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taking stock of answers science cannot provide

interview by deborah smith, sydney morning herald, 5-6 july 2003

At least we will know what it is to be human. It's been a promise as ambitious as the technical feat to which it has been linked - the sequencing of all the DNA that forms the blueprint for a human being. With the genome sequence finally completed in April, and the world's top DNA experts arriving in Australia for their five-yearly gathering this weekend, what better time to take stock of what science can - and, more to the point, cannot - tell us about ourselves. So says British author Kenan Malik, a speaker at the International Congress of Genetics that starts in Melbourne tomorrow. It will be attended by 2600 delegates, including six Nobel Laureates.

Malik, a former neruroscientist and psychologist, wants to broaden debate on issues such as race, human rights, and fear of genetic technologies. He says people have been increasingly turning to science to answer the kind of questions they would previously have asked on politics or morality. 'And the problem is, science can't answer those questions. such as who we are, or what it is to be human', he said.

The shift to science has occurred, Malik says, because people have lost faith in human nature, and our species' ability to transform the world for the better. 'They look back on the 20th century and see unparalleled bloodshed, two world wars, the Holocaust, the Gulags and so on', he said. 'In this climate of pessmism it seems to make sense to to think ourselves as a collection of genes... as simply biological beings.' But, unlike other animals, we are much more than our DNA, Malik says. 'We are unique among organisms. We are also self-conscious, reflective social beings.'

This idea of the exceptional nature of humans was taken for granted in the past, but has become unfashionable. For most scientists, exceptionalism smacks of mysticism, he says. Others view it as politically dangerous, blaming human hubris for ills such as global warming and species depletion.

Malik, author of Man, Beast and Zombie, is not anti-science. New technologies, such as genetic testing and genetic modification of crops, pose no threat, he argues. But they tend to frighten us because we have lost faith in humanity. 'We think we can't control what science can do for us.'

To understand what it is to be human, the influence of history needs to be given more weight, he says. For example, many evolutionary psychologists now argue human rights, such as freedom, are the product of an inborn human revulsion for humiliation and enslavement. 'But for most of human history, slavery was seen as natural as individual freedom today is', Malik said.

Many also pinned their hopes on the genome project to settle the question of race,but it has only added to the confusion. It has revealed the extraordinary genetic similarities between people worldwide, as well as the myriad small differences between human populations that can be important, for example, in medicine. Looking to genetics was always a flawed idea, says Malik. 'Science can neither confirm nor disconfirm that race is a biological reality because race is a not a scientific category.'

Science just provides the facts. Interpretation of thier significance is a political issue. He believes the notion of race will persist, ironically, because it fits with the attitude of celebrating human differences, and tolerating cultural variety, that have become the hallmarks of liberal, non-racist, democratic societies.

Consideration of such issues at the genetics congress will be good demonstration of the uniqueness of humans, he adds. 'You can bet your bottom dollar there isn't a group of chimps somehwere, scratching their heads , wondering what it is to be an ape.'