Instinct is no excuse

Fri 07 Oct 2016

For years I have been worried about the trend to use genetics or evolution to explain everything about human beings and their societies. Now, I believe strongly in the body — that is, in biology as a significant part of culture, and vice versa. And I believe as strongly in evolution. No, belief is not the right word. One needs to believe in Adam and Eve. One does not need to believe in evolution: opening one’s eyes and mind would suffice.

So that is not my problem. My problem is with the way genetics and, once again, Darwinism is used in certain circles.

Genes and traits

The misuse of genetics is easier to explain as it happens all the time in the media. Remember all those reports on the ‘discovery’ of a gene for criminality, cancer, blondeness, etc.? It is an unholy mix, and often at a wicked slant to the complex truth.

While sometimes a specific gene is responsible for a particular, usually very limited, trait — such as some cancers — usually complex traits involve a number of genes. Moreover, the same genes can be responsible for different traits. Finally, just because one has a gene for ‘something,’ it does not mean that one will develop that trait.

All this is not necessarily coming from the reactionary Right. For instance, the Left has foregrounded the biological and genetic grounding of sexuality to fight for good causes like transgender rights. However, even here one can run the danger of essentialising, because while alternative sexualities have biological roots, they do not depend solely on them. Biology is an important part of the social, cultural and personal lives of human beings, but it is seldom exhaustive or unilateral.

In his excellent book, The Gene: An Intimate History , Siddhartha Mukherjee illustrates that, at a general level, “history, society and culture collide and intersect with genetics, like tides. Some waves cancel each other, while others reinforce each other. No force is particularly strong — but their combined effect produces the rippled landscape that we call an individual’s identity.”

What the common discourse about genes and inheritance does is simple: it turns complexity into compulsion. It suggests that we are the way we are solely due to deeply ingrained and directly operational biological factors.

Some recent uses of Darwinism point in that direction too. One example would be the recent trend of literary Darwinism. This is a useful sub-category of literary criticism: for instance, it makes sense to point out that horror fiction appeals to readers partly due to evolutionary reasons, as we are afraid of things that once threatened our existence. Fangs, for instance, or snakes.

Even here, though, simplistic forays into literary Darwinism run into cultural roadblocks: for instance, we cuddle our pet cats despite their fangs, and in India snakes are not just worshipped but even given erotic dimensions (as in the myth of irresistible ‘snake women’). Moreover, to claim that human beings compose poems just as birds tweet songs is to make a valid point, but to say nothing about the poems. Unless, of course, as the best literary Darwinists do, one factors in the evolution of the human mind, and this can hardly be done, as Mr. Mukherjee illustrates even with reference to something so obviously biological as sexuality, without factoring in history, society and culture at an equivalent level.

As is the case with some of the misuse of ‘genes’, literary Darwinism is not just a ‘rightist’ trend: for instance, its most militant proponents in American academia seem to be reacting to Christian fundamentalism by espousing Darwinian evolution. And yet, whether from the Left or the Right, literary Darwinism can be too easily be reduced to a version of compulsion: we are the way we are because of evolutionary biological factors which explain away culture and society, and are not essentially modified or changed by them.

This privileging of compulsion is not something restricted to the media or to soft humanities dons desperate to borrow the respectability of ‘hard science.’ Even a scientist and an excellent science writer can fall into this trap. The very title of Richard Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene serves to illustrate it. One need not quarrel with the content of that influential book, which is a scientific matter best left to scientists. I am talking of the assumptions that accrete in the title alone.

Soon after publishing his bestselling book, Mr. Dawkins said in interviews that genes can be seen as selfish or altruistic — it depends on where you are looking from. However, the title of his book was not The Altruistic Gene. It was The Selfish Gene . I would make so bold as to suggest that had the book been called The Altruistic Gene, it would not have gained a tenth of the attention it did — especially in the mainstream media.

Mark the dates. The book was published in 1976. Selfishness was becoming cool then: Ronald Reagan came to power in 1981; Margaret Thatcher in 1979.

Let alone the misleading metaphor of ‘selfhood’ attached to a bundle of chemicals in a cell, Mr. Dawkins’s book was read as suggesting biological compulsion. Selfishness defines us as human beings, the ascending neoliberals were shouting from every rooftop (and many still are) in the 1970s and 1980s. We are compelled to denude nature, pollute spaces, exploit other human beings, accumulate vast wealth in the midst of extreme poverty, etc. — because we are, ah, compulsively selfish. That was not exactly what Mr. Dawkins said in the book — his metaphor of ‘selfishness’ was different if deeply flawed — but that is how he was read, and that is the main reason it became such a bestseller.

Compulsion as freedom

The Korean-German philosopher, Byung-Chul Han, notes in a recent book, Psychopolitik (not available in English yet), that neoliberalism is distinguished by its rhetoric of compulsion as freedom. By turning the worker into a kind of solitary entrepreneur, neoliberalism has tied us to relentless, compulsive productivity. But even at a simpler level, I can argue that we are being compelled by neoliberal thinking to sell our labour, work extra, consume, obey the ‘logic of the market,’ and so on — all in the name of our freedom. In short, neoliberalism confuses freedom with its exact opposite, compulsion.

It is this logic that is sustained by the return to a fetishisation of instincts in the media discourse of ‘genes’ and related matters, even when, as is the case with literary Darwinism, the intention is something else. Once accepted, this logic enthrones neoliberalism; it also justifies a lot of injustice and exploitation. After all, we are just being compelled by our instincts, no? We can ‘honestly’ accept that and belittle our opponents, pollute the earth, be sexist or racist, tell blatant lies, etc. without, like Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, ever being considered dishonest in such circles.

TabishKhair is an Indian novelist and academic who teaches in Denmark.


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