Is this an appropriate place to discuss the above? Or is there another site for that?
I've been reading Tom Wilkie's "Perilous Knowledge: The Human Genome Project and its implications". In the last chapter, Wilkie discusses how modern evolutionary biology presents problems to traditional morality. One effect of the HGP may be to blur further the distinction between humans and animals, another may be to accentuate differences between humans - he states:
"...(t)he project will enhance and encourage the habit of thinking about people in genetic terms rather than as individual members of society, and there is a risk that existing forms of discrimination may find new and specious justification in the language of biological determinism".
A third concern of Wilkie's is how we come to view the nature of life itself.
He quotes (the Darwinian) Huxley: "The ethical progress of society ... 'depends not on imitating the cosmic process but in combating it'" (from Evolution and Ethics, 1893).
Wilkie is suspicious of sociobiological speculations on human behaviour for the reasons we all know about. I'm not talking here about the more crude versions, which don't appear in contributions to this discussion forum, but Wilkie fears that arguments for biological explanations of social behaviour will grow more subtle "or at least ... sound superficially more convincing as they will be increasingly decked out in a vocabulary of genetic determinism borrowed from and influenced by the successes of the (HGP)".
He points to the straightforward simplicity of such explanations which "mimic the thought-processes of atomic physicists ... (to) get down to ... the underlying causes..." ... But height and intelligence, as examples, are mixtures of nature and nurture: a future problem will be distinguishing traits that are genetically determined from those that are merely influenced. Wilkie is concerned that after HGP, there may be “much less emphasis on the environmental contributions to the make-up of a human being and an almost exclusive concentration on the genetic constitution and on genetically influenced differences”.
The most interesting human traits will most likely be polygenic, and “in particular, human behaviour ... is so complex, variable and flexible, that although it may be subject to genetic constraints, it is very difficult to make a case for any particular gene or gene system being responsible for a specific pattern of human behaviour”.
And, talking about Dawkins and Gould, the next Wilkie quote does remind me that Dawkins often sounds as if he is saying just this (and please tell me if I’ve got him wrong): “Perhaps the most unsettling consequence of the genome project might be the spread of the idea that a human being is no more than the biological expression of the programme of instructions encoded in his or her DNA” - and he refers to the ubiquity of the convenient computer metaphors in popular accounts.
He refers to what Mary Midgley has dubbed ‘the genetic fallacy’ - the error of equating a product with its source - “to say that a flower is really only organised dirt”: will it be possible to avoid saying that human beings are ‘really’ only the expression of their genes? The HGP hasn’t discovered or invented these ideas, but “it will bring (them) down from the ivory tower, forcing the rest of us to confront them squarely for the first time”.
“(P)eople are more than their physical anatomy. Our anatomy rules out certain futures, but it does not dictate which of the many possible futures that could be mine will be mine. Our physical and genetical anatomies represent constraints; they do not represent predestination.”
And again, “The temptation is to regard genes as fundamental entities in biology in a similar vein to the elementary particles (in physics) and to think that by specifying an individual’s genes, one has somehow set out their life’s course. It is a common misperception, of which almost everyone is guilty, to think that the genes somehow encapsulate the inner ‘essence’ of an individual. ...” (But it’s not true - compare the DNA of a human and a chimpanzee.) “... (I)t seems incoherent to assert that that 1.6 per cent of DNA is the part which contains the essence of humanity”.
First publ 1993, Faber and Faber, ppb 1994, ISBN 0-571-17051-X
So there is no necessary determinism, no doomed human nature here, no irrefrangibility to premature human extinction, we can - must - do more than fold our hands!