The Human Genome

Charles Darwin once spent eight years studying barnacles and wrote three hefty volumes on the subject. In one species he discovered that the tiny pinpricks which he saw attached to the outer shell of the animals were actually the males of the species.

This caused some consternation in the corridors of the Royal Society. How could it be that the masculine element was so insignificant? Many refused to believe Darwin’s findings, preferring to assume that relations between the sexes in the animal kingdom mirrored in some way the patriarchal arrangements of the Victorian family, with the male secure in his position of size, authority and dominance.

I was reminded of this story when I read of the furore which greeted news of the publication of the human genome. It seems that not only men were threatened, but the whole human race were demoted in importance through the news that the human genome only carried 30,000 genes – few more than a mouse – rather than the 150,000 we were led to expect, and no doubt felt we deserved.

Freud saw his own work as delivering a similar blow to man’s self importance. In his paper ‘A Difficulty in the Path of Psychoanalysis’ (1917), Freud placed his ideas alongside those of Copernicus and Darwin:

“The universal narcissism of men, their self love, has up to the present suffered three severe blows from the researches of science.

(a) In the early stages of his researches, man believed at first that his dwelling place, the earth, was the stationary centre of the universe, with the sun, moon and planets circling around it…. The central position of the earth was a token to him of the dominating part played by it in the universe and appeared to fit in very well with his inclination to regard himself as lord of the world…

The destruction of this narcissistic illusion is associated in our minds with the name and work of Copernicus in the sixteenth century… When this discovery achieved general recognition, the self-love of mankind suffered its first blow, the cosmological one.

(b) In the course of the development of civilisation man acquired a dominating position over his fellow creatures in the animal kingdom. Not content with this supremacy, however, he began to place a gulf between his nature and theirs. He denied the possession of reason to them, and to himself he attributed an immortal soul, and made claims to a divine descent which permitted him to break the bond of community between him and the animal kingdom. Curiously enough, this piece of arrogance is still foreign to children, just as it is to primitive and primeval man. It is the result of a later, more pretentious stage of development…

We all know that little more than a half century ago the researches of Charles Darwin and his collaborators and forerunners put an end to this presumption on the part of man. Man is not a being different from animals or superior to them; he himself is of animal descent, being more closely related to some species and more distantly to others… This was the second, the biological blow to human narcissism.

(c) The third blow, which is psychological in nature, is probably the most wounding. Although thus humbled in his external relations, man feels himself to be supreme within his own mind…..

Psychoanalysis has sought to educate the ego. But these two discoveries – that the life of our sexual instincts cannot be wholly tamed, and that mental processes are in themselves unconscious and only reach the ego and come under its control through incomplete and untrustworthy perceptions – these two discoveries amount to a statement that the ego is not master in its own house. Together they represent the third blow to man’s self love, what I may call the psychological one. No wonder then that the ego does not look favourably upon psychoanalysis and obstinately refuses to believe in it.”

Man’s narcissism, however, shows dazzling ingenuity. When confronted with news of the paucity of our genetic makeup, the pundits were quick to argue that this made us even MORE complicated than we had previously thought. Thus after the traumatic headlines, the comforting subheadings: “Environment, not genes, key to our life”; or “Discovering we’re more than the sum of our genes affects understanding of free will”. No doubt it will not be long before someone argues that unravelling our genetic code is the ultimate proof of divine creation.

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