01 September 2010

The Gene Delusion Featured

Written by Published in Issue 23 - Beyond Matter Read 45475 times

You don't have to believe in God to sense that we are something more than science alone can define

My son asked me recently whether I believed in God. My reply was that I believe – I think – that there may be some sort of intelligence shaping the universe, including our little corner of it. And that some of the ideas and experiences we describe as religious may be inklings of that intelligence.

But I don’t believe in trooping to church on Sunday to sing hymns and repeat rituals, nor that there is someone like an old man with a white beard that we can pray to and get our wishes to come true.

‘I think so too,’ Cosmo answered, seeming satisfied. ‘I prayed once for a present for my birthday, then I didn’t get it. So I knew after that it doesn’t work.’ A most empirical response and entirely consistent, his belief in the tooth fairy still being intact. I half suspect that there may be a tooth fairy in our house too, as the last three teeth, left wrapped in their tissues under the pillow, have totally vanished of their own accord. Unless Cosmo – or indeed God – is playing a sophisticated joke on his dad.

What I certainly don’t buy, however, is The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins. It has succeeded in provoking some very elegant responses – the other side of the so-called God debate. My favourite being Terry Eagleton’s Reason, Faith and Revolution, in which he argues that Christian concepts such as God acting from love not necessity, and a Holy Spirit inspiring the imagining of a kingdom come are crucial to thinking about being human today. Concepts that are still quite unique, although paralleled by Marxism. The sort of theology Dawkins is debunking – the ‘notion of God the Creator as some sort of mega-manufacturer or cosmic chief executive officer’ – Eagleton points out, is one most theologians reject as naive too.


Shrill, tautologous and highly selective

Other critics of Dawkins’s argument have pointed out that most of it is shrill, tautologous (that theology has nothing to study and hence nothing to teach us, if you agree that there isn’t a God) and highly selective (Dawkins cites religious wars and persecution as the scourge of history, but neglects to mention Hitler, Pol Pot or Stalin – all great secularisers and scientific modernisers).

I’ve not much to add to the criticisms of Dawkins, not least because I couldn’t bear to read the book – I have something of an intolerance of intolerance. But I’d like to draw his book out into another question: have we lost our faith in science, or at least in the genetics that Dawkins holds sacred?

Dawkins’s most famous book, before the God one, was called The Selfish Gene. Published in 1976, it represents a kind of high point in scientific reductionism. The intellectual premise is that the basis of natural selection is not the organism, but the gene. Thus, for instance, the human notion of altruism is an illusion born out of an instinct to preserve the life of those with similar genes, and no more.

The book was around at the time my scientific education started and I broke with the Catholic religion. This happened mostly because I lived in a scientised, materialist milieu, one where going to church, praying and having religious moral values seemed old-fashioned – something we had grown past. It just didn’t tally with the modernist worldview I was otherwise immersed in. I’m not saying I thought all of this through very fully; it was more a case of going with the flow. The teaching of science in particular was very concrete, confident and certain. The universe was figured as a kind of large and intricate Newtonian machine.

It seems clear to me today that there is a lot more to life than the ‘mechanical universe’ worldview can account for. I now have more of a makeshift view – one that, for convenience, I term ‘Jungian’ – that, without giving up a general scepticism, is accepting of some of the more spooky, imaginary, spirited and miraculous footnotes to daily life. It is certainly accepting of the fact that to be fully human is to be open to such ideas and experiences – whether you call it the unconscious or the uncanny.

Again, while I’d like to think I arrived at this view through my own thoughts and ideas, I suspect I’ve been going with the flow. Scientific reductionism, and certainty itself, seem quite quaint these days, most of all because of the many Frankenstein fuck-ups, from Thalidomide to Bhopal to BP.

In this context, it is possible to admire the cosmic irony that, at the moment of publishing his withering debunking of religion, all of the same criticisms were coming to bear on Dawkins’s most cherished notion – that of genetics. As a Jungian, I have to say that there is always the suspicion of self-accusation – the psychological concept of unconsciously ‘projecting’ your own faults onto others – in any such attack.

Hence my idea of The Gene Delusion, hardly material for a two-million-copy bestseller but, arguably unlike Dawkins’s version, it is real news, not just rhetoric.


Genetics runs against rational evidence

The great achievement of the human genome project was, as one commentator put it, proving that the idea of genetics was wrong. Specifically the idea that there is ‘a gene for’ a trait, or that genes act independently of environmental factors, is false. Rather, it is felt that genes are contributors to a more complex orchestration within the cell. As Stuart Newman, a leading scientist in the area of cell biology and development put it, the genes do not uniquely determine what is in the cell, but what is in the cell determines how the genes get used. Only if the pie were to rise up, take hold of the recipe book and rewrite the instructions for its own production would this popular analogy for the role of genes be pertinent.

The promise that the $3bn human genome project would lead to major medical breakthroughs has disappointed, as the New York Times recently reported (12 June 2010). Almost no new medical treatments have yet emerged.


Genetics has been held in place by indoctrinating the young and stamping out heresies

When I studied the biology of cells, the great intellectual error that teachers stamped on was any hint or trace of Lamarckianism. Lamarck being the biologist who thought that parents’ life experiences and attainments could be passed on directly. Recent studies suggest that Lamarck was partly right. This corrective has come through direct evidence that life experiences – for instance, the years of plenty versus famine in 19th-century Norrbotten, in Sweden – alter the genes, with hereditary outcomes. This has been hailed by Time magazine (6 January 2010) as one of the ten great scientific discoveries of 2009.


Genetics continues to do much more harm than good

Genetics has been widely discussed for its ethical problems. In the 1930s eugenics was all the rage, and not just with the Nazis. Cuddly president Roosevelt declared that: ‘Criminals should be sterilised, and feeble-minded persons forbidden to leave offspring behind them … the emphasis should be on getting desirable people to breed.’

That quote was taken, by the way, from Jeremy Rifkin’s The Biotech Century. At the time of Rifkin’s book, the concerns were about playing God. Now the concerns have to be more about quackery and false science. If we know that genes are one part of a delicately holistic epigenetic system, then the notion of ‘genetic engineering’ (outside of good old-fashioned selective breeding) has to be about as safe as a medieval surgeon working directly from Aristotle’s anatomy. In Europe, we can be thankful that the regulators have deemed it unfit for human consumption, although the continuing influx of GM animal feed is still cause for concern. Science aside, the commercial ethics of Monsanto are hard to describe simply – watch Food Inc if you don’t know what I mean – without using the word ‘evil’.

Jung’s big idea, from early in his career, was to find in psychology a new creative union between religious and scientific ideas. An approach well grounded in his direct experience of working with schizophrenic patients, whose fantasies and visions had a distinctively religious quality and might be thought to reveal some deeper layer of the human mind let loose. Jung’s essay (with Nobel physicist Wolfgang Pauli) on his Theory of Synchronicity remains one of the clearest approximations I have read to what I mean when I said to my son that there seemed to be some sort of organising intelligence and meaningfulness to the universe. Like quantum mechanics (in its time another quite scandalous revolution against the mechanical universe view), it is perhaps something that can only be glimpsed in the extremes and the margins.

But the fact is that most of us, despite Dawkins’s polemic, seem to intuit that there is something more to life than material science claims. While that’s still not entirely accepted in a school syllabus or newspaper, it’s hard to miss, glancing through current movie releases replete with gods, myths, vampires, wizards and alchemies. We are, in your terms, quite attached to our delusions, Mr Dawkins – and all the better for it, too.

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