A nice gene, but I'm not wearing it

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The Independent Online
Scientists believe that they have isolated a gene which may explain much of recent human behaviour and which predetermines the way we go about problem-solving.

"We really think we are on to it this time!" enthuses the high-profile geneticist Wayne Kelly. "We think we may have stumbled on the big one in DNA. We think we've located a gene which governs the way we think about genes, and that means a gene which governs the way all the other genes work."


"Well, you've heard a lot of talk about the possibility of isolating genes which cause cruelty? And genes which cause criminal instincts? And genes which cause tomatoes to grow really big and really red and really tasteless, especially for the American market?"


"And you've been fed the impression that if only we could isolate other bothersome genes, such as genes that cause war and genes that give rise to nationalism and genes that engender the desire to put TV game shows on whenever the ratings sag, then we could indulge in enough genetic engineering to solve the problems of the world?"

Yes, we do get the impression that genes are the deterministic flavour of the month.

"Right! Nicely put! Well, there is a big flaw in this argument: if genes really are the answer to everything, how come it's taken us so long to get round to them? And how do we know they won't get replaced by something else the day after tomorrow?"

I don't know. How do we know?

"Well, we are on the verge of finding out. Because we have stumbled on the existence of a problem-solving gene!"

You mean a human gene that aids us to solve problems?

"Not quite that, no. This gene doesn't, to be quite honest, get many problems solved. What it does do is convince us that we have found the solution to our problem!"

I'm afraid I don't quite ...

"It is, in brief, the gene that predisposes humans to think that there is one solution to all our problems and one only. It is a constant in the history of human thought that, at any given period, we all think that one breakthrough has given us the answer.

"Take the history of transport. The horse was always the answer. Then steam. Then the internal combustion engine. As soon as one universal panacea had gone, another came along.

"It's been the same in politics from time to time. Until recently, a large section of the world said that Communism was the only answer. In the Middle Ages, the same was said of Christianity. It has been said of almost everything at one time or another. Tony Benn will go to his grave thinking that socialism is the answer. Ian Paisley will go to his grave thinking that Protestant Unionism is the answer, though not even he would suggest that it was the universal panacea for other countries such as Paraguay."

So you are saying that, although the solution varies widely, the urge to believe in a solution is universal? And probably gene-based?

"I am convinced of it. This isn't so very new, either. In the Middle Ages people were convinced that everything was explicable by the four humours. In the 1890s people were convinced that bacteria, which had just been discovered, explained everything. If you went bald, people maintained, it was because you had contracted a baldness bacteria. Later, it was viruses which became the culprit. Now we know it is genes."

So, if you locate the gene that thinks there is a simple solution to everything, can you alter it to make people aware of multiple solutions and complex problem-solving? Can you, for instance, stop the Government from believing that privatisation and market forces are the answer to everything? Before they have finally scuppered our railways system for once and for all?

"It may be a little late for that," says the hot-shot geneticist Wayne Kelly. "Anyway, I am a scientist, not a moralist. I can't say what should or should not be done. What I can say is that this new gene we have discovered seems to contain all the information which leads us to believe in just one big solution. And that is why we seldom change our ideas through our lifetime."

But if we believe that is all down to one gene, are we not in turn being victim of this one gene that makes us think it is all down to one gene?

"You're very cynical," says Professor Wayne Kelly, looking at me more closely. "What sign are you?"


"Typical," says Professor Kelly, the foremost geneticist in Britain, "just typical of a Taurean."