An epoch-making discovery
Once every century or so great scientific breakthroughs grip the imagination of the world. With the publication of the results of the human genome project, we stand on the threshold of such a breakthrough. Science is now poised to understand the forces behind evolution, explode racial myths, change the way doctors diagnose disease, and try to help people live longer. The new approach - looking at systems of genes rather than individual genes - will transform biologists' view of the human body. It is approximately the equivalent of Mendeleyev's periodic table in chemistry, or the breakthrough made by Watson and Crick 48 years ago, when they first described the double helix shape of DNA. "Before we were looking through a keyhole," says James Pierce, a professor of genetics at the University of the Sciences in Philadelphia. "Now, the door is open."
The scope of this project was immense. Roughly 2,000 scientists world-wide took part in the sequencing effort. The research project was actually carried out by two different groups - one funded by the US government, the other by the UK based Wellcome Trust's Glaxo Sanger Centre. Both groups have come to the same wholly unexpected conclusion, which is that the number of genes in the human genome is less than one quarter of the anticipated result. One team, led by J. Craig Venter of Celera Genomics Corp., found strong evidence of 26,383 genes and weaker evidence for an additional 12,731. The other team said there are probably about 35,000 genes, but possibly as many as 40,000. The Celera team published its findings in the journal Science; the international team published in Nature. "It is good to have a rough agreement between the two sides," said Venter. "Certainly, it shows that there are far fewer genes than anyone imagined." Researchers also reported that each human gene can make two proteins or more, upsetting the long-held notion that one gene makes one protein.
These discoveries have profound implications for medical and drug research. They suggest that genes play less of a role in causing disease, and many of our other traits, than many researchers realized. And new approaches to treatment will not only have to focus on genes and how they function but also on how they interact. Even in the short term the practical implications are immense. Advances in medical science could follow from the identification of the genes responsible for non-inherited diseases, and scientists could eventually learn to predict the likelihood of someone developing a genetic disorder. Medicine could then tailor specific drugs for patients and there could be a gradual increase in the range of treatments for genetic diseases in the next few decades. Within five to seven years we may see this work bearing fruit in areas like diabetes, heart disease and major mental disorders. Major advances had already been made in schizophrenia.
The discoveries made by the Human Genome Project have dramatically confirmed the position of Marxism, as expounded in Reason in Revolt six years ago. For decades, a large number of geneticists have argued that everything from intelligence to homosexuality and criminality was determined by our genes. The most reactionary conclusions have been drawn from these assumptions: for example, that black people and women are genetically conditioned to be less intelligent than white people and men; that rape and murder are somehow natural, because they are genetically determined; that there is no point in spending money on schools and houses for the poor because their poverty is rooted in genetics and therefore cannot be remedied. Above all, that the existence of inequality is natural and inevitable, and that all attempts to abolish class society are futile, since it is somehow rooted in our genes. This was a very good example of how science cannot be separated from politics and class interests, and how the most eminent scientists can be pressed - consciously or not - into the services of reaction. But leaving aside for a moment the social and political implications, in purely scientific terms this is a defining moment in history.
The puzzle of the missing genes
Despite the enormity of their discovery, the biologists who reported their first analysis of the decoded sequence were clearly as perplexed as they were enlightened. The chief puzzle is the unexpectedly small number of human genes. When they first screened the gene families likely to have new members of interest to pharmaceutical companies, "there was almost panic because the genes weren't there," Dr. Venter said. The problem is that the textbooks have long estimated the number of human genes to be far greater. The string of biological code present in humans was so long - some 3 billion units - that scientists had expected it to contain instructions to create anywhere from 50,000 to 150,000 genes.
This assumption was based on a comparison with simpler organisms such as fruit flies. It was argued that, if the humble fruit fly had 13,000 genes, then a human being - a far bigger and more complex entity - must have many times more. The estimate of up to 150,000 genes seemed reasonable after the first two animal genomes were deciphered. The laboratory roundworm, sequenced in December 1998, has 19,098 genes and the fruit fly, decoded last March, has 13,601 genes. Dr. Randy Scott, chief scientific officer of Incyte Genomics, predicted in September 1999 that there were 142,634 human genes. But the human gene complement has now turned out to be far closer to genetic patrimony of these two tiny invertebrates than almost anyone had expected. Instead, they have discovered that vast stretches of the code create very few genes. ''We have about twice as many genes as a fly and the same number as corn,'' Venter says. ''Think of that the next time you eat corn.'' Last week Dr. Scott said he accepted the rationale for the lesser number and now puts the human complement at around 40,000.
Celera's rival, the publicly funded consortium of academic centres, has come to a similar conclusion. Its report in this week's Nature puts the probable number of human genes at 30,000 to 40,000. Because the current gene-finding methods tend to over predict, each side prefers the lower end of its range, and 30,000 seems to be the more accurate estimate. The two teams found other contradictions, too. Most of the repetitive DNA sequences in the 75 percent of the genome that is essentially "junk" ceased to accumulate millions of years ago, but a few of sequences are still active and may do some good. The chromosomes themselves have a rich archaeology. Large blocks of genes seem to have been extensively copied from one human chromosome to another, a fact which will encourage genetic archaeologists to work out the order in which the copying occurred and thus to reconstruct the history of the animal genome.
The small number of human genes poses a dilemma for scientists. As the modest number of human genes became apparent, biologists in both teams were forced to think how to account for the greater complexity of people, given that they seem to possess only 50 percent more genes than the roundworm. If humankind only has 13,000 more genes than Caenorhabditis elegans (a roundworm) or 6,000 more than Arabidopsis thaliana (a weed), what makes people so advanced by comparison? To quantify the position: the roundworm is a little tube of a creature with a body of 959 cells, of which 302 are neurons in what passes for its brain. Humans have 100 trillion cells in their body, including 100 billion brain cells. Despite the fashionable tendency to deny the existence of progress in evolution, it is surely reasonable to suppose there is something more to Homo sapiens than a roundworm like Caenorhabditis elegans!
The Christian Science Monitor posed the question thus: "If man is so advanced, how come his gene count doesn't look that much different from a weed's or a worm's?" And if, as suspected, the chimpanzee genome turns out to be very similar to the human genome, then scientists will still have to explain how one species has come to so dominate the world in the past 50,000 to 150,000 years while others are still climbing trees. This question, however, cannot be answered purely in terms of genetics. The great advantage of the recent discoveries is that they have moved away from the concept that everything could be explained in terms of individual genes. The human genome can now be approached as a complex totality. Genes have to be understood, not as a collection of entities but as a process of highly complex interactions. The further exploration of these interactions, their history and the resulting genetic "archeology" will eventually give us a true understanding of ourselves and our place in the nature of things. There can be no more important subject for human beings.
Biological determinism exposed
Marxists have, of course, never ignored the role of genetics in shaping human behaviour. It goes without saying that genes play a most important role. They provide to some extent the raw material out of which individual humans are developed. But they represent only one side of a very complex equation. The problem arises when certain people attempt to present genes as the sole agent conditioning human development and behaviour, as has been the case for quite some time now. In reality, genes ("nature") and environmental factors ("nurture") interact upon each other, and that in this process, the role of the environment, which has been systematically denied or downplayed by the biological determinists, is absolutely crucial.
The recent revelations of the human genome project have decisively settled the old "nature" - "nurture" controversy. The relatively small number of genes rules out the possibility of individual genes controlling and shaping behaviour patterns such as criminality and sexual preference. It completely destroys the case of people like Dean Hammer who claimed to have isolated a gene on the human X-chromosome which allegedly disposes people to homosexuality. Similar claims have been made for a whole series of human traits from running ability to artistic taste and even political tendencies! In reality human behaviour is extremely complex and cannot be reduced to genetics. The latest discoveries flatly contradict all the nonsense which has been put forward for years as irrefutable.
The biological determinists insisted that in some way genes are responsible for things, like homosexuality and criminality. They attempted to reduce all social problems to the level of genetics. In February 1995, a conference on Genetics of Criminal and Anti-Social Behaviour was held in London. Ten of the thirteen speakers were from the United States where a similar conference in 1992 with racist overtones was abandoned because of public pressure. While the chairperson, Sir Michael Rutter of the London Institute of Psychiatry stated "there can be no such thing as a gene for crime," other participants, like Dr. Gregory Carey of the Institute of Behavioural Genetics, University of Colorado, maintained that genetic factors as a whole were responsible for 40-50% of criminal violence. Although he said it would be impractical to "treat" criminality through genetic engineering, others said there were good prospects for developing drugs to control excessive aggression, once the responsible genes had been found. He suggested, however, that abortion should be considered when antenatal testing indicates a child is likely to be born with genes predisposing it to aggression or antisocial behaviour. His view was endorsed by Dr. David Goldman from the Laboratory of Neurogenetics at the US National Institutes of Health. "The families should be given the information and should be allowed to decide privately how to use it." (The Independent, 14th February 1995.)
There are many other examples. The notorious Bell Curve by Charles Murray, resurrected the old argument that genetics explains the gap between the average IQ of American whites and blacks. C. R. Jeffery wrote that "Science must tell us what individuals will or will not become criminals, what individuals will or will not become victims, and what law enforcement strategies will or will not work." Yudofsky reinforces Jeffery's enthusiasm with his assertion: "We are now on the verge of a revolution in genetic medicine. The future will be to understand the genetics of aggressive disorders and to identify those who have greater tendencies to become violent."
When we criticised these false theories in Reason in Revolt, we had no means of knowing that in a few years their unscientific character would be so clearly demonstrated. Now the revelation that the number of genes in humans is not more than 40,000 and possibly as few as 30,000 or less has shattered the case for biological-genetic determinism at a single stroke. Dr. Craig Venter, the US geneticist whose company Celera was one of the main groups responsible for the sequencing project, put the matter very simply: "We simply do not have enough genes for this idea of biological determinism to be right. The wonderful diversity of the human species is not hard-wired in our genetic code. Our environments are critical." (Observer, 11/ 2/ 2001, my emphasis)
The Observer goes on to explain:
"It is only when scientists looked at the way these genes are switched off and on and made to manufacture proteins that they could see a significant difference between various mammalian species. The key difference lies in the manner in which human genes are regulated in response to environmental stimulation compared with other animals."
That is to say, it is the environment - the external stimuli of both the physical world and the conditions in which we live - that condition evolution in a decisive way. The role of genes is important, but the relation between genes and development is not simple and mechanical, as maintained by the crude theory of biological determinism, but complex and dialectical, as argued by Marxism. Let us take one example of the dialectical interaction between genes and environment: perfect pitch. In his new book The Sequence, which describes the search for the human genome, Kevin Davies writes:
"There has been a recent study on perfect pitch, the ability to know the absolute pitch of a musical note, that strongly suggests that it is acquired through the inheritance of a single gene.
"This may sound like a clear-cut case of biological determinism. However, there is a crucial corollary - you have to be exposed to early music training for the ability to materialise. In other words, even in seemingly simple inherited abilities, nurture has a role to play."
Thus, there is a complex interplay between the genetic composition of the organism and the physical conditions that surround it. In Hegelian language, the genes represent potential. But this potential is only activated by external stimuli. The genes are "switched on" by the environment, producing small changes, some of which prove to be useful from an evolutionary point of view, although in fact most genetic mutations are harmful or confer no benefit. Over a period, the beneficial mutations give rise to qualitative changes in the organism, giving rise to the process we refer to as natural selection.
The Observer's Editorial drew the political conclusions:
"Politically, it offers comfort to the Left, with its belief in the potential of all, however deprived their background. But it is damning to the Right, with its fondness for ruling classes and original sin." (Observer Editorial, 11/ 2/ 2001, my emphasis)
"Race has no meaning in science"
The results of these investigations are highly significant from another point of view. The genome reveals the existence of unity in human diversity. They completely destroy the myth of racial superiority. The biological essence of human populations is the same. The absence of a race gene was confirmed from two different directions. Celera used DNA from males and females who described themselves as Asian Chinese, African American, Caucasian and Hispanic Mexican. Scientists could not distinguish one ethnicity from another. No gene by itself or together with others could predict the race of those studied.
The new research suggests that all individuals are 99.99 percent alike. And researchers are finding that the gene pool in Africa, where humankind is thought to have originated, remains more diverse than in the rest of the world. These findings completely undermine all notions of differences based on skin colour. Svante Pääbo, a German researcher, noted in an essay published in Science magazine with the release of the draft genome sequence explains: "It is often the case that two persons who descend from the same part of the world, and look superficially alike, are less related to each other than to persons from other parts of the world who may look very different."
Dr Eric Lander of the Whitehead Institute for Genome Research, and part of the international consortium, pointed out the fact that any two people were 99.9 per cent genetically identical still left room for considerable genetic variation. One tenth of one per cent of human genes account for hereditary differences. Basically, all human beings are the same. The research on the human genome has proved beyond doubt that while outwardly we may be different, genetically we are 99% identical. Only about 3 million of the 3 billion chemicals in the genome differ from one person to another, which makes distinctions such as race scientifically meaningless. Ethnic and cultural differences among different groups of humans undoubtedly exist, but these differences are insignificant at the genetic level where people are remarkably the same, regardless of race and gender. Racial hatred cannot therefore be justified and rationalised as arising from genetic differences.
The Seattle Times Editorial of February 13, points out:
"One bonus of the human genome project is to knock down bigots who have long strained to camouflage old-fashioned hatred with scientific prattle about genetic superiority. The road map of the human DNA sequence leads to one conclusion: Race has no meaning in science." (my emphasis)
This will, of course, not put an end to racism, which is rooted in the contradictions of capitalism in the epoch of its decline. But at least it will rob the purveyors of racist poison of the fig-leaf of pseudo-scientific arguments. In future, any attempt of racists and bigots to appeal to science to support their views will be met with the contempt it deserves.
"If anything, such studies will have the opposite effect because prejudice, oppression and racism feed on ignorance," Dr. Pääbo writes. Pääbo argues knowledge of the genome should foster compassion: "Consequently, stigmatising any particular group of individuals on the basis of ethnicity or carrier status for certain (genes) will be revealed as absurd."
The revelation of the genome's long and complex history, so long hidden from view, has prompted discussions about the nature of man and the process of creation. Incredibly, in the first decade of the twenty first century, the ideas of Darwin are being challenged by the so-called Creationist movement in the USA, which wants American schoolchildren to be taught that God created the world in six days, that man was created from dust and that the first woman was made out of one of his ribs, the Almighty presumably being on an economy drive that day.
The Creationist movement is no joke. It involves millions of people and is -incredibly - spearheaded by scientists, including some geneticists. This is a graphic expression of the intellectual consequences of the decay of capitalism. It is an extremely striking example of the dialectical contradiction of the lag of human consciousness. In the most technologically advanced country in the world, the minds of millions of men and women remain under the influence of the accumulated rubbish of the past. In the same way that we share our genes with the most primitive organisms, and a great many of them are "junk genes" that play no useful role but remain as a residue of the prehistory of our species, so we find stored in the deep recesses of human consciousness relics of the most primitive superstitions and prejudices. These are remnants of a barbarous and half-forgotten past that has vanished but is not yet overcome. In the consciousness of the Creationists, and especially their leading spokesmen and women we find echoes of the times when men sacrificed prisoners of war to the gods, prostrated themselves before graven idols and burnt witches at the stake. If this movement were to succeed, as one scientist recently put it, we would be back in the Dark Ages.
The latest discoveries have finally exploded the nonsense of Creationism. It has comprehensively demolished the notion that every species was created separately, and that Man, with his eternal soul, was especially created to sing the praises of the Lord. It is now clearly proved that humans are not at all unique creations. The results of the human genome project show conclusively that we share our genes with other species - that ancient genes helped to make us who we are. Humans share their genes with other species going far back into the mists of time. In fact, a small part of this common genetic inheritance can be traced back to primitive organisms such as bacteria. ''Evolution no longer has time to make new genes. It must make new genes from old parts,'' observes Eric Lander of the Whitehead Institute for Genomic Research in Cambridge, Mass. The two teams found an astonishing degree of gene conservation over the past 600 million years of evolution on earth: "In many cases we have found that humans have exactly the same genes as rats, mice, cats, dogs and even fruit flies, Venter continues. "Take the gene PAX-6. We have found that when it is damaged, eyes will not form. You can take a human gene, insert it into fruit flies, and the vision of their offspring will be restored."
Scientists have now found some 200 genes that humans share with bacteria - a revelation which surprised James Watson, the discoverer of DNA and arguably the world's most renowned geneticist: ''We knew that genes jumped between bacteria," he commented, "but not that they jumped between bacteria and man.'' In this way, the final proof of evolution has been established. In a fundamental way, these genetic ''fossils'' have helped over billions of years of evolution to make us what we are. "No doubt the genomic view of our place in nature will be both a source of humility and a blow to the idea of human uniqueness," Svante Pääbo writes in a separate article in Science magazine. And, he continues, "the realisation that one or a few genetic accidents made human history possible will provide us with a whole new set of philosophical challenges to think about." For Marxists too, the human genome holds important philosophical implications.
Science and dialectics
At the London launch of research to decipher the genetic code, Sir John Sulston, former director of the Sanger Centre, described the drawing of the human gene map as "a remarkable, iconic event in the era of molecular biology":
"It is remarkable that a living organism has got so smart and has made such clever machines that it can think about what it is doing, that it has actually read out the code, the instructions, to make itself. It's the sort of thing that causes philosophers to disappear up their navels if they think too hard about it. It really is a superficial paradox . . . but it's true. We are understanding how we work," he was quoted as saying.
Indeed, the spectacular march of science in our epoch makes the speculations of philosophy seem pale and uninteresting by comparison. The deeds of humanity have by far outstripped the general level of its consciousness, which remains largely mired in the barbarous past. The new discoveries provide the human race with inspiration and confidence in itself. It provides us with a vision of ourselves, who we really are, and where we have come from - perhaps also where we are going to.
Nevertheless, despite Sir John Sulston's disparaging remarks about philosophy, there are still a few areas where a knowledge of real philosophy would undoubtedly benefit scientists. Of course, there is philosophy and philosophy! Very little of what passes for philosophy in the universities nowadays is of any use to scientists - or anyone else. But there is one honourable exception, which is still awaiting the recognition that is long overdue: that is, dialectical materialism. Although many of the main tenets of dialectical materialism have re-surfaced in recent years, incorporated into the theories of chaos, complexity and, more recently, ubiquity, this debt has never been acknowledged. Dialectics in science is, to paraphrase Oscar Wilde, the philosophy that dares not speak its name. This is a pity, since a knowledge of the dialectical method would certainly have helped avoid a number of pitfalls into which science has occasionally strayed as a result of incorrect assumptions. The human genome is a case in point.
Of course, there is no question of any philosophy dictating to science. The results of science must be determined by its own methods of investigation, observation and experiment. Nonetheless, it is a mistake to imagine that scientists approach their subject matter without any philosophical assumptions. Behind every hypothesis there are always many assumptions, not all of them derived from science itself. The role of formal logic, for example, is taken for granted. It is an important role, but one that has definite limitations. Trotsky explained that the relationship between formal logic and dialectics resembles that between elementary mathematics and calculus. The great advantage of dialectics over formal logic is that it deals with things in their motion and development, and moreover shows how all development takes place through contradictions. Thus, Marx predicted that the line of evolution was not a straight line, but a line in which long periods of slow development ("stasis" in modern terminology) was broken by sudden leaps - breaks in continuity that impelled the process in a new direction.
Let us take one instance. The dialectical method explains how quite small changes can, at a critical point, produce enormous transformations. This is the famous law of the transformation of quantity into quality - a wonderful and all-embracing law - that was first worked out by the ancient Greeks, and later fully developed by Hegel and placed on a scientific (materialist) basis by Marx and Engels. The importance of this law has only recently been recognised by science through chaos theory. The latest version of this ("ubiquity") has demonstrated that this law has a universal character and is of key importance in many of the most fundamental processes in nature. It has a crucial bearing on the present discussion.
What is the source of the error which led geneticists to conclude that humans possessed far more genes than is, in fact, the case? It is known in philosophy as reductionism, and flows from the mechanical assumption that nature knows only purely quantitative relations. This lies at the heart of biological determinism which approaches humans as a collection of genes, and not as complex organisms, processes, the product of a dialectical interrelation between genes and the environment. Their mode of reasoning is that of formal logic, not dialectics. And from this philosophical standpoint, their conclusions were quite consistent. Logical - but radically false. They reasoned that, since humans are bigger and more complex than fruit worms and roundworms, they must have vastly more genes. However, nature produces many examples to show how changes in quantity eventually beget changes in quality. In many instances, quite small modifications can produce huge changes. The apparent contradiction between the size and complexity of humans and the relatively small number of genes involved can only be explained by recourse to this law.
In Reason in Revolt, we subjected this method to a comprehensive criticism. Dealing with the method of Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene, we wrote:
"Dawkins' method leads him into the swamp of idealism, when he attempts to argue that human culture can be reduced to units he calls memes, which, apparently, like genes, are self-replicating and compete for survival. This is clearly wrong. Human culture is passed down from generation to generation, not through memes, but through education in the broadest sense. It is not biologically inherited but has to be painstakingly relearned and developed by each new generation. Cultural diversity is bound up not with genes but social history. Dawkins' approach is essentially reductionist."
In a commentary in Science magazine, Dr. Jean-Michel Claverie, of the French National Research Centre in Marseilles, notes that with a simple combinatorial scheme, a 30,000-gene organism like the human can in principle be made almost infinitely more complicated. This is a perfect example of the transformation of quantity into quality. Dr. Claverie suspects humans are not that much more elaborate than some of their creations. "In fact," he writes, "with 30,000 genes, each directly interacting with four or five others on average, the human genome is not significantly more complex than a modern jet aeroplane, which contains more than 200,000 unique parts, each of them interacting with three or four others on average."
The initial scanning of the genome suggests two specific ways in which humans have become more complex than worms. One comes from analysis of what are called protein domains. Proteins, the working parts of the cell, are often multipurpose tools, with each role being performed by a different section or domain of the protein. Many protein domains are very ancient. Comparing the domains of proteins made by the roundworm, the fruit fly and people, the consortium reports that only 7 percent of the protein domains found in people were absent from worm and fly, suggesting that "few new protein domains have been invented in the vertebrate lineage."
The most important thing to grasp is that very small genetic mutations can give rise to huge differences. For example, the genetic difference between humans and chimpanzees is less than two percent. As the latest research shows, we have a lot more in common with other animals than we would perhaps like to admit! Most of the genetic material present in modern humans is very old, and identical with the genes which are found even in such lowly beings as fruit flies. Nature is inherently conservative and economical in its workings! Organic matter has evolved from inorganic matter, and higher life forms have evolved from lower ones. We share most of our genes, not just with monkeys and dogs, but with fishes and fruit flies. But merely to state this fact is insufficient. It is also necessary to explain the dialectical process whereby one species is transformed into another. It has recently become fashionable to blur the difference between humans and other animals, in what is obviously an over-reaction against the old idea of Man as a special creation, placed by the Almighty over all Creation.
It has become fashionable to deny the existence of any progress at all, presumably in the interests of an ill-conceived evolutionary "democracy". As a matter of fact, the genetic difference between humans and chimpanzees may be less than two percent, but what a difference that makes! It is a dialectical leap that transforms quantity into quality. But unfortunately, dialectics is subjected to a conspiracy of silence in the universities and consequently remains completely unknown to most scientists. The most likely explanation for how to generate extra complexity other than by adding more genes is the idea of combinatorial complexity - that is, with just a few extra proteins one could make a much larger number of different combinations between them to produce a qualitative change. The matter has not yet been decisively settled, and much more research will be necessary. But there is little doubt that the final solution will be found somewhere along these lines.
The human genome and Big Business
Scientists from the Human Genome Project described the mapping of the human genetic code as "a gift to the world" that could improve the ability to detect disease and encourage the development of new medicines. That is undoubtedly what it ought to be. But in the market economy, such gifts invariably carry a hefty price tag.
Mapping of the human genome is a historic achievement, but the task of clarifying the complex and dialectical process by which genes interact with environmental factors has only begun. Science has yet to discover the role of genes in complex diseases The possibilities are limitless, but this immense potential for human progress immediately comes into collision with the narrow limits of the capitalist system where everything is subordinate to private gain. The new technology will be monopolised by the big multinational companies who will exploit it for themselves. The general interests of humanity will come a poor second. Already the issues of privacy, social and legal impacts, regulation and ethical research are generating heated controversy.
The human genome project has naturally attracted the attention of Big Business, scenting the prospect of big profits. The result, however, has caused consternation in the board rooms of some of the big pharmaceutical companies that were looking forward to using it to make money out of the new cures that will hopefully emerge from a deeper knowledge of the behaviour of genes. Initially it was assumed that there were about 120,000 to 150,000 genes involved. The drugs companies made their investments accordingly. So when Craig Venter and his team issued a preliminary report, indicating that the number of genes would be "only" about 80,000, he received an angry phone call from the head of a leading biotechnological company:
"He was cursing and swearing and using all sorts of obscenities about my company and about myself." When asked by Venter to state his problem, the unnamed chief replied: "You've just announced there are only 80,000 human genes and I've just done a deal with SmithKline-Beecham. I've agreed to sell them 100,000 genes - where do you suppose I am supposed to get the rest, you bastard." It is perhaps just as well that this capitalist died before he learned that the real figure was not 80,000 but around 30,000!
This little exchange casts an amusing light on the relation between Big Business and scientific research. Scientists - at least the good ones - are interested in pursuing knowledge for its own sake, of breaking new ground and pushing forward the horizons of science. Big Business is interested only in making money. In this case, they have been prepared to invest because they see the prospects for juicy profits. The biotechnological industry is based on isolating genes that go wrong in our bodies in order to create new drugs which they can sell for a profit. Even 30,000 potential new drugs spells a lot of money - for some.
The International Human Genome Sequencing Consortium is a multinational, publicly financed project that makes its findings available to all. But Celera Genomics, a private, for-profit venture, is keeping its findings closely held, hoping to make its investors wealthy. With its map of the human genome in its pocket, the Celera Genomics Group is hoping to cash in as drug and biotech companies pay to look at the genetic information that could help them develop new medicines and treatments. Although the Human Genome Project offers the mapping and readers' guides free of charge, research firms such as Immunex have already been using the genome database, paying a reported US$15 million to get their gene mapping from Celera. Analysts say the company, which has a market capitalisation of around $3 billion, is positioned to move from a genetic librarian role to developing drugs and treatments that will be made easier by the genome map. Shares of Celera were trading up 10 cents to $47.85 in trading on the New York Stock Exchange on Tuesday 13th, after rising 15 percent the previous day. Already Celera is reportedly using the genome mapping to develop drugs and treatments on its own. It is said that Celera may become as big as drug and health giant Pfizer.
Because companies usually want to have secure ownership rights to genes before investing the millions of dollars it takes to develop drugs from them, doubts about patent rights could have far-reaching effects. Some researchers have said this suggests that two scientists or companies, while researching different proteins involved in different diseases, are likely to have sought to patent portions of the same gene. The result could be a series of clashes over patents that would block one or both companies from continuing their research, producing a drug or developing a genetic test for disease. "I think there are lots of suits to be filed, and this [the low number of genes] will make it more so," said Dr. Robert H. Waterston, a DNA-mapping specialist at Washington University in St. Louis.
Many others agree. "I think it could inhibit research," said Arthur Caplan, a bioethics professor at the University of Pennsylvania and an advisor to Celera. "The question that will face companies is: What does corporate responsibility require that you do in terms of sharing access, making the information you own available? They're going to have a stewardship responsibility, because they work in health. This is not like patenting Coke." If a flare-up of patent clashes "hasn't happened yet, it's going to happen soon," said Dr. Lee Hood, a molecular biologist at the University of Washington in Seattle. "I think there will be genes with 10 or 50 different [protein] forms. . . . You will have patents for every splicing and, how that gets untangled, God only knows."
The patent office estimates that it has issued patents on about 1,000 full-length human genes, but it has tens of thousands of applications pending. The vultures are already circling! The prospect for chaos and endless lawsuits is clear and will work to the detriment of science and, ultimately, the millions of people who are desperately in need of new medical treatments, made possible by the genome project. Even when two valid patents are issued, one owner may be able to win a lawsuit blocking another from moving ahead with research or with a drug. Critics have already complained that Human Genome Sciences had been granted patent rights for the gene's role in AIDS without sufficient proof that it understood that role. This is only the beginning.
There are other problems concerning the use of this technology under capitalism. It could usher in a new era of genetic discrimination. For example, if scientists create diagnostic tests that can determine an individual's predisposition to certain diseases, should that person's insurance company or employer know about it? "Without adequate safeguards, the genetic revolution could mean one step forward for science and two steps backwards for civil rights," write United States Senators James Jeffords and Tom Daschle in an article in Science magazine. "Misuse of genetic information could create a new underclass: the genetically less fortunate." Dr Venter and Dr Collins, the leading pioneers in this field, have both deplored attempts by companies to test workers secretly and discriminate against them on the basis of their genetic profiles. Recently, for the first time ever, the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission sued an employer - Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway - for discrimination based on genetic testing. In a survey of 2,133 employers last year by the American Management Association, seven said they are currently using genetic testing for job applicants or employees, according to Science magazine.
Like genetically modified food, or any other technological discovery, the human genome in the hands of greedy and irresponsible capitalists can be changed from a blessing on humanity to a curse. The latest marvellous discoveries in genetics, which were only made possible by the collaboration of men and women from every continent and nationality, and which go to the heart of that most profound question: who we are, cannot be monopolised by a handful of profiteers. The Labour Movement everywhere must demand the nationalisation of the big bio and pharmaceutical companies, as the first step to nationalising all the big banks and monopolies that dominate our lives and subject every aspect of our existence to the dictatorship of Capital. Only in a rationally planned socialist economy can the new discoveries achieve their full potential and be placed where they belong - at the service of humanity.
The mapping of the human genome has carried us one step nearer to the goal of developing our physical and intellectual capacities to the fullest extent. This process is as yet in its earliest infancy. The next great challenge is to understand how genes are regulated. Genes turn on and off in patterns. Understanding how this process works will be critical for developing new drugs for lingering diseases. That work is just beginning, but it promises to transform medicine. ''In the 20th century we treated symptoms of diseases,'' Lander says. ''In the 21st, we're going to treat the causes.''
The tantalising prospect opens up before us of a world free from the scourge of disease, the obliteration of cancer and AIDS - those modern equivalents of the Black Death, the eradication of malaria and all the other illnesses that spell misery, suffering and death for millions of the poorest people on earth. We have the realistic prospect of curing the mentally ill and the helpless victims of genetic disorders. All these are now practical propositions that can be realised within years or decades. But these things pale in insignificance before the longer term prospects that open up before us. In the long run, it is not inconceivable that human beings can attain mastery over the blind workings of natural selection itself. In the hands of private capitalists who put personal gain before all other considerations, genetic engineering poses a deadly threat even to the future of life on earth. But in a rationally ordered society, the new technology can pave the way to the most tremendous achievements yet seen. In the pages of the Bible, the blind saw, the deaf heard, the lame walked and the dead were raised. Now all these miracles can be achieved by science without recourse to the supernatural.
Of course, men and women will never achieve the kind of tedious immortality held out by religion. We should not desire to live forever, but to live this life - the only one available to us - to the full. The Bible promises us a life span of "threescore years and ten". Yet in the period of capitalism's senile decay, for countless millions, this is a dream. Life for the overwhelming majority of our planet in the first decade of the 21st century, in the celebrated words of Hobbes, remains nasty, brutish and short. Yet there is no reason why this should be the case. The potential of modern industry, agriculture, science and technique is more than enough to solve all the pressing needs of humanity and create a paradise for men and women, not in the cloudy realm of the Hereafter, but right here and now - a paradise in THIS world.
By making use of the benefits conferred upon us by science and technology, the ordinary human life span can be extended far beyond its present "natural limits". It s entirely possible to foresee a world in which it would be considered normal to live a healthy and active life beyond a hundred years: to live life to the full, to add to the total store of human achievements in art, science and all other fields of social activity, to raise ourselves up to the fullest potential permitted by Mother Nature, and then, when we have given all that we have to give, to retire from this world in good heart to make way for the new generations who will continue and extend our life's work. Such a perspective - essentially modest in the context of what we now know to be possible - could be considered "utopian" only by second-rate intellects and people who have become so demoralised and de-humanised by the decay of capitalism that they have lost all hope and all sense of human dignity, and have persuaded themselves that the present miserable state of affairs is sll we can hope for.
What these wonderful achievements of science reveal to us is the limitless potential of the human race. And what it should also do is to make us all the more painfully aware of the criminal waste that is the most horrific feature of the so-called market economy. Until now, the defenders of the present system could hide behind the pseudo-scientific argument that the social inequality that condemns the majority of men and women to the rubbish heap was the result of "iron necessity", that it was "all in our genes", just as in the past it was all "written in the stars". No longer! The criminal injustice of class society now stands condemned at the court of the very science whose aid it attempted to enlist.
The implications of this are truly staggering. In the course of human history, there have not been many geniuses. It is clear that Albert Einstein had the (genetic) potential to become a world-famous scientist. But it is equally clear that the same Albert Einstein, if born in a Glasgow slum or a village in Ethiopia, would never have become such. The potential would have existed as a bare possibility, but would have simply been wasted. And such is the fate of a very large number of potential Einsteins, Darwins and Beethovens, whose potential is crushed and wasted by this infamous system of capitalism. This terrible waste of human talent has long been reflected upon by the finest minds and noblest spirits. In the 18th century the English poet Grey wrote in his celebrated Elegy Written in a Churchyard:
"Full many a gem of purest ray serene
The dark, unfathom'd caves of ocean bear.
Full many a flower is born to blush unseen
And waste its sweetness on the desert air."
Trotsky put the same idea less poetically but quite effectively when he asked: "How many Aristotles are herding swine? And how many swineherds are sitting on thrones?" Now this is a very good question, and one which until now the defenders of the established order answered - using the pseudo-scientific arguments so generously supplied from the genetics departments of American (and English) universities: it's all in our genes. It was like a "scientific" version of the old English religious Hymn All Things Bright and Beautiful, from which we used to sing:
"The rich man in his castle; the poor man at his gate;
He made the high and lowly and ordered their Estate."
Though men and women have frequently questioned the injustice of class society, their voices have always been drowned by the chorus of voices of the defenders of the status quo, who had a vested interested in demonstrating that this was the natural order of things. Once they affirmed that it was the Will of Gods. Then they said that the slaves lacked an immortal soul. Later they argued that Absolute Monarchy was the product of an inevitable and divinely inspired Order. When driven from these positions, they finally took refuge behind a screen of pseudo-scientific arguments allegedly derived from genetics. Now all this has been blown to smithereens. The difference between the rich man in his castle and the poor man at his gate, in terms of their human potential, is negligible. The difference is not that they are born with different genes, but that one is born into a world of riches and privilege, and given every incentive and opportunity to develop whatever potential he or she possesses, while the other is driven down by poverty and despair. Human potential is ground down just as surely as a seed that is crushed under the heel of a boot. .
According to the Celera team, of the two or three billion DNA letters that make up our genes, only 10,000 of them account for any difference between any two individuals. "Really we are just identical twins," says Venter. "But like all twins and brothers and sisters, we are all really different in the way we respond to the environment." The implications are perfectly clear. By changing the material conditions of existence, we can create a favourable environment in which every individual can develop their personal potential to the full. This would mean a new Renaissance - a literal rebirth of humanity - on a far higher plane than anything seen hitherto. That, and nothing less, is the real meaning of socialism. In Reason in Revolt we wrote the following:
"The potential of a human brain is limitless. To allow a human being to fulfill this potential is the task of society. Environmental facts can greatly restrict potential or enhance it. Bring up children in bad social conditions, and they will be disadvantaged in comparison with those brought up with all their needs provided. Social background is extremely important. If you change the environment, you change the child. Despite the claims of the biological determinists, intelligence is not fixed or genetically predetermined."
Marx explained long ago that "social being determines consciousness". So-called human nature is not something fixed and immutable. In fact, it has changed many times in the course of millions of years of human evolution. The idea that evolution has reached an end, that men and women have already reached the pinnacle of their physical and mental powers will not be accepted by any minimally cultured person with the slightest knowledge of how our species has struggled to reach the present point of its development. Far from ending, as Francis Fukuyama has suggested, human history has not yet begun. Nor will it begin until men and women finally take their destinies consciously into their own hands.
Ancient Greek mythology has handed down to us the story of Tantalus, the giant who was condemned by Zeus to suffer the torments of hunger and thirst while an abundance of food and drink lay just beyond his grasp. In this myth we have a direct analogy with capitalist society in the period of its decadence. All the material means exist for achieving the goal of socialism - a classless society in which humans will control their own lives instead of being the blind objects of unseen forces beyond their control or understanding. The next great step on the role of human evolution demands that we finally put an end to the degrading social apartheid of class society, that we put an end to the modern equivalent of slavery, and replace capitalist anarchy and the law of the jungle with genuinely human relations. Once we create the necessary conditions for human development, freeing the vast potential that exists in industry, agriculture, science and technology - and above all the virtually infinite potential for development that slumbers inside every human being - the sky would be the limit.
An epoch-making discovery