Humans are more than just a bag of genes

Humans are more than just a bag of genes

I still see myself sitting on a mattress on the floor of my Amsterdam floor. That was in June 1994, and the book had been published ten years earlier under the title Normal Not in Our Genes: Biology, Ideology, and Human Nature. I read it cover to cover and eagerly took notes.

The authors Richard Leontin, Stephen Rose, and Leon Kamen spoke plain language against biological reductionism, particularly against the then-dominant sociobiology, which explained human behavior from nature. In the book, they dissected a plethora of studies showing crime, intelligence, differences between racial or socioeconomic groups, and of course, gender differences as a result of our brains and genes.

Leontin and colleagues saw a link between the widespread acceptance of social biology and the dominant ideology of the time: neoliberal economic policies combined with an emphasis on conservative and traditional norms and values. Only when social movements (from the arms race to anti-racism, for a better environment, liberation or for the right to work) gained power, mobilization power and vision, was biology adopted to show social groups their natural place. After all, society becomes noticeably less flexible if the social system is fixed in our nature, in our genes.

Holy Grail

Evolutionary biologist and geneticist Richard Lewontin, who died last July at the age of 92, has spent his life resisting biological reduction, both in popular science and science publications.

in his book Biology as an ideology. DNA Doctrine (1991), translated into Dutch as From the DNA doctrine, it targets the discourse of the Human Genome Project.

The genetic map has also been referred to as the ‘book of life’ or ‘the blueprint of life’.

As I described two months ago, the Human Genome Project produced the first genetic map of humans, which has proven incredibly important to the life sciences today. It has been described as a major science project to capture the scale, political power, and billions of dollars involved.

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The speech Leontin turned against was not kind. To reinforce the project’s importance and sell the idea to politicians and policy makers, the scholars have compared their mission to “The Search for the Holy Grail.” The genetic map has also been referred to as the ‘book of life’ or ‘the blueprint of life’. One of the geneticists involved, Walter Gilbert, took the lead and thought he could finally answer the philosophical question about who we are using a genetic map. Your genetic code on CD, that was his idea. At conferences, Gilbert photographed the promise of this genetic map by repeatedly pulling a CD out of his jacket and presenting it to his audience with the words: ‘Here’s a human being; that’s me!’

The discourse of the Human Genome Project differs from that of sociobiology. Sociobiology focused on social groups with the goal of identifying and explaining social problems in biological terms. The Human Genome Project focuses on the individual: fully in line with the zeitgeist of the neoliberal age, the individual must obey the adage “know thyself.” And because, according to this logic, this individual is nothing more than a bag of genes, knowing yourself is nothing more than knowing your genes. This reductive and simplistic representation is what Leontin continued to fight.

genetic diversity

A prominent geneticist, Richard Leontine was a founder and pioneer of evolutionary and population genetics. He caused a stir in the 1960s with research showing that he and colleague John Hobby showed that genes vary widely and that gene mutations are not rare but rather standard. Mutations are not rare and should be selected quickly because they may lead to disease or other abnormalities. Nothing is normal, the rest is an aberration. The species has much greater genetic diversity than expected.

Richard Leontine was passionate and spent his life tackling misrepresentations and misrepresentations in science.

Leontin’s most groundbreaking research was the genetic diversity between people. Lewantin argued that while any two people can be genetically different from each other, it becomes more complex when it comes to the difference between groups of people. His research from 1972 showed that differences within groups are much greater (85 percent) than differences between groups (15 percent). These results have since become a standard science. But Leontine also struck a nail in the coffin of ethnic approaches. Because if the differences between groups are smaller than those within groups, then there is no genetic basis for the concept of race.

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to intervene

For Richard Leontine, science was a social act. Science represents reality, we need knowledge to diagnose cancer, for example. But science at the same time is an intervention in this reality, contributing to our vision of who we are and how we relate to each other.

Leontine was passionate and spent his life fomenting misrepresentations in the sciences. There is no controversy or controversy within genetics as Leontin was not a major voice. Thus it served as a guide in my scientific development.

When I started researching forensic DNA evidence, it also turned out that he played an important role in this. In a debate about the uniqueness of the DNA profile and the opportunity to incriminate the wrong person, his knowledge of genetic variation within and between populations has contributed to setting standards for reliable consistent calculations.

clarinet

In 1997, she helped organize the International Conference on Molecular Biology and Evolution organized by the Svante Pääbo Laboratory. I was working on my PhD research in his lab at the time. During lunch, I got to know the famous geneticist Leonten because I wanted to ask him some questions about the forensic DNA evidence. He spontaneously offered to skip the conference session after lunch to continue our conversation.

Leontin was known as the smartest and fastest. He spoke several languages ​​fluently and played the clarinet daily. As a scientist, he was also politically involved and spoke about climate, social and economic inequalities, racism and sexism.
While examining in depth the work of his fellow scholars, he was known to be very generous to students and emerging scholars. A fellow scientific sociologist received a handwritten note from him at her new appointment at Harvard, where he himself was working, inviting her to come and get acquainted. He knew the difficult world she was entering.

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