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In his recently published book, Genetics of Original Sin, Christian de Duve takes us on a journey back in time, through the whole evolutionistic process which started more than 3.5 billion years ago, with the so-called LUCA (Last Universal Common Ancestor) and finally led to us, humans. The main purpose of this journey is not, as the author himself puts it in the very beginning of his book, just to tell once again the triumphant story of the most complex and well adapted organism ever to walk the earth, but rather to make us aware of the fact that, being the result of evolution by natural selection, we inherit a most dangerous legacy engraved in our very genes. According to de Duve, precisely those traits which natural selection favored since time immemorial because of their immediate usefulness are now endangering our existence as a species and our world as a whole.
Although the book's four parts (all of which are divided in numerous subsections) deal with distinct questions and stand more or less on their own, they all serve, albeit in different ways, the same purpose: that of making us aware of who we are and of the fact that we have -- and it is in our power -- to change. The first three parts of the book are more of an expository fashion, dealing with the history, origin and evolution of life on Earth, stressing its "semantical" (i.e. genetical) unity and thus dismissing -- with convincing evidence -- other accounts of life on earth such as the so-called theory of intelligent design (part one). It is here where de Duve emphasizes that the DNA molecule and its predecessor (ARN) -- which fulfills the fundamental function of harboring the genetic information of each and every cell -- as well as its reproduction mechanisms are common to all living beings, from the very simple single-celled organism, to the most complex ones. DNA is, so to speak, the universal language spoken throughout the living world, and the history of life can be deciphered by simply learning to read it and to analyze it "etymologically".
The second part's main focus is the mechanisms of life such as metabolism, reproduction, growth and development, while the third part discusses briefly what de Duve calls "the human adventure", that is the emergence of (pre)humans in Africa some two million years ago, their migrations and the clashes between distinct branches of hominids on their way to the modern human. The tenth chapter is probably the most interesting chapter of this third part, because it deals with the one of the most astonishing "miracles" of the evolution: the making of the human brain, its fourfold increase in size in a matter of only two to three million years. The last two chapters of this third part of the book highlights the evolutionary success of the human species while holding the warring instinct and the natural tendency towards immediate benefit at all costs and with no regard to later consequences -- both embedded in human nature -- accountable for this success, the cost of which are threatening to turn it into a failure. The original sin is therefore nothing but the result of natural selection which thought us the language of egoism, competition and war, and therefore failed to teach us the language of foresight and sacrifice for the greater good.
The daring question de Duve raises in the last part of the book concerns precisely the possibility of finding in us a wisdom which was not put there by the (otherwise resourceful) natural selection, but one which contradicts it, and furthermore, the strength to take immediate action. The only redemption from this original sin we can ever expect can come only from ourselves, and lies in our unique condition, which sets us apart from all other living beings: the possibility of purposely acting against natural selection. The options we face -- in de Duve view -- range from doing nothing -- which is, actually, not really an option, because it implies our surrendering to natural selection -- to rewiring the brain by means of education. One of the most insightful and interesting option he discusses in this chapter is best summarized by the words: "give women a chance". In this second to last chapter of the forth part de Duve argues that many negative traits selected by evolution are associated with maleness. It is a fact that, throughout the natural world the males are epitome of aggressiveness and egoism, while the females -- especially when it comes to mammals -- are the embodiment of caring for their young and resort to violence only to protect them. The aggressiveness of males often resulted in subjugation of women and in building societies mainly characterized by the masculine traits.
In this chapter, de Duve advocates for the need of promoting more women in as many key positions of society as possible, in the hope that the law of competition, by which the man's world is governed, might finally be replaced by the laws of cooperation and understanding. It is, nevertheless, debatable if the masculine traits which define our societies haven't already altered and tainted the feminine nature, and if the modern successful woman doesn't actually owe its success to the acquiring of precisely the same masculine traits. This is, however, a question that de Duve doesn't address in this book.
The book ends with a short epilogue, emphasizing once again the danger we are in, but nevertheless refuses to succumb to the fatalism conveyed by the famous words of the Marquise de Pompadour: "après nous le Déluge" which he cites in his conclusion.
© 2013 Paul-Gabriel Sandu
Paul-Gabriel Sandu, PhD-Candidate, Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg