View Full Version : Epigenetics: “Genes might not be so selfish after all”

Sunday, September 21st, 2008, 11:42 AM
In an article in The Times dated 17 September 2008, Magnus Linklater wrote an article titled “Genes might not be so selfish after all”.

Link (http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/columnists/magnus_linklater/article4768854.ece)

Both the publisher and author must have been dismayed by the number of criticisms of the nonsense expounded in this article, which can be read in the “comments” below it.

Linklater claims epigenetics as being a hot new discovery, when it is in fact something that has been featured in undergraduate textbooks from at least as far back as 1994, the term “epigenetics” itself having been coined by C. H. Waddington in 1942. We should remember that the science of genetics was much less advanced than it is now, with the double helix structure of DNA not discovered at that time. (Watson and Crick made this discovery in 1953).

Linklater is very excited by what he sees as revolutionary new evidence that the environment can affect genes. Of course the environment often affects genes, and this in no way contradicts anything Richard Dawkins states in his influential best-seller “The Selfish Gene”.

Linklater comes across as some kind of soviet style Communist, in his sociological outlook at least, who feels that his worldview is threatened by the idea that genes predetermine much of our behaviour. He makes the common mistake of taking a dualist stance that if one believes in genetic determinism, that excludes environmental influence entirely and (presumably) vice versa. The truth is that no one with the slightest understanding of genetics has ever argued that environment does not have an important role to play in how genes are expressed. Nor would they argue that the environment cannot mutate genes - after all that is what happens in cancerous growth.

It is doubtful that Linklater knows this very basic biological fact: every living creature, including ourselves, has the same genetic code in almost every cell of their body. I mean this in the sense that each INDIVIDUAL has their own personal genetic code in every cell of their body. We don’t have only genes for skin in our skin, we also have all the genes in each and every cell that are responsible for all the other physical and psychological characteristics we have inherited. We are not born as blank slates that the environment affects to make us all that we are. The environment merely has the potential to alter the expression of our genes to a limited extent. This process begins in the womb as the initial sperm and egg lead to an increasing number of cells which differentiate and become various parts of the body entirely depending on which genes in each cell are turned on.

There has been much successful research into ways that specific genes can be switched on or off in the body, influencing behaviour (eg. eliminating agressiveness in lab mice) or to potentially stop an inherited disease manifesting. None of this contradicts anything Dawkins ever said.

Linklater spends much of his article discussing new evidence that some people with the MS gene apparently suffer from the genetic disease as a result of “some element or combination of elements in diet, climate, lack of vitamins, pollution or other external factors that is affecting the susceptible female gene”.

From this observation, Linklater triumphantly concludes that because a gene’s ability to trigger MS could be environmentally influenced, either to bring on symptoms, or theoretically to prevent the onset of the disease, this somehow threatens what he emotively calls “the hallowed territory of the gene supremacists” and “at the very least” suggests the need for “a rethink of the balance of the nature and nuture argument”.

We can conclude much from the choice of Linklater’s word “supremacists”. Clearly he wishes us to equate genetic determinism with some kind of absolute evil nazi oppression. Similarly by using the word “hallowed” in addition to calling Professor Dawkins ” high priest of gene theology” we see that Linklater wishes to make an equivalence between Dawkins/genetic determinism and the blind faith of religious dogmatism. Clearly Linklater doesn’t wish to consider what Dawkins points out ad nauseum, regarding the importance of evidence and not believing what one is told as being the correct practice of science, as opposed to how religious people simply take on a belief system which requires no evidence and is accepted in faith. Dawkins would be willing to change his mind if the evidence merited it - something one doubts can be said of Linklater. He would more likely wish Lamarck and Lysenko to be correct and would aggressively reject the idea that there is much about every one of us that is inherited and can only be improved upon through genetics. Genetics shows the limits of egalitarianism, and is offensive to those with a hysterical attatchment to notions of human equality.

People like Linklater hate the implication that we are influenced in any way by motivations to be altruistically self-sacrificing for the sake of helping copies of our genes in our gene pool. The “selfishness” of the genes is not about selfish individualism by an organism. The organism (such as a human in their natural state) is truly socialist within the confines of the gene-pool in fact. But all this has uncomfortable implications regarding ethnic nepotism; ideas that do not fit in with the views of modern political correctness.

Using bad science to make an attack on socio-biology for purely political aims is only going to backfire if enough people realise what your game really is. Funnily enough, looking at the comments following Linklater’s missive, it is not even the critics who point out that he has a political axe to grind, but rather his defenders: “scientists who can’t grasp social and political arguments… are unable to fully understand that this article is more about the politics of science, than the science itself.” Well I hope what I’ve written here highlights the sort of social and political arguments Linklater uses his bad scientific reporting to promote.

Bad science journalism to make dubious political points (http://stopbadscience.wordpress.com/bad-science-journalism-to-make-dubious-political-points/)

Indeed! :thumbup