Books: The free market takes over where Hitler left off

Brave New Worlds: Genetics and the Human Experience by Bryan Appleyard, HarperCollins pounds 16.99; Is genetics the most dangerous knowledge of all?
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And New Philosophy calls all in doubt,

The Element of fire is quite put out;

The Sun is lost, and th'earth, and no man's wit

Can direct him where to look for it ...

'Tis all in pieces, all coherence gone.

So wrote John Donne in response to the cosmological revolutions of the 17th century which overthrew the old Earth-centred universe. Five centuries later the idea that the Earth revolves around the sun no longer fills us with dread. But another scientific advance seems increasingly to engender the same sense of anxiety that Donne expressed - genetics. From genetically modified food to the possibility of cloned humans, from the laying bare of the material basis of personality to the promise of xenotransplantation, the new science threatens to upset our basic understanding of who we are and of our place in Nature. As Bryan Appleyard puts it, the new genetics "entails the thwarting of nature at a very fundamental level".

Brave New Worlds is an attempt to give expression to the deepest pessimism about genetic science. Some knowledge, Appleyard believes, is so dangerous that it "contradicts our most humane instincts". And genetics is the most dangerous knowledge of all because, for the first time, "science has invaded the human realm", with incalculable consequences.

Appleyard can be an impressive writer, lucid, passionate and erudite. But here, his dread of science all too often overwhelms his more critical faculties. The result is a seriously distorted and incoherent polemic. Anyone who genuinely believes that genetics threatens to "overthrow the basis on which the wealth and stability of Western democracies are constructed" has a serious reality problem.

For Appleyard, the new genetics poses a mortal threat both to our physical and moral selves. It heralds a return to eugenics, this time not as a state crusade, but as a privatised, free market enterprise. "Hitler," Appleyard argues, "demonstrated the dangers implicit in science's invasion of the human realm." What contemporary genetics has in common with Nazis is the insistence on human differences. Whereas Nazis saw something in the blood that made Jews inferior, geneticists "say there is something in the genes of schizophrenics that leads to their aberrant behaviour". And "once people decide that you are a lesser creature for whatever reason, either superstitious or scientific, there appears to be no limit to what cruelty they may inflict upon you."

Appleyard links all this to a polemic against "designer" babies. Once we can identify genes for particular behaviours, he argues, there will be a tendency to abort foetuses with traits deemed undesirable - like homosexuality, for instance. And however distasteful we might as a society find this, as private individuals we will do whatever is necessary to make life easier for our children. "The free market," Appleyard writes, "takes over where Nazism left off."

Appleyard's argument is both factually and logically incoherent. It is absurd to argue that prior to the genetic revolution "the prevailing view was that people were essentially equal", whereas now science reveals human beings to be "profoundly different". After all, racial science and eugenics existed well before the emergence of genetics as a science. Genetics says little about whether human beings should be seen as similar or as different.

Biological differences between individuals and populations are empirical facts. (You don't need a PhD in genetics to observe that that I have a black skin and Appleyard a white one and that this is a biological difference.) What meaning we impute to those differences, however, is shaped by wider social and political considerations. If, for instance, as Appleyard suggests, a gene for homosexuality were to be discovered (a highly improbable prospect) and this led to parents aborting foetuses with this particular gene, the problem would lie not in the genetic breakthrough but in the way society viewed homosexuals. No amount of ranting about designer babies is going to change that.

Appleyard's claim that the new genetics is undermining our moral sense of what it means to be human is similarly flawed. Genetics, he writes, is "calling into question the meaning and reality both of the self and of ... free will", asserting as it does that our genes determine our actions. In fact genetics says little about human freedom. We are free in so far as we act as if we are free, and our views about biological determinism are irrelevant to this.

All this is not to deny that social concerns often shape scientific argument, or that antihumanism infuses much of genetic and evolutionary theory today. To understand this, however, we need to look beyond science itself. Appleyard fails to explore the wider social, political and philosophical transformations of the past two decades which have made both biologists, and the public at large, more inclined to view behaviours and personality traits as the product of predetermined biology, because he is so mesmerised by the idea that the problem lies with science, and science alone.

The irony is that Appleyard has much more in common with the genetic determinists than he realises. He ends the book with a polemic against the "arrogance of science", pleading for a "refuge ... from the so often disastrous tinkerings of human reason". He sympathises with the Christian claim that "it is the struggle with the givens of human nature that defines humanity, not the progressive effort to transform that nature". What is this but a belief that biology is fate? Far from demeaning our humanity, as Appleyard believes, science - including genetics - is a celebration of our most human capacities, helping to free us from the constraints of nature. After all, if we don't play God, who will?