Good news: life is what we make it

'Why is this so important? Because it should mean we can accept one another's differences more easily, and help each other'
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The Independent Online

There is something intensely satisfying about the latest crumb of news deposited in the public domain for the layman via the gene-mappers. It's actually rather comforting to know that we are simpler souls than, up until now, we thought we were. Scientists had until very recently believed that there were around 100,000 human genes, available like fiendish Lego pieces to make each and every one of us in our splendid diversity.

There is something intensely satisfying about the latest crumb of news deposited in the public domain for the layman via the gene-mappers. It's actually rather comforting to know that we are simpler souls than, up until now, we thought we were. Scientists had until very recently believed that there were around 100,000 human genes, available like fiendish Lego pieces to make each and every one of us in our splendid diversity.

Now, the two rival teams decoding the book of life, have each found that instead there are only somewhere between 30,000 and 40,000 genes (which might even, to long-suffering parents, seem fewer than the available range of Lego pieces). So that grand panjandrum, the human, may not manage to boast twice as many genes as that microscopic nowhere-worm, with its 18,000 genes, the nematode.

Even the fruit fly, considered so negligible that even the most extreme of animal rights activists don't kick up a fuss about its extensive use in genetic experimentation, has 16,000 genes. Not for the first time it has to be admitted that it's a funny old world, and that we humans are the beings who make it such.

Without understanding in the least what the scientific implications of this discovery might be, anybody with the smallest curiosity about people - and that's pretty much all of us - can see that it is pretty significant. As with so much of the information thrown out by the human genome project, and its "quick and dirty" rival Celera Genomics, the metaphorical and philosophical implications are valuable in themselves. The "science bit", as Jennifer Aniston might put it, is only a small part of this intellectual explosion.

Dr Craig Venter, who broke away from the human genome project to set up Celera, after he attempted to patent fragments of information he had discovered and got short shrift, has been quick to make comment on this. He asserts that the smaller number of genes brings an end to the idea than every individual personality trait has its own gene. This idea, he says made him as a scientist, "want to laugh and cry". As a non-scientist, but let's face it, one who it turns out is probably sharing pretty much all of his genes, I can empathise with that.

This knowledge really is something of a relief, since the genes-for-everything theory never made much sense anyway. I've always been particularly tickled by the idea of a "homosexuality gene". If there is such a thing, how on earth has it survived for millions of years? The only possible answer could be that without homophobia, and the resultant pressure on homosexuals to conform to the patterns of family life, the homosexuality gene would have regressed into non-existence long ago.

The irony here is delicious, but it doesn't really explain how any phase in our evolution might have thrown up the homosexuality gene as straightforwardly useful to the survival of the species. Unless, of course, some strand of DNA in the far distant primordial soup came into existence to ensure the healthy development of disco in the 1970s. Where would we all be, after all, without that?

In the case of the homosexuality gene, the news that there isn't likely to be such a thing is good, because it means that loony prospective parents aren't going to be able to run around the world with chequebooks demanding that mad scientists guarantee that little Jimmy is going to be all man and no Mary.

Likewise, the mad scientists aren't likely to get together with psychopathic world leaders and set about making brave new eugenic worlds. Since it is the idea of this sort of terrifyingly simple biotechnological interference that makes people mistrustful of the entire human genome project, this again is jolly good news all round.

The most obvious conclusion to be drawn from the limited number of genes available to programme a human is that biological determination goes so far and no further. Human complexity, on this information, can be best explained in the manner it looks to be best explained before scientific evidence becomes involved at all.

In other words, in the nature versus nurture debate, the answer, thankfully, is "both". So, those who have suffered incestuous sexual abuse as children, don't so often go on to do the same to their own children because they've got the "incestuous paedophile gene", but because in a literal sense they treat the world in the way that the world treats them. Likewise, just because mum and dad are both lawyers, you don't have to feel bad because you'd very much prefer to be a person sprayed with silver standing very still in Covent Garden. Each to his own.

Why is this so important? Because it should mean that we can accept one another's differences more easily, and help each other when appropriate. Nurture does have a huge part to play in human destiny. Love can transform humans. Trust can make a difference. Second chances are worth proffering. Life, to a far greater extent than science thought up until now, is what we make it. One day we may know exactly what we can alter and what we cannot. Knowing that there is a great deal that we can alter or improve, as well as a great deal that we must accept and value for its own sake, makes the human journey progressive rather than deterministic, complex and open, rather than simple and unchangeable.

For no one can suggest that 30,000 genes doesn't give the human race much room for manoeuvre. Look how many tunes, after all, we're able to squeeze out of eight notes. But it surely must give the lie to the rather sinister belief that has been gaining credence in the West that there is a hard-wired, no-prisoners-taken, gene for absolutely everything, and that whole sections of the population can be corralled off as "stupid" or "lazy" or "criminal" or somehow or other sub-human.

Instead, like the eight notes which can only make music (albeit in astounding diversity), the 30,000 genes can only make people. The rest is up to us.

For the interested layperson what is so thrilling about the information slowly surfacing around the human genome project and its rivals is not really the implications surrounding the understanding of human ailments - though of course a cure for Huntingdon's disease would be terrific - but the mirror science is holding up to human nature.

I use the word mirror advisedly, because that's what science now seems to be doing - confirming that the philosophical map of the human heart is in harmony with the words of science in the book of life.

Of course, the understanding of how cancer develops or the way in which manic-depressive illness, schizophrenia or obsessive-compulsive disorder work on the brain are fantastic discoveries, well worth making. But it would be well worth understanding as well that we are what the world makes us, and should all be understood and tolerated in just that way.

The paradox is that beyond the data itself, we may also be seeing from the human genome project, why it is that information may not be able to help us to find peace at all. Already rivals quibble about who discovered what, and who helped who. Already scientists jockey to see who can buy up the secrets of the human mind and spin the most profit out of them. Already, the drugs companies are sinking their money into genetic research into migraine, because that's a place where there is a huge market. It would be very sad if all we were ever able to learn about ourselves is that our greed and aggression will overshadow even the most noble of our common endeavours.

d.orr@independent.co.uk

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