Genetics and the great Faustian pact

IN SHAKESPEARE'S The Tempest, Prospero describes Caliban as "a devil, a born devil, on whose nature nurture can never stick". In modern terms, what Prospero means is that Caliban is a knave and that he can't help being one -- his genes determine his character.

This thesis, strengthened by Nazi Germany's attempts to perpetuate a pure Aryan race through the racist ethnic cleansing of Jews, is now gaining currency in certain scientific circles today, as behavioural geneticists using the modern tools of molecular biology are uncovering genes which they claim influence human and animal behaviour. However, in the light of as yet incomplete knowledge, the scientific value and the political and ethical basis of such research is questionable.

One of the greatest pitfalls of research into the genetic basis of behavioural traits, such as manic depression, alcoholism, or even homosexuality is that it is fiendishly difficult to draw a line between the influence of the cultural and physical environment and that of biology. The difficulty is compounded by the fact that, unlike genetic diseases, such as Huntington's disease or cystic fibrosis, these complex behaviours are usually controlled by several genes working in concert. Searching for those genes is like looking for many needles in a haystack -- finding one is not enough. Despite these drawbacks, however, the mad pursuit for genes for a variety of behaviours -- arson, serial killing, traditionalism, marital infidelity and even zest for life -- is on.

Proponents of behavioural genetics may argue that finding genes may help explain or even correct associated behaviour. But that's a naive argument. The genetic information might very well lead to further marginalisation of criminals, the mentally retarded, and even gays. For instance, in the '90s, the state is attempting to cut its expenditure on medicine. There is a fresh danger, therefore, that genetics will be used as an excuse to discriminate against the handicapped in order to save money. It is very much a Faustian bargain.

And even if biologists are successful in nailing a gene or genes to a particular behaviour, say homosexuality, there is no guarantee that the knowledge will not be used against the victim for reasons of race, culture or even economics. Already, American blacks, who according to several studies that pronounce blacks as more prone to crime, are being refused insurance cover by insurance companies.

Nevertheless genetic research into behaviour could benefit both individual and society, only if there are safeguards against the possible misuse of genetic information. Curbing the current mad hunt of hypothetical genes for almost everything will also help convince the public of its relevance to their lives. Already there is hope that finding genes for certain behavioural diorders, such as demetia and dyslexia, may lead to their better diagnosis and treatment.

And, finally, genetic research in general could unravel for us the as-yet-unresolved mysteries about who we are, what we are, and what we may become.