Faith & Reason: Things are just not our fault these days

Now even laziness and Internet addiction are said to have a genetic basis. Will science one day absolve us of all ethical decisions?
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The Independent Culture
NO DOUBT about it. It has been the best news of the week. Something which had the nation's sluggards, slug-a-beds, couch potatoes, and loungers whooping with delight - or would have done if they had bothered to rise early enough to catch the first editions. Laziness, they would have read, may not be their fault, after all. The world's procrastinators and sleepy- heads may soon be able to point blamelessly to the real culprit. Why, of course, their DNA!

Scientists at Glasgow University are currently engaged on a project to find the so called "lazy gene" (apparently it's reluctant to come out voluntarily until it's had a 10-minute lie-in and two cups of coffee). If they find this listless little fellow we will thus be handed the excuse we have been waiting for, for all these years. Think of it. The early- morning dips we never took, the letters we never wrote, the exercise regime we abandoned, the marathons we never trained for . . . not our fault. NOT OUR FAULT. Because, you see, some of us are programmed for a life of indolence. Can't help it, mate.

The study into the links between the body's genetic components and "exercise intolerance" (that phrase alone could revolutionise the sick note) is being led by Professor Susan Ward, who was reported as saying: "If we can establish a certain genetic pattern which corresponds to what is commonly seen as laziness it could transform the way we deal with health problems caused through lack of exercise." Genetic research, she believes, could explain why so many of us are unhealthy and overweight despite the ready availability of sports centres and exercise classes for people of all ages.

It would be wrong, of course, to oversimplify Professor Ward's undertaking. Doubtless it is more sophisticated than reports have made out and doubtless, too, she has been subtly traduced in the reporting (not, of course, that we can blame "sloppy journalism" any more). Even so, the general drift of the rhetorical questions she and her research team will be framing is in tune with the times. Things are just not our fault these days. Any responsibility we may traditionally have had for directing the course of our lives is being surreptitiously eroded by a creeping determinism which lets us all off the hook. And people are gradually cottoning on to the implications. Think of the growth of designer therapies to "cure" celebrities of their demons. To Michael Douglas's much-publicised sex addiction (couldn't the problem be in your jeans, Mike?) has been added another. Addiction to the Internet.

If one American woman's current litigation bears fruit lawyers will have proved that self-discipline and will are no match for the irresistible lure of the World Wide Web. If her appeal against dismissal is successful it will have been shown to be "not her fault" that she spent her days browsing the net, not her fault that she wasted company time and her employers' money. She couldn't help it you see. This new determinism absolves us all.

The religiously inclined are used to a similar sort of charge. They are frequently accused of using God as the ultimate excuse to explain everything from personal behaviour to natural disaster. Indeed even the Turkish President was not immune from such solecism this week when he declared the earthquake to be the will of God, thereby conveniently overlooking the role of human greed and, er, human laziness in exacerbating the suffering. But the true religious impulse is surely more complex than that. It is more in the nature of a partnership in the created order. Yes, things are the will of God but within it we have personal responsibility for our own actions. When things go wrong we are forced to accept our part in the outcome.

The late Hugo Gryn, Auschwitz survivor and charismatic radio rabbi, would never have subscribed to the growing popular philosophy of secular absolution. In his eyes we were all responsible for our actions. For him it was this responsibility which made us fully human and its absence which led to disaster. The Holocaust was the greatest modern-day example of this. It was not God who stood accused in the death camps, he used to say, but humankind which had to face up to the consequences of its malevolence, ignorance, weakness, and indifference.

It's a bit rich dumping all this baggage at the door of the Glasgow research team, of course. And the charge of overreaction may well be in order here. But doing away with our personal responsibility for this or that behaviour, explaining away our laziness or our wilfulness, diminishes us all and destroys what Hugo used to see as the ennobling partnership of the human and the divine. As usual he had a story to illustrate it. It's an old one but it bears repetition.

A Jewish businessman is in financial difficulties and prays that might win the Lottery. To no effect. His business slides further downhill and he is forced to lay off his employees. Please God, he prays, let me win the Lottery. He does not and by now his business is on the brink of collapse. He makes one last heartfelt appeal. Please, please help me win the Lottery. A booming voice is heard and the Almighty speaks. "Maurice, you've got to help me." How do you mean, he asks. "Maurice, please, please . . . buy a ticket."