The 'gene' for Jedi knights? The 'new genetics' and social stratification
In the recent Star Wars film The Phantom Menace, a Jedi Knight (guardian of peace and justice in the galaxy) takes blood from a nine year old boy, Anakin Skywalker. Without Anakin's knowledge, the blood sample is analysed and the 'midi-chlorian' count is found to be off the scale indicating his potential to become a great Jedi Knight. Midi-chlorians, we are told, are tiny life forms which reside in the cells of all living creatures and which, in some mysterious way, inform people of the will of the 'Force' (a mystical energy field); without them, life cannot exist. Later in the film, reference is made to the boy's advanced age as an obstacle in training him, which suggests that a screening programme operates. Is this the equivalent of discovering the 'gene' for Jedi Knights?
All visions of the future are shaped by the time in which they are created. The Phantom Menace reflects the way that recent advances in molecular genetics are popularly represented in the late 1990s. From the earlier films, released in Britain between 1977 and 1983, we know that Anakin's children, Luke and Leia, also have his aptitude for the 'Force'. However, the notion that these powers are somehow inherited through the cells of the body is a very different proposition. The film also reflects the way in which an elite justifies and maintains its position over less powerful sections of society. The Jedi have the technology to reproduce themselves; children with the potential to become Jedi Knights are usually identified within six months of birth. The ethical concerns associated with testing children and the idea of informed consent do not appear to concern this group. Powerful elites in our world have also used scientific theories (including genetics) to attempt to justify their position at the top of society.
The 'new genetics' have caught the popular imagination and barely a week passes without reports of the discovery of a new gene which influences, or supposedly even determines, behaviour. Recent examples, reported both in the tabloids and the broadsheets, include the gene for luck (Casey, 1998) religiosity (Irwin and Highfield, 1998) and laziness (Denholm, 1999). Theories about the biological basis of intelligence, homosexuality, alcoholism and criminality are not new, but have been given renewed legitimacy with these discoveries. Some scientists have made it clear that genes do not directly cause behaviour (Anderson, 1994) and have warned against assuming that familial behavioural traits are necessarily genetic (McGuffin and Martin, 1999). However, the simple message often taken from press reports is that 'it's all in the genes' and that a whole host of personality and behavioural factors are pre-determined. It follows that those with the 'right' genes will do well in life, and those with the 'wrong' genes will not. For some, it is only a small step before we are back to the old argument that social stratification is a reflection of the 'natural' order of things.
Duster (1994) argues that scientific theories have often been used, or have been appropriated, to explain 'trouble at the bottom (and) virtue at the top, by reference to the properties of individuals' (p. 132). He shows how social Darwinism influenced human population genetics. At the turn of the century, Francis Galton (the 'father' of human population genetics) and Karl Pearson (known today for his correlation co-efficient) were searching for evidence that class differences could be explained by genetics. The direction of scientific enquiry was clearly shaped by their ideology; they were searching explicitly for evidence to explain the 'social evolution of select sub-populations to the top of the social and economic order' (Duster, 1994, p. 136). Galton, who founded the Eugenics movement, also suggested limiting the reproduction of the lowest classes of society (Thom and Jennings, 1996).
Scientific theories have been used to legitimate stratification by gender and ethnicity, as well as by class. Throughout this century, culturally loaded IQ tests have been used to account for ethnic social stratification (Ferguson, 1994, Gould, 1996). Inequalities between men and women (in both the public and private spheres) were represented by social Darwinists as biologically determined, and thus natural and unchangeable, rather than influenced by social structures. As recently as the 1970s, the sexual 'double standard' was justified in terms of strategies that were most adaptive for males and females in order to ensure the survival of their genetic material. Male animals (including men) sought to sow their seed widely, while female animals needed to find a protector while they were pregnant. Men were portrayed as 'naturally' sexually promiscuous and women as 'naturally' monogamous. Because biology was equated with destiny, women's innate 'maternal instinct' made them best suited to care for children; 'like any other mammal, (women are) emotionally programmed to be responsive to the growing child' (Tiger and Fox, 1974). This simple equation of animals and humans ignores the role of culture and the gendered power relations within society.
Recent media reports of the 'new genetics' still draw on these implicit assumptions about 'natural' gender roles, and generalise results from animals to humans. A report in Nature noted that one type of male vole was 'highly affiliative, bi-parental and monogamous' while another was 'relatively asocial, non-paternal and promiscuous' and the authors isolated a difference in brain receptors. When a transgenic mouse was created using this single gene from the 'monogamous' vole, its 'affiliative' behaviour was increased in comparison to non-transgenic mice (Young et al., 1999). This research was represented in a Scottish broadsheet newspaper as discovering 'a gene that can turn men from two-timing rats into caring, faithful mates' (MacDermid, 1999). Similarly, the notion of an innate, universal maternal instinct is still present. Research on pregnant mice was generalised to women in order to suggest that 'the secret of good motherhood ...is all in the genes' (Johnstone, 1998). In contrast, sociological research suggests that 'maternal instinct' is at least partially socially constructed. Macintyre (1976) argued in the 1970s that medical professionals assumed that child-bearing was normal and desirable for married women and that the loss of a baby would result in instinctive deep distress and grief. In contrast, child bearing for single women was abnormal and problematic. Thus, this 'inbuilt instinct' varied according to norms influenced by social institutions.
To return to the world of Star Wars, because The Phantom Menace is a prequel and so is meant to take place before the other films, we know that destiny is not implacable. Despite the best efforts of the Jedi, Anakin Skywalker will grow up to become the evil Darth Vador. His genetic profile may indicate his vast powers, but how he uses them, as always, is also influenced by the social world. Shakespeare (1997) argues that "whether we are interested in crime, gender, sexuality, class or race, 'Back to Basics Biology' explains social phenomena with new stories, which are in fact often the old victim-blaming narratives". Why worry about the under-representation of certain groups in positions of power if their absence is due to innate deficiencies (Gould, 1996)? We need to pay attention to and engage with biological determinism and be aware of whose interest, if any, they are serving, particularly as the recurrence of interest in these theories often coincides with social dislocation or political retrenchment.
I would particularly like to thank Iain Lowson and Lisa Schwartz for invaluable assistance in their specialist areas (Star Wars and Ethics respectively). Thanks also to Kate Hunt, Sally Macintyre and Rich Mitchell for their helpful comments.
For further information about The Phantom Menace see http://www.starwars.com/episode-i/features/intro/
Anderson, B. E. (1994), 'Genes, behavior, and responsibility: research perspectives', in The Genetic Frontier, (Eds. Frankel, M. S. and Teich, A.), pp. 105-130, AAAS: Washington.
Casey, J. (1998), 'So, were YOU born lucky?', in the Daily Mail, 22 January.
Denholm, A. (1999), 'Scientists out to prove people are born lazy', in The Scotsman, 25 August.
Duster, T. (1994), 'Human genetics, evolutionary theory, and social stratification', in The Genetic Frontier, (Eds. Frankel, M. S. and Teich, A.), pp. 131-153, AAS: Washington.
Ferguson, E. (1994), 'Authors inherit storm over racial IQ claims', in Scotland on Sunday, 23 October.
Gould, S. J. (1996), The Mismeasure of Man, Penguin: London.
Irwin, A. and Highfield, R. (1998), 'So is God any good for us?', in The Telegraph, 16 July.
Johnstone, A. (1998), 'Dads make the best mums', in The Herald, 30 September.
MacDermid, A. (1999), 'Voles to replace errant husbands', in The Herald, 19 August.
Macintyre, S. (1976), 'Who wants babies?' The social construction of 'instincts', in Sexual Divisions and Society (Eds. Barker, D. L. and Allen, S.), pp. 150-173, Tavistock Publications: London.
McGuffin, P. and Martin, N. (1999), 'Behaviour and genes', BMJ, 319, pp. 37-40.
Shakespeare, T. (1997), 'Social genetics - a polemical issue', in Network. Newsletter of the British Sociological Association, Vol. 68, pp. 32.
Thom, D. and Jennings, M. (1996), 'Human pedigree and the 'best stock': from eugenics to genetics?', in The troubled helix: social and psychological implications of the new human genetics, (Eds. Marteau, T. and Richards, M.), pp. 211-234, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.
Tiger, L. and Fox, R. (1974), The Imperial Animal, Paladin: London.
Young, L. J., Nilsen, R., Waymire, K. G., MacGregor, G. R. and Insel, T. R. (1999), 'Increased affiliative response to vasopressin in mice expressing the V1a receptor from a monogamous vole', Nature, 400, pp. 766-768.
Dr Carol Emslie