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Jan 1, 1996

In all biological systems, the organism of the future is encoded in the macro molecular structure of DNA (Deoxyribonucleic Acid). It is this molecular architecture, present in every cell, that determines all the characteristics of an organism.

Genetics is commonly taken to refer to a part of biology that concerns itself with the study of the transmission of hereditary characters. This fascinating science would have remained quite benign if this was all that it was. However, recombinant DNA technology with all the power it offers for biological control has changed all that. By making it possible to manipulate the reproductive potential of an organism, modern genetics has the power to alter the course of development of living organisms. Life can be changed, for good or ill; it can be enhanced or retarded or mutilated. Moreover, whatever molecular genetics can do to the biological world can in principle, be done to human beings. Molecular genetics poses a grave threat to our notions of human life, its intent and its meanings.

In his book Responsible Science (1986), Robert Nelson wrote: 

The challenge of molecular biology to traditional humanistic and religious concepts of human life needs to be taken very seriously. Not only the nature of life, but its purpose and worth are called into question by the rapidly growing knowledge of DNA and cellular development. If the human organism can ostensibly be reduced to an assortment of proteins and amino acids, hardly distinguishable at molecular levels from those of other organisms, where is the distinctiveness of human life to he found? And if found, how explained?

Biology, especially in the form of using genetics and evolution to explain social phenomena, has become a reductionist exercise. Reductionism means trying to explain the properties of complex wholes-molecules, say or societies-in terms of the units of which those wholes are composed. Scientists who are reductionists would argue, for example that the properties of a protein molecule could be uniquely determined and predicted in terms of the properties of the electrons, protons, etc., of which it atoms are composed. In a similar way, they could (and some do) argue that the properties of a human society are no more than the sum of the behaviours and tendencies of the individual humans of which that society is composed.

Genetics and evolution, as indicated above, have been used to explain social phenomena. This is the area of science called sociobiology. It is a discipline that passes moral judgement on many social issues because it presents biology as the human fate, an inescapable reality of nature. Since it is natural, the implication is that it is immutable.

Sociobiologists equate the social with the biological and maintain that differences of class, race, colour, gender and even economic status originate in individual biology. This type of thinking could lead to dangerous conclusions of a sort most of us would regard as immoral and unethical. It can lead, for instance, to the belief that some races are born ‘inferior’ to others; that women are inferior’ to men; IQ (Intelligence Quotient) is genetically determined; that social inequalities (wealth and poverty) are biological in origin. The big problem with this is that political leaders could use such arguments to assert that the current social order must prevail because it is the law of nature.

Sociobiology reached its peak when some biologists claimed to have discovered absolute evidence for genetic determinants of human behaviour. In his popular book The Selfish Gene (1976), Richard Dawkins wrote:

We, and all other animals, are machines created by our genes. Like successful Chicago gangsters, our genes have survived, in some cases for millions of years, in a highly competitive world. This entitles us to expect certain qualities in our genes. I shall argue that a predominant quality to be expected in a successful gene is ruthless selfishness... Much as we might wish to believe otherwise, universal love and the welfare of the species as a whole are concepts which simply do not make evolutionary sense ... If you wish ... to build a society in which individuals cooperate generously towards a common good; you can expect little help from biological nature.

The selfish gene thus operates to enhance its own selfish interests. The theory is based on the belief that genetic differences lead to behavioural differences, and that organisms are hosts to genes rather than the other way round. This provides the basis, as sociobiologists themselves claim, for the systematic study of the biological basis of all forms of social behavior, including sexual and parental behaviour, in all, kinds of organisms, including humans.

More and more human attributes are being subjected to a biological explanation. The Islamic view of human nature, however, does not consider biology as an inevitability. Human morality is the most important determinant, encompassing the spiritual dimension beautifully: The most honoured among you in the sight of God is the most righteous among you. And God has full knowledge and is well acquainted [with all things]. (Hujurat, 49.13)