Heredity to Heresy – the discovery of the Gene

On November 24th 1859 Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species, a now near-biblical text that would redefine pre-existing beliefs, scrap the notion of Nature’s providence to mankind and punt humanity out of the center spot of creation. Darwin’s theory of natural selection irrevocably changed our perception of natural history, a seminal work that was to radicalize the scientific thought of the coming century.

 

The book stoked criticism from readers who were not ready to have their depiction of natural history grossly subverted. On both religious and societal convictions, the idea that Man was merely a transmuted ape was profane to the point of heresy. However, the book’s criticism was not exclusive to those whose religious convictions were dismantled, albeit carefully and considerately. As Darwin himself knew, the book contained an overarching flaw. To quote Darwin himself – ‘One’s imagination must fill up very wide blanks’.

 

the idea that Man was merely a transmuted ape was profane to the point of heresy

 

Origin required a robust theory and mechanism of inheritance whereby characteristics that arose in a population would be transferred, without dilution, from parent to child. Darwin needed to discover the currency of natural selection, the process by which living things change over time – mutation and inheritance. Yet he was no experimentalist, he was of course the artisan observer, master of deduction and intrepid explorer. As most pervasive issues were solved at the time, up steps an Augustine monk, a dab-handed gardener and distinctly unqualified scientist, Gregor Mendel.

 

 

Mendel noted the bizarre patterns of change that occurred over generations of hybridizing pea plants. In the tedious crossing of strains with distinct characteristics, he gradually noted a pattern of ‘dominant’ and ‘recessive’ traits, now stalwarts of our genetic lexicon. In 1865, having not read Darwin’s work, Mendel’s tinkering in the garden was published – apparently an ugly and numerically vertigo-inducing work that would have given any statistician a run for their money. What was unknown to the community was that this discovery, when simply paired with Darwin’s work would shape the next few centuries of Science.

 

Yet, during the few decades after its publication, the two theories were yet to be merged, producing ‘one of the strangest silences in the history of biology’ – a bizarre neglect, as Mendel’s paper was only cited four times between 1866 and 1900, very different from the uproar received by Origin. If some genius had only invented online journals the two could have simply exchanged ideas, or harnessed the brainpower of the population to solve the issue, but such is history.

 

 

What Mendel had discovered was the missing component to Darwinian theory, the biological unit – the gene. Just as chemists use molecules, physicists atoms, the least divisible component of Biology is the gene.

 

 

William Bateson, an English Biologist, invented the term ‘gene’ in 1905. Whilst Bateson became aware of the nature of all life from the production of genes, genesis, he was also aware of the implications of the discovery when placed in his understanding of the nature of Man. Mendel and Darwin did not envisage the eclipsing turn of the moral dark-age that was to follow.

 

‘If genes were, indeed, independent particles of information, then it should be possible to select, purify and manipulate these particles independently from one another’. Bateson was aware that ‘when power is discovered, man always turns to it’.

 

The power that Bateson was referring to was the basis of the Nazi Party and Social Darwinism. Ethnic and Social cleansing were facilitated by the understanding of heredity and inheritance, and although now used positively within our globalized medical infrastructure, genes were not initially a pretty discovery.

 

‘Improved environment and education may better the generation already born. Improved blood will better every generation to come’ – Herbert Walter, Genetics.

 

A stark contrast – ‘If we enable the weak and the deformed to live and to propagate their kind, we face the prospect of a genetic twilight. But if we let them die or suffer when we can save or help them, we face the certainty of a moral twilight’ – Theodosius Grigorievich Dobzhansky, Heredity and the Nature of Man.

 

 

By implementing the strategy of Eugenics, the discovery of the gene cued the process of social cleansing, giving tyrannical ideologies the tools with which to craft utopian, sordid and unforgiving societies. As we sit on the cusp of a new moral paradigm in genetics, as our powers of genetic manipulation reach unprecedented echelons in CRISPR, in genome editing tools, we should reflect on the danger of misinterpretation, and use the faults of history to shape the morality of our futures.