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Many people date the DNA revolution to the discovery of its structure by James Watson and Francis Crick in 1953. But really it began thirty years before, conceived by the mind of John D Rockefeller, Sr. Thus it is fitting that DNA is named after him. DNA stands for DeoxyriboNucleic Acid and ribo stands for Rockefeller Institute of Biochemistry (now Rockefeller University) where the chemical composition of DNA was first discovered in the 1920s. The Rockefeller Foundation had become interested in DNA because its trustees feared a Bolshevik-style revolution. Intense public resentment had already compelled the break-up of their Standard oil Company in 1911; so the Foundation sought ways, said trustee Harry Pratt Judson in 1913, to “reinforce the police power of the state”. They intended to find the ultimate key to human behaviour which would allow the resentful and envious mobs to be effectively managed.
The Foundation had two strategies for management that were distinct but complementary: to control human behaviour at the level of social structures: family, work and emotions, which the Foundation referred to by names such as “psychobiology”; and to control human behaviour at the level of molecules.
The “science of man”
To develop methods of control at the societal level, the Foundation more-or-less founded the discipline of social science in the early 1900s.
Max Mason, appointed as the Foundation’s director in 1929, described this double focus as their “science of man” project:
“[It i]s directed to the general problem of human behavior, with the aim of control through understanding. The social sciences, for example, will concern themselves with the rationalization of social control; the medical and natural sciences propose a closely coordinated study of the sciences which underlie personal understanding and personal control” (quote from Lily Kay, The Molecular Vision of Life, 1993).
For the social science arm the Foundation sought to inculcate within the social science research community specific mechanistic habits of mind and an ethos conducive to this goal of control: “the validation of the findings of social science [must be] through effective social control,” wrote the Foundation’s head of Social Science, Edmund E. Day. According to Warren Weaver, then director of the Foundation, this meant the “recasting of prevailing ideas of human nature and conduct” in line with the “managerial needs” of industrialisation for characters such as timeliness and obedience.
The “restructuring of human relations in congruence with industrial capitalism” as Lily Kay, biographer of the Foundation described it, was an agenda that was quite widely understood in the 1930s—and widely disapproved of. One contemporary critic called the Foundation’s work “a thinly disguised capitalistic manipulation of the social order” (Kay, 1993).
The Rockefellers construct the gene
The second arm to the “science of man” strategy was seen as purely based on scientific rationality.
To the Rockefeller Foundation trustees, however, rationality meant eugenics. Eugenic theory, by definition, implies that humans contain hidden determinants for traits like civility, intelligence, and obedience. Logically, such determinants ought to be discoverable, reasoned the Foundation’s trustees. If science were able to peer deep enough it would discover those mechanisms and molecules that effected this ‘upward causation’ of behaviour. Once identified, such controlling elements—which were initially presumed to be proteins—could be understood and made use of.
However, to make such discoveries required a new science and a new concept: ‘molecular biology’. Molecular biology was a term the foundation invented for a reductionist “science of the very small” that was focused on discovering the nature of the gene.
The Foundation nevertheless did try out other—even nonreductionist—approaches to biology. It briefly supported the mathematical biologist Nicolas Rashevsky before finally dropping him (Abraham, 2004). Presumably, as a descriptive science, mathematical biology did not meet the Foundation’s desire to discover deterministic and controlling forces.
By testing out and sifting through distinct approaches, individuals, and institutions, the Foundation eventually developed a strategy to reinvent the science of biology that, by 1933, was fully elaborated. It concentrated on funding scientific cliques at a relatively small number of elite institutions (such as Caltech and the University of Chicago). These cliques trained up hundreds of scientists whose job was to find the molecules responsible for that upward causation; that is, to find the specific molecules and the specific mechanisms that determined the form and function of organisms. They would thus validate the Rockefeller eugenic thesis.
Institutionally, these efforts were extremely successful. After the search for these ‘master molecules’ had eventually narrowed to DNA, George Beadle, Nobel Laureate in physiology and Rockefeller insider, noted that all but one of the 18 Nobel prizes awarded for genetic science after 1953 had been awarded to current or former Rockefeller-funded scientists (Kay, 1993). By Beadle’s death in 1989, largely thanks to the Rockefeller Foundation, molecular biology had become the dominant approach to all of biology. That is, medicine, developmental biology, neurobiology, and agriculture.
Almost the whole world nowadays assumes the overwhelming emphasis of biological science on genetics and reductionism to be a logical and inevitable scientific one. But what the history of the Rockefeller Foundation shows is that the virtual wiping out of whole organism biology and the sidelining of diverse other approaches such as Rashevsky’s; of nutritional biology; and of environmental determinism, was a carefully planned coup d’état. It was an overt seizure of the scientific estate intended to substitute genetic determinism for competing ideas about causation in biology.
Genetic determinism is the idea that genes have a privileged level of causation and thus a special status in biology. As shown in the companion article Genetics Is Giving Way to a New Science of Life, the idea is clearly false. Causation in biology can take many forms and genetics is just one of them, but the robber barons who bought biology did so specifically in order to impose a genetic determinist paradigm.
A further consequence of their efforts was that they simultaneously seized and impoverished our idea of life. Thus, when Watson and Crick discovered the structure of DNA in 1953 they considered they had discovered “the secret of life“. The triumph of the Rockefeller Foundation was that no one contradicted them.
The origins of genetic determinism: Huxley and the Victorians
The fear of unruly mobs was not unique to leaders of the Rockefeller Foundation. Victorian reviewers of the books of Charles Darwin, fifty years earlier, also lived in a tumultuous age. The advent of new technologies like trains and telephones, the growth of cities, and the rise of a mercantile class that threatened to displace the nobility, were destabilising their world.
To add Darwinism to this ferment, feared those reviewers, would “shake society to its very foundations” (Desmond, 1998). These mid-Victorians feared Darwinism primarily because it provided a set of powerful ideas that profoundly undermined God and the Church, the two rocks on which their world was largely built.
More than that, evolution specifically threatened to destroy the ancient and sacred concepts of inherited wealth and inherited merit. To Victorians, these were virtually synonymous with the benefits of order and hierarchy.
Evolution even threatened to unleash social upheaval directly: to free the slaves, to liberate the workers, and emancipate the female population; and Thomas Huxley, the leading advocate of Darwinism, calculated he would widen popular support for science by promising as much. He told enthusiastic Victorian workers that the ascent of species showed the inevitability of social improvement.
Huxley, however, couldn’t go too far. Unlike all of his wealthy colleagues, he needed to make a living from science. But as Darwin’s de facto spokesperson, he was nevertheless in a unique position to shape the perception and interpretation of Darwinism.
Thus, in the presence of the dispossessed he emphasised science’s revolutionary qualities; but with the new industrialists he presented science as the driver of a new industrial era; and, for the stolid British establishment he emphasised that “Nature’s old salique law will not be repealed, and no change of dynasty will be effected”. Salique law was the ancient Frankish law ensuring inheritance only through the male line.
Huxley and his fellow scientists became adepts at such political manouevring. The key example, at least for genetics, was the taking of prescientific theories of inheritance, that were familiar to the establishment, such as salique law, and melding them with Darwinism. No evidence was available to anyone that the character traits prized by the establishment, such as intellect and social refinement, could be biologically inherited; and even if they could, it was surely unlikely to be only through the male line. Yet Huxley and his scientific fellows glossed over such inconsistencies so as to present evolution as minimally disturbing to the beliefs and values of the status quo. This required the nature of inherited traits to be essentially deterministic in nature. People did not acquire good characters, they were born with them.
Such interpretations meant that science thrived, but it was at the expense of undercutting Huxley’s earlier promises of greater freedom for the underclasses. Thus it was that the scientists used their positions as experts to bend the science and to knowingly take the side of the establishment in the struggle for social power that surrounded Victorian science (Desmond, 1998).
These interpretations were crucial to the future of biology. Inherited deterministic factors were based on what Huxley called “protoplasm” and protoplasm was a controller of human behaviour. Protoplasm is now accepted by many historians as the intellectual father of eugenic theory. It became the intellectual justification for the subsequent Rockefeller search for molecules of social control; but, as a theory constructed more for political than scientific reasons, it had feet of clay.
The entry of big tobacco
The railroading of biology away from the study of whole organisms by the Rockefeller Foundation (joined also by the Carnegie Foundation) proved relatively easy. Turning that understanding into social control was less so. The next stage required new impetus and even more money.
Starting in the 1950s the tobacco industry distributed $370 million among approximately 1,000 scientists in the US and British medical establishments. The long term plan was to construct another novel molecular science, that of human genetic variation (Wallace, 2009). The immediate goal was to attribute the diseases of smoking to genetic origins. The tobacco industry was determined to find “gene defects” that might lead to lung cancer and addiction. Tobacco executives thought—correctly—that finding even limited evidence would keep blame from being placed entirely on their products. Genetic determinism thus could be used to neutralise negative public, professional, and even legal, opinion (Gundle et al., 2010).
Tobacco funding never uncovered any compelling genetic determinants of cancer or addiction. But the strategy did shift public opinion. Genetic researchers were therefore encouraged by industries and governments to apply their methods to other physical illnesses (such as diabetes), and for the same reasons (Vrecko, 2008).
So although eugenics practitioners, such as Adolf Hitler, had made the word eugenics abhorrent to most people by the 1920s and 1930s, the genome sequencing bandwagon eventually convinced the public that DNA was a master molecule, a governor of health and behaviour, even down to one’s daily activities and decisions. The study of genes and genomes achieved acceptance of the eugenic premise through, as it were, the back door. The public was convinced to blame numerous illnesses and conditions, and not just lung cancer, on their own genetic ‘weaknesses’. Thus genetics was established as the presumptive primary cause of most human variation, chronic disease was normalised, and DNA was crowned “the King of molecules” by a Nobel Laureate (Mullis, 1997).
The ever-expanding domain of science
Thomas Huxley once declared, in an editorial of 1865, that science had no intention “of being content with anything short of absolute victory [over the Church] and uncontrolled domination over the whole realm of the intellect” (cited in Desmond, 1998). So while Charles Darwin initially refrained from publicly pursuing what he supposed to be the intellectual implications of his ideas, from fear that doing so would prevent them being accepted, his apostles rarely showed such restraint.
From Huxley and Herbert Spencer, via EO Wilson, Richard Dawkins, Steven Pinker, and many others, the presumed properties of DNA have formed the basis of great edifices of implication. EO Wilson’s Sociobiology: The new synthesis (1975) and Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene and The Extended Phenotype (1982) extrapolated biology far beyond previously accepted domains of the physical body, to encompass human desires, human ‘misbehaviour’, human ethics, and human social structures. Relying on faint statistical associations between DNA genome markers and human traits, geneticists have claimed that hundreds of human attributes have genetic explanations, at least in significant part, including: sexual and religious orientation, voting preferences, sleepwalking, entrepreneurial behaviour, sexism, violence, and many others (e.g. Kales et al., 1980). These claims have provided a steady supply of juicy headlines to pronounce that genes play powerful deterministic roles in behaviour.
The failure of “master molecules” to explain life
In 2016, Gary Greenberg, Professor Emeritus at Wichita State University, Kansas, reviewed a book that he plainly considered to be unnecessary. The reviewed was titled How many nails does it take to seal the coffin? The coffin in question is the science of behavior genetics. He cited fellow gravedigger Richard Lerner of Tufts University describing the “counterfactual conceptualizations of the role of genes in behavior and development” (Lerner, 2007) and genetic mortician Douglas Wahlsten (2012) that “all hope has been lost” in the search for genetic effects on normal human behaviour (Greenberg, 2016).
The basic issue identified by Greenberg, Lerner, et al., is that, if several hundred billion dollars of searching finds no evidence for genetic influences (except for rare traits like Down syndrome), then the only reasonable conclusion is that genetic influences on those traits are absent or minutely small. Yet the genetic zombie, to their exasperation, lives on, and for the simple reason that it is lavishly funded.
It is not just the study of human behaviours for which the long-sought genetic evidence is chronically missing. In 2013, the head of the Broad Institute at MIT, which is the most prominent global institution in the study of human genetics, called genetic influence on human disease a “phantom” (Zuk et al., 2013). This U-turn followed a succession of compelling critiques that focused on 1) the lack of replicability of putative genetic predispositions in humans (Ioannidis, 2007); 2) lack of evidence of broad effects on health (Manolio et al., 2009; Dermitzakis and Clark, 2009); 3) lack of effect size of all except a very few individual genetic predispositions (Ioannidis and Panagiotou, 2011); and 4) a general lack of experimental rigour of genetic methods and hypotheses (Buchanan et al. 2006; Wallace, 2006; Charney and English, 2012).
The media (including the science media) has barely reported these critiques, but they have left the discipline of human genetics in turmoil. Interesting as it is to watch billions of dollars of medical research funding generate nothing but negative results, (see Manolio et al., 2009), the really big question is the one now hanging over the underlying master molecule idea, since genetic determinism has become the central paradigm of all biology.
The fundamental defects of this master molecule concept were summed up perhaps most succinctly by Richard C Strohman of UC Berkeley; in a 1997 article “The coming Kuhnian revolution in biology“:
“[W]e have taken a successful and extremely useful theory and paradigm of the gene and have illegitimately extended it as a paradigm of life”. But, Strohman wrote, the broader paradigm “has little power and must eventually fail”.
Interestingly, the same logical flaw was identified by Lily Kay in her Rockefeller Foundation biography of 1993. In concluding, she noted the self-limiting nature of its reductionist method. “By narrowing its epistemic domain, the new biology has bracketed out important animate phenomena from its discourse on life”.
That failure is now fully visible. Thanks to emerging research findings such as those described in Genetics Is Giving Way to a New Science of Life, it is now hard to overlook that genetic reductionism has failed to explain “important animate phenomena” like: growth, self-organisation, evolution, consciousness, learning, health, and disease. These are the key elements of life that a successful paradigm ought to explain but somehow genetic determinism never has.
Its emerging replacement is a vastly different paradigm of life, one that conceives living systems as cooperatives and not dictatorships. To be clear, some facts about DNA are not in dispute. DNA exists. The mutation or addition of genes can have profound effects on the properties of organisms; but this doesn’t make DNA special. The removal or addition (where possible) of most other components of organisms, such as RNA, or proteins, even water, has the same effect. Thus even the use of GMO crops, which might look like clear examples of upward causation, are consistent with the new paradigm because introduced transgenes are carefully designed to act as isolated modules, traits that operate independently of all the system level controls that organisms typically use to manage and integrate gene activity and biochemical function.
But what ultimately motivates this new paradigm is the lack of conceptual necessity for DNA to animate organisms. Molecular biologists routinely propose that DNA has properties of “expression”, of “control”, and of cellular governance, in some sense that other molecules do not. These are the properties that a master molecule paradigm requires, but asserting them does not rescue genetic determinism, it is merely prescientific vitalism.
What science is telling us, therefore, is that, in living systems, everything depends on everything else, and life bootstrapped itself out of the ooze. DNA did not lead the way.
The societal consequences of genetic determinism
Whether true or not, all belief systems have consequences. When news of Darwin’s evolutionary theory reached Germany in the 1860s, Ernst Haeckel, German prodigy biologist, constructed the first trees of life, with humans (for no scientific reason) at the apex of creation. Much like Huxley, Haeckel also stretched the implications of Darwinismus into a genetic determinist struggle, in this case one that drove “peoples irresistibly onward”. Darwinismus foretold, he said, a new Teutonic destiny.
As early as the death of Charles Darwin (1882) it was said that his thought (which for the most part meant Huxley’s interpretations) could be found “under a hundred disguises in works on law and history, in political speeches and religious discourses…if we try to think ourselves away from it we must think ourselves entirely away from our age” (John Morley, 1882, cited in Desmond 1998)
Thus the belief system that humans are controlled by an internal master molecule has become woven into myriad areas of social thought. It is far beyond the scope of this article to describe the consequences of genetic determinism at either the personal or the societal level (see instead The DNA Mystique), but the two world wars, the holocaust, racism, colonialism, eugenics, inequity, are each stronger as a consequence of, or might never have happened without, the idea of genetic determinism. The reason is that genetic determinism moulded “higher” and “lower”, “normal” and “abnormal”, into intrinsic and unmodifiable scientific properties of biological organisms and groups, rather than being what they were previously: questionable prejudices and dubious conceits.
Genetic determinism thus became the defining idea of the twentieth century. Nothing was unmoved by it. It drove biology, it even drove science itself.
It began with the ability of outside institutions to impose long-term and overarching agendas on science. This alone is a breathtaking observation, both disturbing and profound, that wholly contradicts our normal presumption that science is driven by brilliant individuals, technical innovations, and collective intellectual rigour. Instead, to understand what occurred to DNA is as simple as following the money.
Science, and therefore all of society, was lured into a very specific DNA-centric interpretation of life that was predicated on magical thinking about the properties of genes. Once the initial conditions were set up, however, a key observation is that biological research fostered genetic determinist social thought and genetic determinist thought in turn made genetically determinist science seem more valid and desirable. A self-sustaining feedback loop was thus created.
One example of how genetic determinism participated in that loop was laid out in a 1975 letter from prominent geneticists to the NY Review of Books. They were replying to an uncritical review of EO Wilson’s Sociobiology: a New Synthesis. The geneticists’ letter lays out a rationale for why a political establishment might fund sociobiology and genomics: to furnish interpretations of human activity that create and therefore determine behavioural and social norms. As the authors wrote: “for Wilson, what exists is adaptive, what is adaptive is good, therefore what exists is good.” The authors were pointing out, well before the tobacco industry strategy had been unmasked, that any scientific assertion that a societal aberration such as “war”, or an individual misbehaviour such as “violence”, has genetic roots makes it seem natural or normal. Thus, what appears to be a simple and apolitical scientific “finding”, say of a genetic predisposition to obesity, generates inferences that are highly valued by institutions (such as the food industry) that cause obesity but wish to resist pressure on them for social change.
It is scant wonder then that the publication of Sociobiology was followed by a funding boom in genetic research, in both the social and medical sciences. This boom happened even though human genetic research is rarely of value in the search for cures or the treatment of disease (Chaufan and Joseph, 2013). The bottom line is, even if genetic predispositions for obesity were to exist, everyone should exercise and not overeat.
Thus biological explanations have vastly expanded science’s intellectual realm, into the arenas of social affairs, economics, politics, religion, even philosophy and ethics. Bearing out the prediction of the NYRB letter, sociobiology has virtually driven out traditional academic interpretations of human activity, such as Marxism or Deconstructionism, that made life uncomfortable for the powers that be.
As Dorothy Nelkin and Susan Lindee observed for academia:
“In the last few decades many universities have ceased to offer the grand survey courses in Western civilization that once seemed to explain so much about human culture and the human past. Postcolonialism, postmodernism, literary theory, and other trends in academic life called into question the legitimacy of the grand narratives that were built into the notion of “Western civilization”. Many college students will never take such a course. But most will take introductory biology……introductory biology has become the cultural equivalent of the old Western civilization curriculum: explaining human culture and the human past, biological knowledge is seen as deeply relevant to social concerns, economic development, international relations, and ethical debates. Introductory biology is presented as a valid, truth-seeking endeavour, untainted by religious, political, or philosophical commitments. It places human beings in a meaningful universe, providing ways of understanding relationships between ethnic and racial groups and between identity and the body” (Preface to the second edition, The DNA Mystique: The gene as a cultural icon, 2004).
Anyone not knowing the strategies of the Rockefeller Foundation and the tobacco industry might well imagine sociobiology to be “valid” and “untainted”. Plainly though, given their history, and the new scientific revelations, genetic explanations are just ones whose political commitments are better concealed, and it becomes highly relevant that genetic explanations are being made in academia, in policy circles, and in the public arena by scientists whose funders (whether governments or corporations) benefit from this neutering of public discourse.
The end result of Huxley’s proposed intellectual expansion of biology is arguably already here. Students unversed in the history of thought and stewed in unsupported or unverifiable genetic explanations have become the intellectual core of a miseducated and compliant society. One that creatively participates in its own delusion by self-describing illnesses as “genetic”, even in cases where the only clear evidence of causation is environmental. A genetically determinist society is therefore one not capable of understanding itself as directly at risk from irresponsible corporate activities and government indifference. It is fundamentally defenceless against polluters, junk food marketers, community dislocation, and other threats to human integrity.
In a wider political frame, the history of the 20th Century shows that a genetic determinist society is also vulnerable to fascists, racists, dictators, and warmongers. All this too is the product of a century and a half of the manipulation of biological science.
Is it too strong to argue this? I do not think so. Consider, as a case study, Adolf Eichmann and the transportation of the Jews to the death camps during the second world war. The world mostly blamed Eichmann personally and Israel executed him. Hannah Arendt, however, famously attributed his crimes to a mystical “banality of evil”.
They were all wrong. Adolf Eichmann and his superiors were following the dictates, as they saw them, of science and genetics. Jews were, to them, a genetic problem of racial purity and the only solution to a genetic problem is extermination and the prevention of reproduction (see especially The War Against the Jews: 1933-194). Given the premises, the final solution was perfectly logical.
But the perfectly logical question for us (and the subject of The Meaning of Life Part II) is, why does hardly anyone see this? Why is it so hard to critique or challenge genetics? Not only do we attribute to genes a wholly unwarranted privileged level of causation in biology, we also give them a privileged level of discourse in society. The dominance of genetics is thus a phenomenon that does not originate in science.
In the last essay of this series I will elaborate on this by proposing a novel theory to explain the fascination of our society for genetic determinism and master molecules. This theory explains the iconic status and scientific attraction of DNA in terms of its metaphysical role as a representative of the universe. Like that other representative of the universe, the Judaeo-Christian God, DNA confers the properties of leadership and authority on disorderly nature. DNA, as the true meaning of life, thus legitimates authority in our scientific society. Therefore, the historical actors, such as the Rockefeller Foundation, who helped create this role for DNA, were, just like everyone else, in thrall to forces they didn’t fully understand.
This theory has quite a few important implications. It suggests that ever since genetic determinism became established in the public mind, that Western societies have become locked into a downward spiral of authoritarian politics and genetic determinist thought. This spiral is already imperilling the functioning of democracy. Unhalted, it may extinguish democratic values entirely. More optimistically, the theory offers a conceptually simple way to reverse the spiral. That way rests on pointing out that all organisms are systems and not dictatorships. It becomes necessary, for the very survival of democratic society, to confront these habits of genetic determinist thinking which, after all, have no basis in reality.
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This essay originally appeared on Independent Science News.