By Kenneth Weiss, Anne Buchanan

from GeneWatch 26-4
Aug-Oct 2013

The title of this essay may seem like a very silly question. Of course, genetics is not a faith-based belief that an immaterial, universal God is the cause of all things and redeemer of heavenly life-after-death. Geneticists may personally hold such a view, or even that God is responsible for the world that we investigate under the category 'genetics.' But nobody we know believes that genes are themselves gods, the important point being that the proper science of genetics is a purely material investigation of causal factors in the nature of life.

In many a religion, there is resistance to its sacred material being characterized as being metaphorically rather than literally true. Literal truths are clear guidelines, but metaphors have little specific meaning and are, essentially, open to subjective interpretation and hence manipulation by parties with various vested interests. In this sense, fundamentalist religions are ideologies, in that they are globally comprehensive, usually rigid beliefs accepted as ultimate truths.

 Is the belief in genes as a determining power in life so widespread that we can call it a religion? That is, not to suggest that people think of genes as gods, but metaphorically, that beliefs about genes have the strict, universal-dogma characteristics of fundamentalist religions. Is that accurate? If so, is it appropriate?

Science as a way of investigating and understanding the world has taken on various modes of operation in the history of thought (and here, reflecting our own limited knowledge, we refer to Western thought, which is the predominant mode of contemporary science). Modern science is based centrally on concepts of causation, and the belief that when a particular element (a 'cause') is present, a specifiable consequence (an 'effect') must follow. That is, science is a belief that nature is causally law-like, and works via fundamental, universal, unexceptioned principles. The statement of those principles relevant to any given field of science is known as its theory. But what is a 'theory'?

Generally, a scientific theory is a series of generalizations that have emerged from empirical examination of the world. The theory usually involves a set of underlying principles, or axioms, that are taken to be underlying universal truths. They are assumed to be true, and in a sense following a view expressed by Newton in his Principia, each factual observation is a manifestation of those truths. That is, in practice one studies specific, controlled instances, but the conclusions must explain and account for the myriad instances that were not studied. Thus, we observe planetary motion in our solar system, and assume this explains the motions of moons around planets and stars around galaxies everywhere in the universe. In workaday science, axioms are assumed to be true and not to be questioned.

For about 50 years we have also heard the term 'paradigm' referring to somewhat similar notions. Though the usage is usually generic rather than specific, and we won't try to discriminate terminological nuances, 'paradigm' typically refers to the working framework by which scientists implement their theory. Though very rarely thought about at all critically, 'paradigm' and 'paradigm shift,' terms we owe to Thomas Kuhn, have become fashionable ways to discuss one's own work, subtly implying one's perceptive kinship with Newton, Darwin and Einstein. This is an understandable aspect of the sociology of competitive science, in which we're pressured for recognition, funding, and other sorts of career rewards, to ascribe high importance to our work. But our point here is not a sociological criticism.

The common idea, as expressed by Kuhn, is that we have a paradigm and push the frontier of knowledge as hard as we can to force facts to fit that theoretical framework. When it fails to work, sooner or later someone comes along with a better framework, new assumptions or explanations. It is then, for example, that axioms come under question. Kuhn's approach, which has been followed up and modified by many scholars since, basically argues for an important sociological component in the practice of science.

When research questions are well-posed, the axioms apt and truly universal, the theory works very well. It becomes accepted as expressing universal laws or principles. Physics and chemistry have many unknown issues, but much that they do seems rather rigorously true in this sense. Atomic theory gives very good understanding of much that chemists do, or of the nature of stars. The theory's axioms are assumed to be universally, that is cosmically, true, and the evidence seems to support that. In this sense science is a purely ideological view of the world. However, when used in appropriate ways, the theory works, and we usually don't apply the negative nuances of the word 'ideology' to it, nor do we call it even metaphorically a 'religion.' Still, we must accept a couple of important caveats.

First, we know from history that theories that were once accepted have been found to be inaccurate or even obsolete when new data or ideas came along. So we must (try to) keep in mind the ephemerality of our assurances about nature. Secondly, the modern notion of science is highly reductionist: The most basic theory is developed to explain the most fundamental elements of its subject, with the idea that all other facts must in principle be consistent with, and hence accounted for by reducing them to their fundamentals.

However, while the properties of the building I'm in are consistent with its being built of atoms, and the latter involving electrons, the theory of electrons doesn't help explain the building. The building has properties and characteristics so much 'above' the level of electrons, such as interactions among components of huge scale relative to individual electrons, that this compatibility doesn't help much, and we need other sorts of explanations (and theories) to 'explain' a building or predict its properties. In this sense, higher-level or 'emergent' traits must be consistent with lower-level, more fundamental theory, even if not usefully explained by that theory.

It is when a theoretical explanation is taken to be universally true that it risks becoming dogma, and in that sense something to which an analogy to religion can sensibly be made. Of course the analogy is figurative (except to the extent that creationists try to explain life in terms of God's individual local actions).

Genes are molecules and behave like molecules in all proper chemical and physical ways, as far as is known. Within their proper realm, the molecular theory of genetics seems robust in the sense discussed here, even though there are many things we don't know about genes and probably many surprises to come. That doesn't make genes the fundamental units of life, but they certainly do seem to be among those units. The relevant question is the degree to which genes are causally involved in phenomena under study, that is, what are the 'laws' of life and how do genes fit within those laws?

The problem, if there is one (and we think there is), is the extension of causal axioms from purely molecular to higher-level emergent traits, such as complex morphological or behavioral organization of organisms. This can lead to what we believe are highly misleading and mistaken arguments of direct causation from genomic measures to specific emergent outcomes, such as predicting late-onset human disease from an individual's DNA sequence. Often other causal elements are included, like 'environment,' invoked vaguely to account for less than highly accurate prediction, but to salvage the idea that the prediction is valid.

Our collective knowledge of these topics at present is so rudimentary that the extension of casual assumptions, almost to their elevation of axioms, risks becoming what could properly - and, yes, negatively - be characterized as ideology and, in vernacular terms, as a 'religion.' It can be a belief system that loses the required element of self-criticism and examination. One could argue that if the science is weak, these assumptions will lead to explanatory problems that will force a revision to a new, better paradigm. But this can also be an excuse for continuing expensive business as usual, rather than a more fundamental self-examination of the way business is being done. In this sense, the characterization of genetics as a religion, while informal is cogent.

Here we encounter the social and political aspects of science that Kuhn and subsequent sociologists of science have shown are so important. It must be kept in mind that the ideology of genes-as-everything reflects history in many positive as well as self-interested ways. Genetics has had a phenomenal success in just a century or so, bringing to light much that is fundamental about life but that was previously wholly unknown. The problem is the extent to which this success has led to genes gaining a metaphoric status, built into an axiom of life rather than a component of causation.

Because of enthusiasm, wishful thinking, interlocked vested interests, cultural momentum, the difficulty of thinking more broadly, the desire to be prominent, insightful, 'right' and so on, and to be able to promise everlasting life with inexhaustible food, the attributes of genetics have converged on the cultural attributes of a religion. Science today is applying 'genes' far above their proper role of causal units, to highly emergent traits for which individual genes are typically not very usefully explanatory or predictive. Indeed, and somewhat ironically, there is now rather widespread activity, perhaps even a somewhat crude or even cruel riposte to attacks by fundamentalist religions, by scientists determined to show that such religions are themselves genetic, that is, that religious beliefs in the theological sense are caused by specific genes. Religion is a human trait, and must be compatible with genes and the other molecules of life, but the degree to which it is meaningfully the result of specific genetic causation is a separate question, which is beyond our scope here.

A critic may tend to liken much that is in current genetics to being a commitment to religious dogma, saying that 'Gene' is just a new G-word (with a capital "G") in our culture, and hence genetics as its religion. That is, that the new G-word is basically a substitution that today serves the same sorts of vested material and psychological interests as the old G-word did.

As we like to put it, genes are involved in everything, but not everything is 'genetic.'        


Ken Weiss, PhD, is Evan Pugh Professor of Anthropology and Genetics at Penn State University. He writes a regular column on these issues in the journal Evolutionary Anthropology. Anne Buchanan, PhD, is a Senior Research Associate in the Anthropology Department at Penn State. Anne and Ken have co-authored two books about genetics and evolution, the most recent of which is The Mermaid's Tale (2009), and they blog regularly at a site of the same name.

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