Is our fate in our genes or in our stars?

Is our fate in our genes or in our stars?

(The first of five questions I may be asked as part of a panel on DNA and ethics.)

I’ll take “in our stars” as a metaphor for something like “determined by the cosmos,” rather than a literal reference to astrology.

I don’t think the average person has any real understanding of what genes do or how they affect us; Richard Dawkins in “The Selfish Gene” notes that the function of a gene is to replicate itself, and goes so far as to say that our bodies are simply machines that our genes use to replicate ourselves. My genes don’t really care whether I personally live or die — they don’t have a will of their own, of course, but they spread when they happen to inhabit machines whose behavior leads to the production of a lot of genes; this offers a genetic explanation of why I personally work hard to support my family, and why I wouldn’t hesitate to hurl my body in front of an oncoming car if I thought that doing so would save my children, or to kill with my bare hands, if necessary, order to protect my children. Doing so wouldn’t be an act of free will on my part — it would be instinctive.

Since genes are part of the cosmos (that is, they are part of the physical reality in which we live), a choice between “genes” and “stars” is a bit of a tautology.

I’d personally rather address the question that this prompt begs — namely, what role does fate play in human lives? Christian theology positions God outside of time — all our decisions and actions are known beforehand by God. But Christian theology also places a premium on the value of free will — God’s foreknowledge does not affect our free will; without free will, we deserve neither a reward or punishment for our actions. If God does know how our lives will turn out, it is because he knows in advance all the effects of each of our free-will choices will be. Even if all the actions in my life will take me to a single pre-determined end, every action that I take to get there is, from my perspective, free.

Genes certainly determine some important things… I was tall at an early age, and my build is such that I might have made a fair basketball player. My genes probably had very little to do with the fact that I preferred reading to athletics, had little patience for practicing free-throws, and basically never bothered to learn the rules of the game — so while I have a physical frame that might have made me athletic, I didn’t have the will.

There are enough studies that suggest that identical twins, when separated, differ from each other sufficiently that genetics alone do not account for all or even most of our personality and identity. I recall reading even that the spots that form on cloned animals are different from their parent; so even genetically identical individuals don’t follow the same physical path.

Weather forecasting involves such complex mathematics that, for all practical purposes, it is impossible to gather enough data to usefully predict beyond a few days, what a given weather pattern will do. Over the years, however, we have gotten so much better at forecasting weather that where used to predict just a few days in advance, now we can predict a week or so in advance; and with more accurate satellite data and better computer models, we can remove much of the guesswork and increase the accuracy of our forecasts.

My guess is that as our technology develops, we will be able to isolate more and more genetic influences on our behavior, but unless some future totalitarian state (or maybe an HMO) starts using genetic information to control the environment of certain individuals, genes won’t have nearly as much influence over our lives as the scary sci-fi scenarios suggest.