At last! Modern scientists have located the working-class gene

The discovery of a genetic marker for dropped aitches is bound to be controversial, says William Hartston
Click to follow
The highly competitive world of academic genetics is in growing turmoil following the controversial claim that a "working-class gene" has been discovered by researchers in the south of England.

Dr Kevin Darrenson, Professor of Heredity Studies at the University of Southern Hampshire, has no doubt that the claims are justified. Two years ago, his study of family histories of 284 working-class men alerted him to the possibility of a genetic component to class structure.

"We've never seen such strong correlations," he explained. "Sixty per cent of the sample had a working-class father, and nearly 70 per cent of the siblings of members of our sample were also working class." Maternal uncles, however, tended to form a more disparate group, suggesting to Prof Darrenson that the inherited component was more likely to be transmitted through the paternal line.

He accordingly conducted detailed molecular studies of the Y-chromosomes of 48 pairs of working-class brothers. It was, claims the professor, the first time hard scientific research had been done into the origins of working-classness. All previous work, Dr Darrenson asserts, is merely "flaccid sociological theorising loosely supported by selective statistics".

When completed, the study revealed that 34 of the pairs had co-inherited genetic markers on the same small region of the Y-chromosome. "It's a hugely exciting development," explained the professor from his office on the Isle of Wight. "The area within which we believe we have located the working-class gene overlaps with a section of the genetic code that we know affects the functioning of Broca's area of the brain, which is the speech centre."

This could, he said, lead to an explanation of working-class accents and even dropped aitches.

"While we are far from understanding the mechanism," he said, "there is every reason to believe that a rogue gene could cause a malformation of Broca's area, making the aspiration of an 'h' at the start of a word a psycho-physiological impossibility. It would work in much the same way as the recently discovered gene for dyslexia.

"It's too early to be certain, but there is growing evidence that the gene also affects aesthetic judgments, causing a regression to rather unsophisticated tastes in wallpaper and soft furnishings."

So does this mean working-classness is a disease? The professor hesitated before answering. "That's what's causing all the controversy, you see. What this research will inevitably lead to is a pre-natal test for the working-class gene and the possibility of aborting working-class foetuses."

Dr Darrenson, however, would not commit himself on whether he would support such a move. "I can fully understand why some mothers might not want to have working-class children," he said, "but scientists should not be called upon to make moral judgments. Scientists provide the technology. It is for others to decide on its applicability."

Despite distancing himself from the moral dilemma, the professor has already aroused considerable hostility both in academic circles and among working-class activists. Already one group of geneticists, predominantly from Northern universities, has issued a statement dissociating its members from Dr Darrenson's conclusions. Class, they say, is environmentally determined. Describing the research as "methodologically faulted", they take Dr Darrenson to task for concentrating on the 60 per cent of working-class people with working-class fathers, rather than turning his attention to the genes of the 40 per cent with middle- and upper-class parents.

A spokesman for Hawc (the Hampshire Association for the Working Classes) added: "Iss disgraceful that work like this should be goin' on on the Isla Wi'. I mean iss juss pandrin to the desires of them as wants gene'ic determinism, innit?"

The whole dispute is strangely reminiscent of the recent debate over the "gay gene", only that one wasn't a joke.