SATURDAY ESSAY/ ARE WE VICTIMS OF GENETIC INHERITANCE OR MASTERS OF OUR OWFETE? Why Willpower, Courage.And a Little Luck Will Always Matter More in Life Than Your Genes

Article excerpt


GENES are the flavour of the month, perhaps of our age. A new BBC series hammers home the importance of our genetic inheritance in shaping our lives.

Almost every day, news items report scientific research which `proves' a particular gene made us fat or thin, sick or healthy, good or bad.

There is the so-called Criminal Gene. Scientists say that one person in five has genes which make them more likely to commit crimes. `Biological inheritance' has already been used as a defence in one U.S. murder trial. It could become common in criminal cases in the new century.

Then, there are the Fat Genes and Thin Genes. Research at St Thomas's Hospital, London, shows that 60 per cent of excess body fat in women over 50 is the product of genetics. This particularly applies, they say, to `central obesity' - fat tummies.

On the other hand, research at St James's Hospital, Leeds, shows that an abnormal gene in a woman's body can make her especially prone to anorexia nervosa - the slimmer's disease.

Proneness to a vast range of diseases is due, researchers claim, to genes. Thus, scientists at John Hopkins University in the U.S. say that the HPC-1 gene is the prime cause of prostate cancer. This is `the Old Man's Disease' which, for instance, compelled Harold Macmillan to retire as Prime Minister.

And what about the Character Genes? Researchers claim your genetic coding as a whole, or your possession of a particular gene, can make you the perfect mother, an incurable depressive, a first class athlete, a spendthrift, an alcoholic or a religious enthusiast.

We must prepare ourselves for news of much more research on these lines.

Since exact genetic science was made possible, a generation ago, more than 4,000 particular genes, the source of these `discoveries', have been identified. But our bodies have between 50,000 and 100,000 genes, so we have a long way to go. Prepare for shocks.

On the other hand, we should learn to be sceptical. Much of this genetic research is half-baked. For instance, the discovery of the `homosexual gene', which makes sex-inverts as `normal' as anyone else, has already been discredited in favour of other, non-biological explanations.

Gene-theory is not the only topical scientific explanation of what we are and how we behave. The new science of Sociobiology, based ultimately on Darwin's theory of natural selection or Evolution, produces various reasons why we are what we are.

The latest master-theory, by Professor Frank Sulloway of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, claims that what determines your character is your family order - whether you are the eldest child, the middle of the family or the youngest. He sets it out in a new book, Born To Rebel (Little, Brown [pounds sterling]20). He argues that the order of birth has determined huge events in history, like the Reformation, or the French Revolution.

All these scientific theories are forms of what the philosophers called `determinism' - the belief that what we do is not a matter of our own individual willpower and efforts but is fundamentally determined by forces outside or within our bodies, of which we are the prisoners.

My advice is: don't be taken in. There may be some truth in some of these theories. There may be a little truth in all of them. But the notion we are not `masters of our Fate and Captains of our Soul,' to quote the poet Henley, is false. Determinism is an invitation to indolence, the temptation to resignation and despair. It encourages us to give up the fight for life as hopeless and to submit humbly to fate.

The most elementary form of determinism, and the oldest, is astrology - belief in our stars. Most people, to judge by the success of astrology columns in newspapers, have a weakness for this kind of fatalism. But they know it is a weakness, and they don't really believe that their lives are determined by celestial conjunctions and that there is nothing we can do about it. …