Tiffany Jenkins: Free will more important than DNA

Lady Gaga's message opens up a wider debate about our genes. 'Picture: Getty Images
Lady Gaga's message opens up a wider debate about our genes. 'Picture: Getty Images
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The idea that how we live our lives is pre-ordained by our genetic make-up is a popular but dangerous one, writes Tiffany Jenkins

LADY Gaga nailed the zeitgeist a few years back when she sang, “Cause God makes no mistakes/I’m on the right track, baby/I was born this way”.

It was a song about freedom, the singer explained, about preferring your own sex. “Don’t hide yourself in regret” she trilled, “just love yourself and you’re set.” Meaning, don’t worry, be happy, you can’t help who you are – it has been decided for you. Being homosexual is natural and people should not be ashamed, her point. Those with a problem with this should just deal with it. We are all born a certain way.

This appears, at first, to be an admirable and empowering sentiment: people should be accepted for who they are, they can’t help it, that should be that.

But it is not quite so liberating an idea as first seems.

The trouble is that Lady Gaga was bang on the wrong trend. She was channelling the resurgence of fatalistic thinking and, in particular, the view that one’s genetic make-up determines who we are. Because she’s not the only one who thinks we are all born one way, who believes that our identity and behaviour are genetically driven – it is the theory of the moment.

This week, we heard that it is the turn of sex offending to be explained away by genetics. Sexual offending is written in the genes, it was widely reported after a Swedish study concluded that male relatives of sex offenders were five times more likely to commit similar crimes and that 40 per cent of risk is genetic. “Sexual offending is primarily accounted for by genetic and unique environmental risk factors rather than shared environmental influences,” says the report.

I don’t buy it. This is an explanation we need to approach very carefully. Even if genes influence sexual orientation, as the study actually suggests, that is not the same as cause, and that’s not the same as causing someone to be a sex offender.

What we choose to do – how we choose to act – is not determined by our genes. It is not written in the stars. It’s not ordained. It’s something we have control over, something we should take responsibility for: we cannot just blame something or someone else. We cannot get away with: “It was my genes that made me do it m’lud.”

But many now do say just that, or something like it. Today, deterministic theories are rolled out, one after the other, to expound every kind of human behaviour. We hear that genes determine not just diseases, like Alzheimer’s, but also which child will commit a crime, how they will do at school, even voting preferences.

Gene studies suggest that people have natural tendencies when it comes to engaging in politics, in the ideology they choose, the box they tick at elections and engaging in political violence. Now the same kind of thinking is trotted out to explain away one of our biggest fears - sex offending.

As it happens, since the scientists James Watson and Francis Crick discovered the structure of the DNA molecule in 1953, the concept of the gene has been revised. It is no longer the case that is it seen as an autonomous predictor of disease, and everything else. DNA is seen instead understood to be something of a script that is changed along the way. It interacts with the environment and the individual.

We cannot of course be everything we want to be just by willing it so. No doubt a great many factors influence who we are and what we do. Genes may have some say, as does culture and circumstance, but we can rationalise our actions, even the most emotional and irrational ones. We can choose to act in one way or another.

Nonetheless, scientific reductionism continues, it thrives. Genetic determinism is used to account for everything, along the lines of Richard Dawkins in his book The Selfish Gene, “We are survival machines – robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes.”

These explanations are popular now, not just because of scientific developments, but because of the way we understand ourselves – the way we view human beings – has profoundly changed in recent times. Instead of trying to shape the world and ourselves, the ascendency of these theories suggests that instead we have given up and are resigned to accept our lot. And we are looking to designate responsibility for what we do and who we are, to something other than ourselves – and that is where the problem lies.

It was thinkers in Renaissance Italy who first devoted themselves to questioning the idea that man is the prisoner of a preordained destiny. They brought about the challenging of the idea of fate and fortune – one of the most significant breakthroughs in human history. The brilliant humanist Petrarch, as early as 1366, argued in this book Remedies For Fortune Fair and Foul, that mankind has the ability to control his destiny.

Then you had the emergence of the idea that man can become master of his fate, that he could exercise free will. It was a radical idea developed during the Enlightenment and with humanist liberalism in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

In the words of that great liberal philosopher John Stuart Mill, the individual should never “let the world, or his portion of it, choose his plan of life for him”.

The doctrine of genetic determinism ends up diminishing this idea of free will and our capacity for moral independence. It is a major step backwards.

Where will this turn take us? Perhaps profiling will happen on the basis of genetics. So if one guy is found guilty of sexual offences, his brother and son too will be investigated. After all, the reasoning could go: they were born that way. That’s a very dangerous path to go down.

A real freedom song would be one with the anthem: We are not born one way/birth is just the beginning.


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