Friday, November 14, 2014

Revision 2

Brooke Kihle

Professor Johns

Seminar in Composition


Genetic Determinism is Incomplete

            Imagine specific characteristics that make you who you are singularly determined by your genome. The reason you like to listen to music before going to bed, or why you don’t have a desire to kill someone, or your hair color all specific genes woven together into your DNA, a combination of nucleotides creating an individual’s genome. This is the theory of genetic determinism; that we have no choice in our genome and that our inherited genes are the sole representation of who we are as a human.  However, with support of modern research such as the BRCA1 breast cancer predisposition and PKU inheritance as well as Lewontin’s theories in Biology as an Ideology genetic determinism is proven to be incomplete. There are environmental factors that also contribute to a human’s phenotype as well as genotype variation that complicates specific genetic inheritance. In, Lilith’s Brood, Butler shows the Oankali’s inaccuracies of the current human generation and through their misunderstandings tries to prove to the reader this misconception of genetic determinism. Butler uses the Oankali to illustrate the errors/limitations in contemporary science which is shown by scientist like Lewontin and modern research to try to imagine a better way.

            First, it’s important to understand the science behind the theory of genetic determinism. In Biology as an Ideology, Lewontin explains the foundation of this theory; that “organisms are nothing but the battle ground between the outside forces and the inside forces. Organisms are the passive consequences of external and internal activities beyond their control” (Lewontin109). Genetic determinist believe we have no control over nature, no control over our genetically inherited DNA that will ultimately create our phenotype. This view states that we are separate from the outside world- the environment- and only interact but not influenced by such environmental factors. Therefore, we as individuals, are created by the “inside” forces our genotypes and explicitly separate from the “outside” forces that create our environment.

            However, there’s an argument to this theory that starts the conflict between “nature” and “nurture”. Where genetic determinist believe solely “nature” determines our make-up others view “nurture” or the environment plays a significant part in transforming who we are. Lewontin believes both “nature” and “nurture” combined create our phenotype. This is the theory that genetic determinism is incomplete because both our genome and environmental factors contribute to create our overall phenotype and human characteristics. Picture it this way, when someone goes on trial, they present a case, explain the situation and then a jury votes on what their punishment is. Let’s say a man killed his father (dramatic I know but I promise I’m trying to prove a point) and the lawyer presented his case stating this man had a family history of bipolar disorder and his dad abused him as a child; which factors would influence the jury’s decision on his sentence? Both the man’s possible inheritance of bipolar disorder and traumatic childhood and emotional instability with his father contribute into motives for reasons he killed his father. Now, of course this doesn’t make what he did right I’m simply stating you can’t ignore one factor from another they both create who the man is. This is why genetic determinism is incomplete because we as juries, as individuals, are made of both these genomic and environmental influences. In, Biology as Ideology, Lewontin summarizes this theory stating, “History far transcends any narrow limitations that are claimed for either the power of genes or the power of the environment to circumscribe us. Like the House of Lords that destroyed its own power to limit the political development of Britain in the successive Reform Acts to which assented, so the genes, in making possible the development of human consciousness, have surrendered their power both to determine the individual and its environment” (Lewontin 123).

            Lewontin isn’t the only scientist to support this theory of both environmental and genetic influence of our phenotype. “An individual’s phenotype is often as much a product of the environment as it is a product of the genotype” (Freeman, Quillan, & Allison 273). One example of environmental influence is seen through the genetically inherited disease phenylketonuria (PKU) which causes individuals to enzymatically convert phenylalanine to tyrosine. This results in an accumulation of phenylpyruvic acid causing mental retardation. However, an individual who inherits this disease isn’t predetermined to have mental retardation; newborns can be tested for the disease and if identified early and placed on a low phenylalanine diet can develop normally. Thus individuals treated with PKU but develop into healthy adults prove that those with certain genetic disease are neither predetermined to their disease’s symptoms nor singularly controlled by their genes. This is also shown through BRCA1 inheritance; BRCA1 is a genetically inherited predisposition to breast cancer. This mutation gives anyone with the defected gene a 60-90% of developing breast cancer. However, having BRCA1 does not guarantee you will have breast cancer. There are also possible solutions to curing an individual with the cancer or avoiding the possibility of getting breast cancer altogether through surgical procedures like a mastectomy- surgical removal of the entire breast tissue. Both these genetically inherited diseases represent how incomplete genetic determinism is; that individuals are controlled by both their genotype as well as environmental factors which ultimately molds our phenotype.

            With any scientific theory there’s opposition, in this case those who believe genetic determinism is complete. This theory correlates with the Oankali’s belief that they can genetically predetermine a hybrid human-Oankali offspring. The Oankali may be an alien species but their thought process isn’t too far from earth, many contemporary scientist follow the theory of genetic determinism with projects like the Human Genome Project (HGP). “HGP researchers have deciphered the human genome in three major ways: determining the order, or "sequence," of all the bases in our genome's DNA; making maps that show the locations of genes for major sections of all our chromosomes; and producing what are called linkage maps, complex versions of the type originated in early Drosophilaresearch, through which inherited traits (such as those for genetic disease) can be tracked over generations.” (National Human Genome Research Institution). The theory behind the HGP is to have a mapping of the human genome a “blueprint”. It’s believed that you can map a disease on a chromosome and thus based off this “blueprint” if an individual has the same mutation on the same spot on the same chromosome they have this disease, basically predetermining what every human’s DNA will inevitably be. The Oankali use this same theory when “producing” offspring. They believe to have a system or blueprint they use to predetermine the hybrid generation. However, based off of scientific research like that of BRCA1 and PKU diseases we understand that such blueprints are inaccurate because they lack significant environmental factors that contribute to a human’s genomes. The Oankali’s in Lilith’s Brood represent modern scientists and their misconceptions of genetic determinism. Such projects like the HGP and Oankali’s “trading” to create a predetermined hybrid generation are limited because they do not account for other factors like the environment that are just as important as genetics when creating a human’s genomes.

             The Oankali’s inaccuracies are subtly shown throughout Lilith’s Brood. “We used to treat animals that way, we did things to them inoculations, surgery, and isolation- all for their own good. It scares me to have people doing things to me that I don’t understand” (Butler 33). The Oankali do not account for psychological factors that greatly effect Lilith during her entrapment. “You shouldn’t have isolated any of us unless your purpose was to drive us insane. You almost succeeded with me more than once. Humans need one another” (Butler 19). The Oankali do not understand emotionally and psychological aspects of humanity which limits them in their power to create and reproduce using our genes. The Oankali’s ignorance can be seen as metaphor for modern scientists own ignorance with genetics. The HGP has great consequences if modern scientist truly do believe in genetic determinism. The general knowledge of an individuals’ genome can be used against them, for example if someone is shown to have a gene of Huntington’s disease and this information is given out as public knowledge it will put the individual at a disadvantage limiting them to get good health care or a stable job because who wants to invest on someone who eventually won’t be able to control their own body (it’s a cruel world)? However, Butler does the very opposite of what the Oankali and genetic determinist eventually do to themselves; instead of loss of hope she instills it by using the Oankali’s to illustrate modern scientists’ inaccuracies and try to imagine a better way. The Oankali are a metaphor for modern genetic determinist, where the Oankali misread human traits so do genetic determinist. Both do not contribute in emotional, environment, psychological significant factors that make a human’s overall phenotype. Where the Oankali fail thus the genetic determinists fail. However, Butler uses the Oankali’s failure as inspiration for scientific prosper. Butler instills hope seen through Lilith’s own hope and the other humans who have survived that there is chance of improvement. Lilith portrays the image of hope for modern science. Her aspirations for humanity to grow are aspirations of society for modern science to grow. Lilith believes in this incompleteness- hope for the Oankali to fail and humanity to grow. Lewontin supports Lilith because Lewontin supports the misconception of genetic determinism. Butler uses the Oankali’s incompleteness and Lilith’s hope to portray a clear image to society: modern science, genetic determinism, is incomplete but these inaccuracies and limitations of modern science teach them there’s opportunity for better ways, better techniques and inevitably better science. “Perhaps they could find an answer to what the Oankali had done to them. And perhaps the Oankali were not perfect. A few fertile people might slip through and find one another. Perhaps learn and run! If she were lost, others did not have to be. Humanity did not have to be” (Butler 248).

            In conclusion, there are many beliefs as to what determines a human. The questions of what makes up our phenotype- our sense of style, problem solving skills and skin tone is constantly debated over science history. Many modern scientist like those creating the HGP believe in genetic determinism- that are genome is solely predetermined by our genetic inheritance. However, there is sound research like that of BRCA1 and PKU inherited diseases that prove this cannot be true. Environmental factors have such a significant role in what creates a human’s phenotype a simple conclusion has to be made- genetic determinism is incomplete. In Lilith’s Brood Butler uses the Oankali’s inaccuracies and misconceptions to portray the limitations of contemporary scientists. Lilith through her own hope instills to the reader hope for improvement, better means of contemporary science.



Works Cited:

Butler, Octavia E. Dawn. New York: Integrated Media, n.d. Web

Freeman, Scott, et al. "Gene Structure and Expression." Biological Science. 5th
     ed. New Jersey: Parson Education Company, 2014. 237-304. Print.

Lewontin, R.C. Biology as Ideology. New York: HarperCollins Publishers; 1991. Print.

"An Overview of the Human Genome Project." National Human Genome Research
     Institute. N.p., n.d. Web. 14 Nov. 2014. <>.

1 comment:

  1. The intro is a large improvement. It’s still mechanically a mess, which needed a good proofreading or two, but the ideas are all there, and the thesis is coming together, even if it, too, could have used a little more polish.

    Your 2nd & 3rd paragraphs did need more polish too, but they’re probably your smartest, most focused work of the semester so far. I liked your hypothetical murderer in relationship with Lewontin’s discussion of the house of lords. It could have been taken a little farther (note that we might further point out that his bipolar disorder is likely exacerbated by his bad family background, and that he may have been abused in part because his father likely was also mentally ill), but I like what you have.

    The rest of the essay is, again, your best sustained work. Your discussion of RCA1 & PKU is good, and of an appropriate length. You relate it well to Butler and the HGP, and given that you are trying to juggle several interrelated topics, I think your reading of Butler on the incompleteness of Oanakali knowledge was exceptionally good. This is a reading that could have been productively extended (and challenged) through a discussion for eh other two books, which goes to show that it has merit. What impressed me most, though, is the way that everything interrelated - you were good at exploring the interconnections among Butler, Lewontin, and your example genetic (or indirectly/partially genetic, really - that’s part of your point) conditions.

    This is definitely your best work. I do need to say, though, that your proofreading was downright terrible. You need to work on that. Loop in a friend, take it to the writing center, let it sit for a couple hours and then read it through again yourself - regardless of how you do it, you want to avoid making this many basic mechanical errors in the future.


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