Individuals cannot be reduced to their genetic characteristics
Stabroek News
October 19, 2001

Dear Editor,

The letter by Mr. M. Hackett captioned "There is no gene for reciprocal altruism" (9.l0.200l) [ please note: link provided by LOSP web site ] made some important points regarding the social behaviour of humans.

However, before we go further let me state categorically that I do not believe that social behaviour is determined solely by genes. Hackett should not infer that I am a proponent of Sociobiology. He does not know me well enough to make assumptions about my beliefs. I have always advocated that behaviour is determined by both nature and nurture.

In regards to the science of genetics I support the values of the Universal Declaration on the Human Genome and Human Rights which was adopted unanimously at the General Conference of UNESCO at its 29th session on 11 November 1997.

The Declaration states that the human genome underlies the fundamental unity of all members of the human family, as well as the recognition of their inherent dignity and diversity. ". . . dignity makes it imperative not to reduce individuals to their genetic characteristics and to respect their uniqueness and diversity."

The document added that the human genome, which by its nature evolves, is subject to mutations. "It contains potentialities that are expressed differently according to each individual's natural and social environment including the individual's state of health, living conditions, nutrition and education."

At the same time, to fully understand the many aspects of humanity one must factor in the evidence which suggests that human ritual and emotional behaviour are influenced strongly by neocortical abstract reasoning, and the blueprint for building the neocortex of the human brain is expressed through the genes.

To say that the only inherited behaviours humans have are the suckling and grasping instinct of newborns is to have a very simplistic view of gene expression and a very narrow interpretation of what constitutes human behaviour.

Throughout a human lifespan genes switch off and on at various times resulting in some very marked changes in behaviour. For instance, some researchers believe that the impulse to creep, stand, and later to walk is a genetic imperative expressed at different times during the growth of toddlers. Others believe that babies perform these acts to mimic the movement of adults. It should be pointed out however, that there are not many creeping adults.

The expression of genes also influences human behaviour during adolescence. It is genetic instructions which cause both sexes to experience rapid modifications to their bodies resulting in the development of secondary sexual characteristics. As the parent of any teenager will attest, these changes, powered by hormones which are manufactured by genetic instructions, cause a radical shift in the behaviour of their offspring.

Genes also affect human behaviour in other ways. Researchers know that genes are the blueprint for building a human body and in some cases harmful genetic mutations are inherited. Genetic instructions can result in the building of a slightly defective organ, say a brain for instance, and this can cause the owner of that brain to behave in a certain manner. For instance, Schizophrenics behave in a most unusual manner and some researchers have identified an inherited anomaly in certain brain cells which might be responsible for the behaviour.

Genes play an important role in the behaviour of those suffering from Alzheimer's Disease, Rett Syndrome, Prader-Willi Syndrome, Hunt-ington's Disease, Muscular Dystrophy, Down's Syn-drome and a host of other genetic diseases which affect the human mind and body. It is gene expression which resulted in these illnesses which in turn influenced the social behavioural patterns of the victims.

Certainly, genes did not code the patient's behaviour; it coded for the disease which regulated the behaviour. So in addition to "nurture", in addition to what we learn from our social environment, we find that our mental abilities and natural talents are affected by the genes we inherit.

Mr. Hackett says he has "news" for me. He reveals that Harvard paleontologist, Steven Jay Gould says in the book, "The mismeasure of man" that Homo sapiens entered the fossil record some fifty thousand years ago. This is "news"? My copy of the Gould's book says this information was published 20 years ago!

Hackett says 50,000 years is too little a time for genes to code for behaviour. Perhaps. Homo sapiens (Latin for Wise Man) are relatively recent arrivals in the evolutionary record. In fact, Homo sapiens are who we are today - modern man. Hackett ignored all my references about the development of traits in early humans - our ancient ancestors. This is understandable; most Christian creationists are preoccupied only with the appearance of modern humans. Steven J. Gould is the general editor of another publication called "The book of life." This book reports that the genus Homo (Latin for Man) first appeared in the fossil record about 2.5 million years ago. These hominids were different from others; they were equipped with opposable thumbs and big brains. Other fossil finds show that between 2 to 1.5 million years ago Homo habilis (Handy Man) had evolved and they were the first of our ancestors to be granted the title of Human Being.

Paleontologists have found many tools at H. habilis sites. And more importantly, these tools disclose a uniquely human characteristic. Pres-sure points produced when making the stone tools reveal that members of H. habilis were either left handed or right handed. No other primates specialise this way; it is a behaviour which assigns specific functions to the left or right lobe of the brain (just the way modern humans do). Researchers have examined H. habilis' skulls and believe it had room for a brain that could have had a "Broca's area", a region connected with speech (not language) production.

H. habilis was followed by Homo erectus about 1 to 0.5 million years ago and much later Homo sapiens arrived on the scene. Homo sapiens are of course the beneficiaries of the experience and genetic knowledge of all of our prehistoric ancestors. Is it possible that the trait of reciprocal altruism was passed on?

Anthropology is an ongoing study using, among other things, a fossil record that is continually eroding. It takes intense scrutiny of physical evidence and sensitive technology to reconstruct the story of our past. Many mistakes will be made and corrected and debates and interpretations will continue until finally, science will bring the most probable truth into focus.

I'm sure that persons who believe in the divine and abrupt creation of modern man have got their rebuttals ready but I do not intend to get into another exchange with Christian fundamentalists regarding mankind's origin. It is enough only that they realise that evolution does not necessarily disprove God. This is a modern perspective embraced even by His Holiness Pope John Paul.

Mr. Hackett made a good point regarding the hardwiring of traits into our gene code. He is right; researchers have not found a gene for reciprocal altruism in the recently revealed human ge-nome.(Perhaps because no researcher is looking for such a particular gene?) But investigations are continuing for the identification of genes for all manner of illnesses and perhaps even for behavioural patterns. One must remember that just because something is unexplained at present does not mean it is totally inexplicable.

The human gene code supervised the building of a brain that allowed for the continual transmission of memes (pronounced meems) among people and this has definitely had an effect on behaviour. But that discussion can wait for another time.

Yours faithfully,

Lutchman Gossai