• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

Women Versus the Biologists

Exploding the Gene Myth: How Genetic Information is Produced and Manipulated by Scientists, Physicians, Employers, Insurance Companies, Educators, and Law Enforcers

by Ruth Hubbard, by Elijah Wald
Beacon, 206 pp., $12.00 (paperback to be published in July) (paper)

Women’s Nature: Rationalizations of Inequality

by Marian Lowe, by Ruth Hubbard
Pergamon Press/Teachers College Press, 155 pp., $19.95 (paper)

Genes and Gender: II, Pitfalls in Research on Sexual Gender

edited by Ruth Hubbard, edited by Marian Lowe
Gordian Press, 154 pp., $10.00 (paper)

The Politics of Women’s Biology

by Ruth Hubbard
Rutgers University Press, 229 pp., $12.95 (paper)

The Shape of Red: Insider/Outsider Reflections

by Ruth Hubbard, by Margaret Randall
Cleis Press, 206 pp., $9.95 (paper)


The central social agony of American political and social life since the founding of the Republic has been caused by the problem of equality. Our domestic political history has been dominated by the demand for equality and the resistance to that demand. A destructive civil war, urban riots, the burning of cities, major legislation and judicial struggles, and the local social and political structures of a large section of the United States have all, at least at the level of public consciousness, been responses to the manifest inequality of status, wealth, and power in a society whose chief claim to legitimacy has been its devotion to equality.

Western history had, of course, always been marked by civil wars, peasant uprisings, rick burnings, machine breakings, and urban riots, but these were in the name of bread, land, and work. The demand for social and political equality was a creation of the ideologues of modern society. Both in Europe and North America, the bourgeois revolutions of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, which overthrew the ancien régime of restricted privilege, were based on the slogans of liberté, égalité, fraternité. “All men are created equal, and they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.”

These are the slogans of our childhood, the unquestioned assertion of the basis of our political and civil life. Yet the facts of that life are in direct contradiction with the ideology. It is obvious to everyone, no matter how optimistic their politics, that there are immense inequalities of social status, power, and wealth among individuals, among races, between the sexes. While Jefferson could not have meant what he said about all men being created equal, since a mere ten years later the framers of the Constitution arranged that slaves would be counted as only three-fifths a person, he meant literally all men since the political rights of women were not established for another 130 years.

The social tension created by the contradiction between the ideals of equality and the manifest existing inequalities has been, in part, relieved by institutional and judicial arrangements. Constitutional amendments, Supreme Court decisions, civil rights legislation have all been devoted to creating a better fit between the ideal and the real. Yet major inequalities remain, and it does not seem that further judicial and institutional changes of a radical kind will be accomplished. The movement for women’s rights, in particular, is stalled and even reversed, with the Equal Rights Amendment no longer a political issue and abortion rights in at least partial retreat. What is the solution? The Enlightenment, having created the problem in the first place by the claim for individual rights, also provided a tool for legitimizing inequality through its implied claims that the individual is supremely responsible for causing the unequal situation he or she occupies.

Accompanying the static and unchanging social position in which pre-revolutionary Europeans found themselves was the view that divine causation provided legitimacy to hierarchal society. The doctrine of Grace was the guarantor of social stability and only on those occasions when Divine Grace was conferred or withdrawn could one expect to change one’s social position. (Cromwell observed that although Charles I ruled Dei Gratia, grace had been removed from him as evidenced by his severed head.) In the postrevolutionary world, individuals are said to acquire their position in society by their own efforts, and these efforts must be effective if the society built on them is to be legitimate. Individuals are ontologically prior to the collectivity in this world view, and so the properties of society are simply the accumulated consequences of the properties of individuals. Whether it be Hobbes’s derivation of the war of all against all from the self-expansive properties of individuals in a world of limited resources, or Weber’s view of the supreme importance to human institutions of outstanding leaders like Bismarck, or Durkheim’s notion of the collective mind of society, the properties of the individual human being become, for modern social theory, the determinant of social relations. “Natural rights for natural men” has replaced “Dieu et mon Droit.”

If, despite our best institutional efforts to destroy artificial barriers to entry, blacks as a group continue to have lower social and economic status than whites, then we must look into the properties of blacks as individuals for the causes of that inequality. If women lack power, it must be that women are the weaker sex. But if the properties of society are the properties of individuals writ large, then the study of society must become the study of individuals, for social causes are, ultimately, individual causes. To understand the origin and maintenance of social structures, we must, in this view, understand the ontogeny of individuals. Thus political economy becomes applied biology. Economics becomes the study of consumer psychology, worker incentives, and investor behavior, of individual utilities in two-person, zero-sum games.

The first serious “scientific” study of the internal biological causes of social position was Cesare Lombroso’s late nineteenth-century criminal anthropology, which claimed that criminals were born and not made. This theory of innate criminality, updated to implicate faulty DNA, has a modern current and, indeed, is taught at Harvard. There has been, since Lombroso, a major intellectual industry tracing the causes of social inequality between classes, races, and the sexes. A vast literature has been created and, in reaction, a smaller group of debunking critics of biological determinism has emerged1 in what those of us involved liken to the work of a volunteer fire department. No sooner has one blaze set by intellectual incendiaries been doused by the cool stream of critical reason, then another springs up down the street.

There is, at present, no aspect of social or individual life that is not claimed for the genes. Richard Dawkins’s2 claim that the genes “make us, body and mind” seemed the hyperbolic excess of a vulgar understanding in 1976, but it is now the unexamined consensus of intellectual consciousness propagated by journalists and scientists alike. The belief in the absolute primacy of the internal over the external is nowhere more manifest than in the demands of the biological parents of Jessica DeBoer and Kimberly Mays to assert their genetic rights over the lives of their children who had been raised by others. Every physical, psychic, or social ill, every perturbation of the body corporeal or politic is said to be genetic. There are, according to “scientific studies,” genes for schizophrenia, genes for sensitivity to industrial pollutants and dangerous workplace conditions, genes for criminality, genes for violence, genes for divorce, and genes for homelessness. While there have been a few essays and reviews questioning this genomania or at least considering its claims with some measure of skepticism,3 there has been no generally critical book on the diverse claims for the power of DNA until the appearance of Exploding the Gene Myth by Ruth Hubbard and her son, Elijah Wald, who provided the rhetorical skills to supplement Hubbard’s biological expertise.

Past books on eugenics or on biological determinism in general have discussed the claims historically and ideologically, attempting to explain the rise in biologistic explanations as political and ideological phenomena, but expending little effort on exposing the biological issues themselves. Exploding the Gene Myth puts to one side these political and ideological forces and concentrates on describing the “gene myth,” providing an accessible account of what is really known about the relevant biology of reproduction, and discussing the social and legal consequences of the reliance on genetic explanations and causes.

Exploding the Gene Myth begins with a brief survey of how claims about genetics and actual medical and social practice based on genetics affect our lives. The structure of the authors’ description follows the lines laid down by Daniel Kevles in his extremely influential book on the history of human genetics.4 Kevles argued convincingly that the eugenics movement, having been discredited as a movement for social improvement, largely by the extreme racism of the Nazis, was converted into human clinical genetics, whose object is not to better society as a collective, but to provide to individuals and families diagnosis, counseling, and therapies to alleviate individual suffering. By extension, diagnosis and counseling, but certainly not therapies, are provided to employers and insurers to screen out workers who are potential health risks. The explanatory model of human disorders provided by genetics is based on the claim that genes determine significant aspects of human anatomy, physiology, and behavior. Genes are said to “control,” “create,” or “determine” the physical and psychic development of individuals, because the DNA is a set of instructions to the biochemical processes of the cells that make us up.

Normal” individuals, then, have normal genes, while a very large fraction of the sick (including those with heart disease and cancer) owe their diseases to abnormal sequences of DNA. The first problem of human genetics, then, is to identify the gene “for” an abnormality, and provide a procedure for recognizing its presence in an individual. Carriers of defective heredity can then be advised on a course of preventive maintenance, or a therapy that may in the future include the actual replacement of the defective gene by a normal component, rather like the replacement of a bad steering mechanism in a manufacturer’s recall of a car. At the worst, having no therapy to offer, the geneticist can warn the carrier of defective DNA that it is time to make her will.

Hubbard and Wald attack this model at its base, by challenging the claim that genes “determine” organisms. They describe, correctly, how the development of an organism is a unique consequence of the interaction of genetic and environmental forces, and always subject to accidents of development. Nor are these accidents that we normally think of as traumata causing birth defects. They are characteristic of every individual life history, for time and chance happeneth to all. Moreover, they explain how, even in cases where genes may play a major role in the causal pathway of a disorder, the model of one gene-one disorder is far too simple. It is by no means clear that diabetes, for example, can be explained by reference to defective genes, but if it can, there must be several or even many genes implicated.

The genetic model of disease leads ineluctably to the disease model of all ills and social deviance. So genetic defects are claimed to lie at the basis of heart disease, schizophrenia, alcoholism, drug dependence, violent behavior, unconventional sex, and shoplifting. Recognizing that any common-sense consideration of these conditions implicates environmental influence, geneticists often refer to “inherited tendencies” to these conditions. Hubbard and Wald devote considerable attention to showing how little actual genetic knowledge exists for such “genetic tendencies,” and how difficult it is to obtain such knowledge, since the chief tool of investigation is the observed similarity between relatives. The central problem of human genetics is precisely that relatives resemble each other because of both genetic and cultural ties, and we do not know how to disentangle the two.

  1. 1

    See, for example, S.J. Gould, The Mismeasure of Man (Norton, 1981) which I reviewed in The New York Review, October 22, 1981, and R.C. Lewontin, S.J. Rose, and Leo Kamin, Not in Our Genes (Pantheon, 1984).

  2. 2

    Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene (Oxford University Press, 1976).

  3. 3

    See R.C. Lewontin, “The Dream of the Human Genome,” The New York Review, May 28, 1992.

  4. 4

    Daniel J. Kevles, In the Name of Eugenics: Genetics and the Uses of Human Heredity (Knopf, 1985).

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print