The Sociology of the Gene

By Rifkin, Jeremy | Phi Delta Kappan, May 1998 | Go to article overview

The Sociology of the Gene


Rifkin, Jeremy, Phi Delta Kappan


Genetics and Education on the Eve of the Biotech Century

Genetic engineering gives us unprecedented power over human life. But, Mr. Rifkin asks, to whom should such power be entrusted?

While the 20th century was shaped largely by spectacular breakthroughs in the fields of physics and chemistry, the 21st century will belong to the biological sciences. Scientists around the world are quickly deciphering the genetic code of life, unlocking the mystery of millions of years of biological evolution on Earth. As a result of the new breakthroughs in molecular biology and biotechnology, our way of life is likely to be more fundamentally transformed in the next several decades than in the previous thousand years. By the year 2025, we and our children may be living in a world utterly different from anything human beings have ever experienced in the past. Long-held assumptions about nature, including our own human nature, are likely to be rethought. Ideas about equality and democracy are also likely to be redefined, as well as our vision of what is meant by such terms as "free will" and "progress."

Already the shift from an industrial economy that is based on the exploitation of fossil fuels and metals to a biotechnical economy that is based on the exploitation of genes is radically changing our concept of social reality. Researchers in the field of molecular biology are beginning to discover an increasing genetic basis for a wide range of mental diseases, moods, behaviors, and personality traits. The new findings, in turn, are creating the context for a new sociobiology that favors a genetic interpretation of human motivations and drives. While genetic researchers are quick to add that environment plays at least a mitigating role in shaping mental outlook and emotional development, many biologists have come to believe that one's genes are a far more important factor in determining one's future. The new biological fundamentalists are convinced that personality is largely predetermined and written into one's genetic program - and only slightly modifiable by the environment in which one is raised.

It seems that every week or so a new study is published showing a likely connection between genotype and personality. In a study published in 1996, researchers report finding a genetic basis for "novelty seeking," "thrill seeking," and "excitability." Two separate research teams - one led by Richard Ebstein of the Herzog Memorial Hospital in Jerusalem and the other by Jonathan Benjamin of the National Institute of Mental Health's Laboratory of Clinical Science- associated differences in novelty seeking and thrill seeking with lower levels of dopaminergic activity. Dopamine plays a critical role in stimulating euphoria. Researchers found that high novelty seeking is "strongly associated with high plasma prolactin levels, which reflect low dopaminergic activity."(1)

Researchers at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, say they have located genes that predispose people to "high anxiety." Individuals who inherit one form of a gene on chromosome 17, says Dennis Murphy of the NIH, are more likely to worry, according to a study reported in New Scientist. The gene linked to anxiety influences the production of a protein known as the serotonin transporter. This particular protein controls the brain's level of serotonin, a chemical that affects mood.(2)

In 1997, scientists at the Institute of Child Health in London reported that they had located what they believed to be a cluster of genes on the X-chromosome that predisposes girls to better "social skills" than boys. The researchers found significant differences in social skills between two groups of girls who suffered from Turner's syndrome (a rare condition in which a copy of the X-chromosome is inherited from only one parent). The girls who inherited the paternal X-chromosome were far more socially expressive, had an easier time making friends, got along better with family and teachers, and were found to be generally happier and better adjusted than those who inherited the X-chromosome from their mother. …

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