God is dead: long live the genes

The Genetic Gods
August 20, 1999

There is a cultural difference between discussions of biotechnology, or wider aspects of biology, in this country and in the US. John Avise's book is highly transatlantic, in that he seems inevitably adversarial,being conscious of the fundamentalists waiting to get him at every turn. The very word "evolution" in his subtitle is a signal that he must face enemies from the Bible belt.Yet he does not go out of his way to initiate or prolong hostilities. He argues instead that though many religious beliefs are incompatible with open-minded scientific inquiry, evolutionary and biological findings could provide the religious with new ways of exploring human experience and the place of humanity in the universe as a whole. More than anything else, he believes that biology is a historical science concerned with the development of the living world; and his hope is that theologians and moral philosophers might also adopt a long-term historical perspective to help establish how we human beings have come to be where we are and what the future holds.

The other characteristic of most American books about biology, at least those designed, as this is, for the general reader, is their relentless jokiness. In this respect, Avise is much more restrained than many of his fellow authors, and his diagrams are both clear and inoffensively funny. Nor does he in any way patronise his readers. Although the theme that links the chapters of his book is the thought that genes have come to play the part the gods used to play in human life, ultimately determining what will happen, the analogy is not pressed too far; and he is prepared to wrestle with the problem of freedom. He is not a thorough-going genetic determinist.

The chapter on genetic diseases is one of the best I have read. Often we are simply told how far the Human Genome Project has got in identifying genes "for" various diseases, or a propensity to disease; but here we are given a much more detailed account, though necessarily selective, chromosome by chromosome. Because he is an evolutionary biologist, Avise insists on the determination, or built-in necessity for genes to survive and if possible to dominate, a totally non-moral determination. He therefore tends away from the almost universally deployed metaphor according to which genes are thought of as supplying information, or coded instructions, for the functioning of the organism of which they are part. He prefers the metaphor of genes as members of social groups within the organism, displaying elaborate divisions of labour and interdependence, and also competition.

Avise comes across as a learned, amiable, humane man. If, God forbid, I had to choose one book on bioethics to take with me to a desert island, I think this is the one I would choose.

Baroness Warnock was formerly mistress, Girton College, Cambridge.

The Genetic Gods: Evolution and Belief in Human Affairs

Author - John C. Avise
ISBN - 0 674 34625 4
Publisher - Harvard University Press
Price - £18.50
Pages - 9

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