Comments: After The Observer made headline news on February 11th of the revelation that the Human Genome Project had ascertained that there were only 35,000 genes in the human genome (which was considerably less than had previously been thought and has since been reduced to 20,000) there was considerable discussion in broadsheet newspapers and on Radio 4 about the implications, bringing the Nature v. Nurture debate back to the fore. I wrote the following letter to The Observer, but it was not published.
Your front-page report (of Feb 11) of the scientific ‘discovery’ that there are not enough exclusive genes to cause even the differences between species (let alone within them) has inadvertently highlighted one of the major semantic problems to have beset science in the last century. Since the early 20th century, when Wilhelm Friedrich Johanssen coined the term ‘gene’ to mean the material unit of biological inheritance, the word ‘genetic’ has come to mean both ‘inherited’ and ‘contained in the genes’. This has suited the neo-Darwinian scientific Establishment who have always regarded genes as the only determinants of inheritable characteristics. Consequently, the perennial nature vs. nurture debate has become translated as Genes vs. Environment. At long last, that is all changing.
In the light of the inevitable realization that genes are only determinants of chemical – and hence medical – abilities, and probably not of morphological and behavioural characteristics, rather than swing full pendulum into the environmental bandwagon, which is equally inadequate in explaining the mass of evidence for the inheritable differences between and within species, would it not be more profitable for science to acknowledge that there may be other modes of biological inheritance besides ‘through the genes’? Within the gestation and growth of the individual organism, nurture cannot possibly account for morphological and behavioural characteristics. For nurture to be responsible for the evolution of species, it has to be accumulative, which means the much-derided central tenet of Lamarckism – the inheritance of acquired characteristics – is the only serious solution.
There has never been a shred of philosophically-rigorous evidence against the inheritance of acquired characteristics, and there have always been mountains of empirical evidence in its favour, including in recent years the phenomenon of second-generation Thalidomide symptoms. Even Darwin believed in it. Yet scientifically-trained dissidents such as Rupert Sheldrake and myself have been bashing our heads against a brick wall trying to get the neo-Darwinian Establishment to regard what Lamarck ‘took for granted’ as anything other than ridiculous or even ‘pernicious’, simply because it is inexplicable within an outmoded 19th century Materialist paradigm. It was the focusing on material genes that led evolutionary scientists into a philosophical cul-de-sac, as we are now going to realize. It is non-material communication which is the key to characteristics and hence evolution. In these days when instant global communication has come to dominate our lives, is it really too much to ask that science wakes up to the fact that just because communication is undetectable doesn’t mean it isn’t happening.
Continue to 2003