millennia.
Today we are witnessing the replacement of the gene concept, always an unstable scientific idea, by more sophisticated notions of inheritance in which many types of internal and external causes and factors act in both concert and contradiction. The old genetic ideology lives on, however, in the form of increasingly strident calls to genetically engineer our foods and our children. Citizens around the world, most prominently in Mexico, are resisting these attacks on their ways of life by calling for the continuance of existing bans on GMO crops and for new ones on GMO humans. Only by taking back biological science from corporate interests and controlling its uses can we ensure that our collective intellectual heritage empowers rather than divides humanity.
- ↩Stephen Jay Gould and Richard C. Lewontin, “The Spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian Paradigm: A Critique of the Adaptationist Programme,” Proceeedings of the Royal Society of London B 205 (1979): 581–98.
- ↩“Top Researchers Back Suspended Lab Whistleblower,” Guardian, February 12, 1999; Rex Dalton, “Ecologist Sues for Lost Tenure After Transgene Controversy,” Nature 434 (2005): 945.