Seminar in Composition
Genetic Determinism is Incomplete
Imagine specific characteristics that make you who you are, singularly determined by your genome. Your openness to new things, tendency to murder, or hair color are all created from specific genes woven together into your DNA. An individual’s DNA encodes our genome, which essentially is the instructions to how we develop and function- who we are- through a combination of genes and non-coding sequences of the DNA/RNA. This theory is classified as genetic determinism; the ideology that “who we are” is predetermined by our genome. However, through modern research on genetically inherited diseases like BRCA1 (predisposition to breast cancer) and PKU (phenylketonuria) we can prove inaccuracies in modern science. Also, by understanding the limitations with current modern science like The Human Genome Project we can further understand how incomplete genetic determinism is. Lewontin’s theories in Biology as an Ideology supports genetic determinism to be incomplete. There are environmental factors that also contribute to a human’s phenotype and 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 the inaccuracies of modern science. The Oankali’s misunderstandings on genetics are metaphorically shown by Akin and Jodahs, constructs from Oankali-human hybrid breeding, and their external and internal struggle. Butler uses the Oankali, representing the faults of modern science, shown by ideals of Lewontin and scientific research which offer a more complete solution for science institutions.
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 stating, “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). This meaning genetic determinist believe our genetically inherited DNA solely creates our phenotype. This view states that we are separate from the outside world, the environment, and that we only interact but are not influenced by such environmental factors. Therefore, as individuals we are created by the “inside” forces-genotypes and explicitly separated from the “outside” forces that is our environment.
However, there’s an argument to this theory that starts the conflict between “nature” and “nurture”. Genetic determinist are cleverly deemed the “nature” side of this conflict because of their belief that we are made up by our “nature”, our genome. Consequently, the “nurture” view supports environment significance in creating individuals. Lewontin’s theories explain that “nature” and “nurture” combined create our phenotype. This supports the incompleteness of genetic determinism 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, explaining the situation and then a jury votes on their punishment. Let’s say a man killed his father (dramatic I know but I promise I’m trying to prove a point) and the lawyer presents 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, traumatic childhood and emotional instability with his father all 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 contribute to who this man is and why he killed his father. This can be brought back to explaining our phenotype, showing that as individuals we are made of both these genomic and environmental influences. 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 symbolically supports his own theory. Lewontin has bipolar disorder which was likely worsened through his abusive father. This being sad it can be assumed his father also was mentally ill. This combination of his possible genetically inherited mental illness and abusive childhood caused Lewontin to severely suffer from bipolar disorder. Both factors- his childhood and mental health contribute to Lewontin’s current state.
Other scientists support Lewontin’s theory through scientific research. “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 research on the genetically inherited disease phenylketonuria (PKU) which causes individuals to enzymatically convert phenylalanine to tyrosine. This results in an accumulation of phenylpyruvic acid which causes 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. Also, research on the BRCA1, a genetically inherited predisposition to breast cancer, proves this theory to be true. Anyone with the defected gene increases their chance of getting breast cancer by 60-90%. However, having BRCA1 does not guarantee you will have breast cancer. There are possible solutions to curing an individual with breast cancer or avoiding the possibility of getting breast cancer altogether. For example, surgical procedures like a mastectomy- surgically removing the entire breast tissue can eradicate the possibility of getting the cancer as well as literally “cutting out” the cancer of those infected. Both these genetically inherited diseases represent how incomplete genetic determinism is. The individuals are controlled by both their genotype as well as environmental factors which ultimately contributed to their phenotype.
With any scientific theory there’s opposition, in this case genetic determinist which correlates directly to 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 create a “blueprint” of the human genome with a goal to eventually use this “blueprint” and compare it to any individual’s genome. The HGP takes linkage mapping to determine if individual’s DNA has certain diseases or not. This meaning, they locate mutations on certain chromosomes for certain diseases and if the individual’s DNA has the same mutation in the same location than they have this disease. This essentially would determine every human’s genomic make-up and one could find out what disease they will inevitably acquire if not already have and other mutations and predispositions. However, this has not yet been accomplished. The HGP still has a long way before being deemed completely scientifically accurate and precise. There are many misconceptions that go with the current state of the HGP as well. An article in the New York Times, My Genome, My Self, by Steven Pinker best describes these limitations, “Our genes are a big part of what we are. But even knowing the totality of genetic predictors, there will be many things about ourselves that no genome scan — and for that matter, no demographic checklist — will ever reveal”. (citation?) Pinker was asked to participate in the project and got his genome sequenced (or as much of it as they could). Essentially the sequencing gave Pinker percentages of “who he was” like a higher chance of baldness therefore he should be bald and a low risk of prostate cancer therefore he won’t get prostate cancer in his lifetime. It is incorrect to state that the HGP is predetermining an individual’s personal and physical state because it simply can’t. Currently modern medicine and technology is nowhere near advance enough to accurately state that the HGP’s linkage mapping is correct. Even if it were, they can only give a percentage, a likely hood of the outcome of these findings. “For some conditions, like Huntington’s disease, genetic determinism is simply correct: everyone with the defective gene who lives long enough will develop the condition. But for most other traits, any influence of the genes will be probabilistic. Having a version of a gene may change the odds, making you more or less likely to have a trait, all things being equal, but as we shall see, the actual outcome depends on a tangle of other circumstances as well” (citation?). This same theory can be seen through the Oankali. The Oankali are described as having their own “blueprint” to predetermine and genetically modify a hybrid offspring population. However, this “blueprint” itself cannot possibly predetermine the outcome of the hybrid offspring. Overall this hybrid-human-Oankali population will have variations that cannot be known. 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 do contribute to a human’s genome. 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 hybrid offspring population are limited because they do not account for other factors like the environment that are just as important as genetics when creating a human.
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). They do not understand emotional and psychological aspects of humanity which limits their accuracy in reproducing with our genes. The Oankali’s ignorance is a metaphor for modern scientist’s 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 their chances of getting 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 Akin and Jodahs to show the opportunity for better science. The Oankali are a metaphor for modern genetic determinist, where the Oankali fail to account for environmental factors so do modern scientist. Akin and Jodahs are symbolic of better scientific methods that can be used in the future. Butler instills hope in the Lilith’s Brood, first through Lilith’s hope for human survival and improvement, then by Akin’s acknowledgement of human change and tolerance and finally all put together by Jodahs’ adaptability and eventual compromise with both species to form a truly hybrid generation. It’s important to understand that a true hybrid generation would not be possible without Lilith, Akin and Jodahs. Also, the Oankali were unprepared for the outcomes of Akin and Jodahs metamorphosis- their physical change into adulthood. Akin is a human-Oankali hybrid male who looks similar to human species which inevitably causes his capture from a group of human resisters- those who refuse to reproduce “trade” with the Oankali. After being released from confinement he continues to go back and visit the human resisters and forms emotional bonds with. After Akin’s metamorphosis all his physical similarity with the human species disappears but instead of turning against Akin they show their ability to tolerate difference and change which leads Akin to advocate for the human’s to have their own independent lives on mars. The Oankali had no way of understanding let alone predetermining the psychological factors Akin went through as a construct. The transformation for Akin was literally both external and internal and without both factors contributed to Akin’s ability to advocate for the human-only Mars population as well as save the hybrid-Oankali species. Another misconception of Oankali was shown through Jodahs the first human-Ooloi construct. Jodahs was seen as very dangerous and unpredictable. The Oankali were even “surprised” to find that Jodahs could shape shift. This “unknown” scared the Oankali population and Jodahs with Lilith and the rest of their family was isolated in the deep parts of the woods, where Jodahs became increasingly depressed, physically losing its “sense of self” turning into a sluggish body creature. However, Jodahs physical shape-shifting eventually provided useful when he seduced and saved an inbred, fertile human community. This was the missing link to the Oankali-human connection- many humans accepted the difference and joined the –Oankali-human families while the fertile humans joined Akin’s human-only population on Mars. The Oankali had many limitations when creating the hybrid offspring. A major factor that they never contributed was Akin’s and Jodahs’ psychological trauma of belonging to both species that were so unequal. Another factor, was Jodahs’ physical shape-shifting that was a completely knew physical trait for an Ooloi. Where the Oankali fail thus the genetic determinists fail- they cannot possibly precisely and scientifically contribute all the factors that make up the hybrid offspring. 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 is symbolic of hope whereas Akin of change, and Jodahs of proven solution. Lilith represents the incompleteness- hope for the Oankali to fail (which they did, some humans remained fertile) and humanity to grow. Akin represents their limiations- the humans could adapt to difference and accept where the Oankali deemed them incapable. Lastly, Jodahs is the better method, the compromise the fact that genetic determinism is incomplete and thus there are better solutions possible. Lewontin supports all of them because Lewontin supports the misconception of genetic determinism. “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 our 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. Akin, shows the ability for change and combined Jodahs shows there are solutions for better science methods.