Keith Rankin's Thursday Column

 Reflecting on the Gene Pool

 29 June 2000

What else can I write about today, other than what may prove to be the most important event of the 21st century? This week, the first draft of the human genome project (HGP) has been completed. The book of the genetic blueprint of human life has been written.

How will the book of life be used and to what extent it will be exploited for private profit? The signs are positive. A project that was in danger of becoming a grubby race between an international consortium of publicly funded scientists and a profit-dependent biotechnology company now acts as an illustration of how public and private research inputs can be complementary and energising. That speed of knowledge acquisition of course will not give comfort to those who fear that the new genomics is man usurping God. Nor will it give comfort to those who fear that knowledge of the human DNA sequence will be like an open invitation to the Dr Frankensteins among us to get busy.

On the Frankenstein point, I find that I am an optimist. Each gene makes a specific protein. Transplanting genes from one species to another is not the same as creating new genes. Today, there may be more technological opportunities than ever before for a cruel and unusual dictator to wreck havoc on or to impose control over his subjects. The HGP undoubtedly extends those possibilities. But knowledge - especially knowledge in the public domain - has also been the main driving force behind the democratisation of society. Our ability to marginalise would-be 'Vlad the Impalers' through democratic means is a result of the public knowledge that science has brought us. Censorship of knowledge is, I am sure, more dangerous than gene transplantation.

Modern genetics and the HGP virtually confirm that God did not create humans. (That's not to say that God does not exist. At the very least, God does exist in the same abstract way that mathematics exists.) We share 99% of our genetic blueprint with chimpanzees. That includes the genetic disorder that prevents primates' immune systems from synthesising ascorbic acid (Vitamin C).

We evolved. There may of course be forces involved in our evolution that modern science is ignorant of (as biologist Rupert Sheldrake believes); forces which go beyond selection and mutation. Such as yet undiscovered forces need be no more divine than genetic selection or electricity must have seemed before Darwin's time.

Genetically-speaking, we are quite a simple species. (A really heroic project would be to construct a genetic map of something really complex; eg an amoeba.) Perhaps 90% of human DNA is redundant. To an economising economist of the neoclassical school, for whom 'efficiency' is tantamount to God, humans carry around a lot of useless genetic junk. A genuinely economising species would have only the genetic material (DNA) it needs and no more. Such a species would use asexual reproduction, and would never have adopted energy-guzzling warm blood. Lizards are more efficient that humans.

Is there an economic explanation why the book of life should be 90% gobbledegook; letters but not words?

The more DNA we have, the more mutations can take place. Less than 10% of mutations will affect an existing gene. Probably less than 1 in 10,000 mutations will disable an important gene. Even then, the immune system has evolved to deal with most potentially harmful mutations.

Most mutations do neither good nor harm in the short run. A tiny proportion of mutations from redundant DNA will create new genes; sequences of DNA that make a new enzyme that may or may not do something useful. These mutations enter the gene pool but have no immediate implications for fitness selection. They generate the spread of genetic variety that enables new genes to form. As a result, new species may evolve, especially if the new enzyme formed by the new gene facilitates adaptation to a changed environment.

This aspect of evolutionary biology has inspired a number of 'neoschumpetarian' economists and economic historians. In economic history, creativity serves as a direct parallel to mutation. A new invention or a coherent new idea is like a new gene. Contrary to popular belief, necessity is not the mother of invention. Rather, invention occurs in humankind when redundant resources are used creatively. A new invention is part of the inventory of economic growth, just as a new gene waiting to be selected is part of the inventory of evolution. Most new ideas and new genes are never selected. In economic history, the selection process is called innovation. An idea or piece of knowledge that was hitherto regarded as useless becomes useful.

The 'Efficiency is God' approach to economics is on the wane, being replaced by a 'new economy' (neoschumpetarian) approach which closely parallels genomics. Creativity arises from redundancy rather than from efficiency, from slack rather than tautness. The many non-winners in the knowledge economy (ideas and inventions that are not adopted) are as necessary for the growth of knowledge as are the few winners. We only know which ideas are winning ideas after the event. The implication is that the rewards made possible from the growth of knowledge must be shared around the whole community, and not just to the owners/patentees of the chosen ideas.

The theory of evolution was inspired in large part by the theories of competition that formed the core of classical economics around 200 years ago. Now, modern genetics is forming the inspiration for the new economics.

Interestingly, Alfred Russel Wallace, the independent co-founder of the theory of natural selection, also wrote on political economy. Wallace's views on sustainable economic development are worth reading today (eg "Free-Trade Principles and the Coal Question"). Wallace's contributions to 19th century thought proved to be redundant. Few know of his writings today. Yet his intellectual contributions were as necessary as those of people whose names are better known today.

The human genome project is much more than the deciphering of a code. It's a revelation of the potential of us (or any species) to become much more than we are. It's a reminder of how much we didn't know in the 20th century.

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© 2000   Keith Rankin

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