In The Deeper Genome John Parrington argues that understanding the information coded in our genes is merely the start of understanding what makes us human. This goes against the prevailing view in biology, that human nature can be understood simply by mapping out what is in our DNA.
Although there are many popular science books dealing with genetics, few have focused their attention on the material properties of our genome itself.
Reductionist approaches to genetics treat the genome as if it is merely a collection of individual genes. Each gene is a code that gives the body a particular instruction.
The idea that everything about our biological and psychological make-up can be reduced to the information coded by our genes has existed since the genetic code was first uncovered and was supported by some of the greatest thinkers in the field such as Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the DNA double helix.
Crick once said, “The ultimate aim of the modern movement in biology is to explain all biology in terms of physics and chemistry.”
However, developments within the field are challenging the prevailing reductionist philosophy. The Deeper Genome highlights this fantastically.
For example, large sections of the genome which appeared to be redundant were once dismissed as “junk”. New research suggests that junk DNA actually plays an important role suggesting that the genome needs to be studied as a whole rather than as a collection of distinct units.
More controversially the field of epigenetics suggests that our environment can influence which of our genes are passed on to our offspring.
As humanity evolved and developed more complex social interactions and higher reasoning skills so too did our nature change. While modern humans have been around for over 150,000 years, modern capitalism has existed for less than 500 years; if the way we live under capitalism was coded for by our genes, then we would have developed capitalism as the earliest form of human society.
The book shows that human beings are greater than the sum of our organic parts, that while the study of genetics is vitally important to our understanding of ourselves and the world, genetics alone cannot provide us with a complete picture.
This view was supported by some of the earliest modern natural scientists such as Alexander Von Humboldt and Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, who believed that in order to understand the organic world we must first understand all of the interactions and processes that take place within it.
Parrington makes his case that, ultimately, what makes us human is much broader than the simple strands of DNA in our cells and encompasses every process involved in our bodies; from how DNA is used by the body to how our genes change in response to the environment in a clear and accessible manner.