Changing rules of inheritance


In the Blood: God, Genes and Destiny
Steve Jones
Harper Collins, 1996
300 pp., $24.95 (pb)

Review by Dot Tumney

Steve Jones' In the Blood is a useful overview of inheritance in all its forms and of the interaction of biological, religious, economic and social forms of inheritance and the transitions from one to the other as discoveries arise.

"The natural order" is a very fluid arrangement. It follows power. For example, the extension of disallowed marriages to those involving a very wide range of relatives in England meant that much property was rendered uninheritable and reverted to the church, until Henry VIII changed the rules.

There are lots of variations in claims and denial of kinship. Repression delights in finding "flaws" in its targets, going back as many generations as needed. Benefits, on the other hand, are subject to being cut off.

Jones cites British and US examples. British citizenship rights for those born overseas have been pruned to those whose grandparents were British; it just so happens that the grandparents would all have been white.

Local equivalents are not hard to find. Rights for indigenous populations illustrate both sides neatly. When land rights or special programs are discussed, screams about "full bloods" come from the same people who would under no circumstances rent property to the possibly "tainted".

It's "in the blood", "blood will tell", "blood is thicker than water"; all these sayings are hangovers from theories about blood being the vehicle of heredity. Until DNA testing, blood was used for proof of paternity, which determines another type of inheritance; so the phrases are likely to last a while yet.

This brings us to the destiny part of the discussion. Jones goes into politics here, not metaphysics, in spite of his chapter titles.

Understanding science, race and politics begins with the recognition that the men of the upper classes designated lower classes and foreigners as inferior races. Those at the top of the heap must prove their right to stay there.

The notion of race has changed a bit. There's never been any doubt about what it's good for, though. Gender has always been handy and not subtly used either.

Resource rationing by market forces needs a lot of "others" to compete against. Division is essential to competition. "I'm not a racist/sexist, but I'll use any distinction I can to make sure losers are not me or mine." Us is a concept defined by available resources.

The decision about what to investigate inextricably links science to social context. Being caught cooking the books spoils the argument, but interpreting results can be a matter of emphasis.

Have fun with the following. Female brains are smaller than male brains, but a higher percentage of a woman's body tissue is brain. Organ transplant programs find that the inherited variation within groups classified by skin colour is greater than those between them. IQ tests used to "prove" that white South Africans of Dutch descent were inferior to those of British descent until apartheid shoved the Afrikaners to a comparable status and the figures levelled out.

What it all boils down to is that social policies which try to directly link "genetically determined" to "god given" will end up impotently grovelling to the untouchable.

Stalin and Lysenko tried to legislate the inheritance of acquired characteristics but failed to convince the wheat seeds. Given that Hitler and the like were across the border, the temptation was understandable. It also appealed to the bureaucratic mentality.

Jones is less dismissive than most who write off Marxism along with the Stalinists. But then he also has a section entitled "Sex and Taxes", which draws parallels with the concepts of Adam Smith in an argument on the advantages of recombination over unaltered transmission of genetic material.

According to Jones, the perpetuation of the unaltered needs stable circumstances because it adapts poorly. But the pure competitive capitalism of ideology is very vulnerable to monopoly — serious winning spoils the process, which requires a properly regulated roller coaster. Competition internally is compulsory to stop the roller coaster running out of impetus. Jones' metaphor tends to stick at this point.

Allowing for this, the book's broad sweep makes it a worthwhile read, especially for the detail on genetics, where he is at his best. The strongest aspect, however, is the interlinking of so many disciplines, which provides fertile ground for active imaginations tired of compartmentalised debate.