Genetic Notes: Selfish genes and how to reject them

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WHAT MAKES us humans do what we do? Within the western, Judaeo- Christian cultural tradition, we have long been encouraged to believe that we have something called free will. We can choose to be saint or sinner, either honest and faithful, or a cheat and promiscuous.

Back in the 19th century, of course, Marx taught us something different - that our thoughts and actions were formed by our class position. The freedom to starve or to dine at the Ritz is constrained by one's bank balance. But over the past decades new voices, claiming to speak in the name of science, have offered a different challenge to the idea of human freedom.

According to these so-called evolutionary psychologists, our thoughts and actions follow the dictates of our selfish genes, whose only interest is to ensure that we breed so as to carry copies of themselves into the next generation. So, evolutionary psychology insists, there are human universals (male philandering, female coyness, propensity to cheat, and to favour our genetic relatives over non-kin). And there are human differences (in sexual orientation, political tendency, drug dependency, criminality, aggression and many many others). Both universals and differences though, are supposed to be genetically determined. So in this world of humans as lumbering robots programmed by our genes, what happens to free will?

Logically, it must disappear into the iron grip of genetics, just as vulgar Marxism claimed it disappeared into the iron grip of economic determinism. But oddly, despite their macho talk, this is just where genetic determinists chicken out. If my genes don't like what I do, says Steven Pinker, they can go jump in the lake. But hang on a minute - if we are the product of our genes, what gives us the freedom to reject their dictates?

Selfish genery has no answers. But that's not because there is some god- stuff out there which makes humans different from all other living organisms. It is because no living creature is simply the robotic product of bits of DNA. You can't read off the four dimensions of life - three of space and one of time - from the one-dimensional string of As and Cs and Gs and Ts which make up DNA's code. We each - along with every flea and lilac bush - have our unique trajectory through life - our lifeline - which we construct out of the contents of the fused egg and sperm cells from which we start and the continual absorption of materials and information from the environment. What makes humans unique of course is that unlike all other creatures we are embedded not just in a physical environment but in a historical, social, cultural and technological one as well.

Sure, without our particular combination of genes we humans would not have developed the large brains with their capacity for conscious thought and language, which have enabled us to create this rich environment. And our genes do constrain us - we can't for instance sprout wings and fly, or see in the ultraviolet, although other creatures carry genes which allow them to do just these things. But our genes do enable us to develop the forms of society and technology which do make it possible for individuals to fly, or to see in the UV, or to create a vast range of different types of society and ways of living.

So the genetic determinist trap is a spurious one. We certainly don't need free will in the old religious sense of the term. It is precisely because we are living organisms - within whose construction our genes indeed have a part to play - that we are free to choose how to live. But the Marxist insight was also right; our choice is not absolute. It is formed and limited not only by biology but by the material constraints of our own lives, by class, by race, by gender, by history. And by the poverty of our own imagination. The greatest criticism of selfish genery is that it by implication denies us just this freedom.

Steven Rose is the author of `Lifelines' (Penguin, pounds 8.99)