The Dogma of Genetic Determinism

This picture of a genetic makeup that fluctuates by the hour and minute is at odds with the picture ingrained in the public mind: that genes determine everything from our physical characteristics to our behavior. Even many scientists still speak from the assumption that our genes form an immutable blueprint that our cells must forever follow.

In her book The Private Life of the Brain, British research scientist and Oxford don Susan Greenfield says, “the reductionist genetic train of thought fuels the currently highly fashionable concept of a gene for this or that.”5

Niles Eldredge, in his book Why We Do It, says, “genes have been the dominant metaphor underlying explanations of all manner of human behavior, from the most basic and animalistic, like sex, up to and including such esoterica as the practice of religion, the enjoyment of music, and the codification of laws and moral strictures.... The media are besotted with genes...genes have for over half a century easily eclipsed the outside natural world as the primary driving force of evolution in the minds of many evolutionary biologists.”6

Medical schools have had the doctrine of genetic determinism embedded in their teaching for decades.

The newsletter for the students at the Health Science campus of the University of Southern California proclaims, “Research has shown that 1 in 40 Ashkenazi women has defects in two genes that cause familial breast/ovarian cancer....”7

The Los Angeles Times, August 11, 2007, tells us that “Researchers have identified two mutant forms of a single gene that are responsible for 99% of all cases of a common form of glaucoma.”8 Making a single gene responsible for a disease gives journalists and scientists a simple and satisfying explanation.

Such explanations abound. On National Public Radio on October 28th, 2005, an announcer declared: “Scientists today announced they have found a gene for dyslexia. It’s a gene on chromosome six called DCDC2.”

The New York Times ran a similar story the following day, under the headline, “Findings Support That [Dyslexia] Disorder Is Genetic.” Other media picked up the story, and the legend of the primacy of DNA was reinforced.

There’s only one problem with the legend: it’s not true.

There’s a second major problem with the legend: It locates the ultimate power over our health and well-being in the untouchable realm of molecular structure, rather than any place we can control, such as our lifestyle, thoughts,and emotions.

In her book The DNA Mystique, Dorothy Nelkin states, “In a diverse array of popular sources, the gene has become a supergene, an almost supernatural entity that has the power to define identity, determine human affairs, dictate human relationships, and explain social problems. In this construct, human beings in all their complexity are seen as products of a molecular text...the secular equivalent of a soul—the immortal site of the true self and determiner of fate.”9

In reality, genes contribute to our characteristics but do not determine them. Blair Justice, PhD, in his book Who Gets Sick, observes that “genes account for about 35% of longevity, while lifestyles, diet, and other environmental factors, including support systems, are the major reasons people live longer.”10

The percentage by which genetic predisposition affects various conditions varies, but it is rarely 100%. The tools of our consciousness—including our beliefs, prayers, thoughts, intentions, and faith—often correlate much more strongly with our health, longevity, and happiness than our genes do.

Larry Dossey, MD, observes, “Several studies show that what one thinks about one’s health is one of the most accurate predictors of longevity ever discovered.”11

Studies show that a committed spiritual practice and faith can add many years to our lives, regardless of our genetic mix.12

How did the dogma that DNA holds the blueprint for development becomes firmly enshrined?

In his entertaining book Born That Way, medical researcher William Wright gives a detailed history of the rise to supremacy of the idea that genes contain the codes that control life—that we are who we are, and we do what we do, because we were simply “born that way.”13

We often hear phrases like “She’s a natural born athlete,” or “He’s a born loser,” or “She has good genes,” to explain some aspect of a person’s behavior. The idea of genetic disposition has moved far beyond the laboratory to become deeply entrenched in our popular culture.

Lee Dugatkin, professor of biology at the University of Louisville, points out that after the basic rules governing the inheritance of characteristics across generations were made by Mendel, and the structure of the DNA molecule was discovered, scientists became convinced that the gene was the “means by which traits could be transmitted across generations.

We see this trend continuing today in research labs throughout the world as well as in the media in reports of genes for schizophrenia, genes for homosexuality, genes for alcoholism, and so on. Genes for this, genes for that.”14

Researcher Carl Ratner, PhD, of Humboldt State University, draws the following analogy: “Genes may directly determine simple physical characteristics such as eye color. However, they do not directly determine psychological phenomena. In the latter case, genes produce a potentiating substratum rather than particular phenomena. The substratum is like a petri dish which forms a conducive environment in which bacteria can grow, however, it does not produce bacteria.”15

Since the 1970s, researchers have been turning up findings that are at odds with the prevailing mindset. They have accumulated an increasing number of findings that behaviors aren’t just transmitted genetically across generations; they may be newly developed by many individuals during a single generation. While the process of genetic evolution can take thousands of years, as genes throw off mutations that are sometimes successful, and often not, evolution through experience and imitation can occur within minutes—and then be passed on to the next generation.

Edward O. Wilson, the father of sociobiology, hinted at the very end of the twenty-fifth anniversary edition of his tremendously influential book, Sociobiology, that, in future research, “Learning and creativeness will be defined as the alteration of specific portions of the cognitive machinery regulated by input from the emotive centers. Having cannibalized psychology, the new neurobiology will yield an enduring set of first principles for sociology.... We are compelled to drive toward total knowledge, right down to the levels of the neuron and gene.”16

The notion that the genes in the neurons of our brain can be activated by input from our emotive centers is a big new idea, and indicates a degree of interconnection and feedback at odds with the straight- line, cause-and-effect model of genetic causation.

As well as beings of matter, we are beings of energy. Electromagnetism pervades biology, and there is an electromagnetic component to every biological process. While biology has been largely content with chemical explanations of how and why cells work, there are many tantalizing preliminary research findings that show that electromagnetic shifts accompany virtually every biological process.

The energy flowing in, around, and out of neurons and genes interacts constantly with the outside environment. Genes are how organisms store information, while energy is about how they communicate information.

Researching genes without looking at the energy component of DNA is like studying a computer hard drive without plugging in the power cable. Hard drives are composed of thousands of sectors, substructures that store information.17

You can develop impressive theories about why the storage device is constructed the way it is, and the interesting way in which the sectors are arranged, but until you plug the hard drive in and watch it functioning in the context of the energy flow that animates it, and the other components of the computer ecosystem in which it’s nested, you understand only structure and not function.

Death of a Dogma

The idea that genes are the repositories of our characteristics is also known as the Central Dogma. The Central Dogma was propounded by the co-discoverer of the double helix structure of DNA, Sir Francis Crick. He first used the term in a 1953 speech, and restated it in a paper in the journal Nature, entitled “Central Dogma of Molecular Biology.”18

It has been so influential that data contradicting the central dogma have often been dismissed as mere anomalies, since they require much more complex interactions than genetic determinism can explain.19

One of many problems with the dogma, for instance, is that the number of genes in the human chromosome is insufficient to carry all the information required to create and run a human body.

It isn’t even a big enough number to code for the structure (let alone function) of one complex organ like the brain. It also is too small a number to account for the huge quantity of neural connections in our bodies.20

Two eminent professors express it this way: “Remembering that the information in the human genome has to cover the development of all other bodily structures as well as the brain, this is not a fraction of the information required to structure in detail any significant brain modules, let alone for the structuring of the brain as a whole.”21

The Human Genome Project was initially focused on cataloging all the genes of the human body. At the beginning of the 1990s, the original researchers expected to find at least 120,000 genes, because that’s the minimum they projected it would take to code all the characteristics of an organism as complex as a human being.

Our bodies manufacture about 100,000 proteins, the building blocks of cells. All of those 100,000 building blocks must be assembled with precise coordination in order to support life. The working hypothesis at the start of the Human Genome Project was that there would be a gene that provided the blueprint to manufacture each of those 100,000 proteins, plus another 20,000 or so regulatory genes whose function was to orchestrate the complex dance of protein assembly.

The further the project progressed, the smaller the estimates of the number of genes became. When the project finished its catalog, they had mapped the human genome as consisting of just 23,688 genes.

The huge symphony orchestra of genes they had expected to find had shrunk to the size of a string quartet. The questions that this small number of genes give rise to are these: If all the information required to construct and maintain a human being—or even one big instrument, such as the brain—is not contained in the genes, where does it come from?

And who is conducting the whole complex dance of assembly of multiple organ systems?

The focus of research has thus shifted from cataloging the genes themselves to figuring out how they work in the context of an organism that is in “a state of systemic cooperation [where] every part knows what every other part is doing; every atom, molecule, cell, and tissue is able to participate in an intended action.”22

The lack of enough information in the genes to construct and manage a body is just one of the weaknesses of the Central Dogma.

Another is that genes can be activated and deactivated by the environment inside the body and outside of it. Scientists are learning more about the process that turns genes on and off, and what factors influence their activation.

We may have lots of information on our hard drives, but at a given time we will be utilizing only part of it. And we may be changing the data as well, like revising an email before we send it to a friend. One of the factors that affect which genes are active is our experience, a fact completely incompatible with the doctrine of genetic determinism.

Yet our experiences themselves are just part of the picture. We take facts and experiences and then assign meaning to them. What meaning we assign, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually, is often as important to genetic activation as the facts themselves.

We are discovering that our genes dance with our awareness. Thoughts and feelings turn sets of genes on and off in complex relationships. Science is discovering that while we may have a fixed set of genes in our chromosomes, which of those genes is active has a great deal to do with our subjective experiences, and how we process them.

Our emotions and behavior shape our brains as they stimulate the formation of neural pathways that either reinforce old patterns or initiate new ones. Like widening a road as traffic increases, when we think an increased flow of thoughts on a topic, or practice an increased quantity of an action, the number of neurons our bodies require to route the information increases.

In just the way our muscles bulk up with increased exercise, the size of our neural bundles increases when those pathways are increasingly used.

So the thoughts we think, the quality of our consciousness, increase the flow of information along certain neural pathways. According to Ernest Rossi, “we could say that meaning is continually modulated by the complex, dynamic field of messenger molecules that continually replay, reframe, and resynthesize neuronal networks in ever-changing patterns.”23

In the succinct words of another medical pioneer, “Beliefs become biology”—in our hormonal, neural, genetic, and electromagnetic systems, plus all the complex interactions between them.24

The Inner and Outer Environment

Memory, learning, stress, and healing are all affected by classes of genes that are turned on or off in temporal cycles that range from one second to many hours.

The environment that activates genes includes both the inner environment—the emotional, biochemical, mental, energetic, and spiritual landscape of the individual—and the outer environment.

The outer environment includes the social network and ecological systems in which the individual lives. Food, toxins, social rituals, predators, and sexual cues are examples of outer environmental influences that affect gene expression.

Researchers estimate that “approximately 90% of all genes are cooperation with signals from the environment.”25

Our genes are being affected every day by the environment of our thoughts and feelings, as surely as they are being affected by the environment of our families, homes, parks, markets, churches, and offices.

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5. Greenfield, S. (2000). The private life of the brain: Emotions, consciousness, and the secret of the self (p. 9). New York, NY: John Wiley.

6. Eldridge, N. (2004). Why we do it: Rethinking sex and the selfish gene (p. 15). New York, NY: Norton.

7. Editorial staff. (1998, July 10). Weekly (p. 3), publication of the University of Southern California Health Science Campus, Los Angeles, CA.

8. Team finds gene mutations behind glaucoma. (2007, August 11). Los Angeles Times.

9. Nelkin, D., & Lindee, M. S. (1995). The DNA mystique: The gene as a cultural icon (p. 193). New York, NY: Freeman.

10. Justice, B. (2000). Who gets sick?: How beliefs, moods, and thoughts affect your health (p. 63). Houston, TX: Peak.

11. Idler, E., & Kasl, S. (1991). Health perceptions and survival: Do global evaluations of health really predict mortality? Journal of Gerontology, 46(2), S55.

12. Dossey, L. (2006). The extraordinary healing power of ordinary things: Fourteen natural steps to health and happiness (p. 21). New York, NY: Harmony Books.

13. Wright, W. (1998). Born that way: Genes, behavior, personality (p. 13). New York, NY: Knopf.

14. Dugatkin, L. (2000). The imitation factor: Evolution beyond the gene (p. 8). New York, NY: Free Press.

15. Ratner, C. (2004, April). Genes and psychology in the news. New Ideas in Psychology, 22(1), 29–47.

16. Wilson, E. O. (2000). Sociobiology: The new synthesis (25th Anniversary Ed., p. 575). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

17. Eldridge, Why we do it, 22.

18. Crick, F. (1970, August 8). Central dogma of molecular biology. Nature, 227, 561.

19. Ho, M-W. (2004, March 9). Death of the central dogma [Press release]. Institute of Science in Society, London, UK.

20. Fisher, C. (2007). Dismantling discontent: Buddha’s path through Darwin’s world (p. 177). Santa Rosa, CA: Elite Books.

21. McCallum, I. (2005). Ecological intelligence: Rediscovering ourselves in nature (p. 5). Cape Town, South Africa: Africa Geographic.

22. Oschman, J. (2006). Trauma energetics. Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies, 10, 21.

23. Rossi, Psychobiology, 66.

24. Cousins, N. (1989). Beliefs become biology. Advances in Mind-Body Medicine, 6, 20.

25. Richardson, K. (2000). The making of intelligence (p. 50). New York, NY: Columbia University Press; summarized in Rossi, Psychobiology, 50.