David Cameron, Nicolas Sarkozy and other Western politicians are naive in the extreme if they imagine that countries such as Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, after their recent ‘Arabian Springings’, will acquire anything resembling what we call democracy in their lifetimes. Quite besides what history tells us about cultural inertia and the slow pace of significant political change — generations rather than years or even decades — we now have scientific evidence why this is so.
This comes from the new sub-science of epigenetics. Although suspected by a handful of evolutionary biologists for two or three decades, the subject only sprang to life in recent years following the first draft of the Human Genome Project (HGP) in 2003. This is telling us that by far the most of our genes doe not act as single stimulants for this or that physical trait, or propensity to this or that disease, but only have their effect when orchestrated in large numbers. This is achieved by other agents, epigenes, which arise from the regions of our ‘junk’ DNA that lie in between the gene areas themselves.
This explains why large pharmaceutical corporations have already lost hundreds of millions of dollars in a fruitless search for single genes which cause various mid-life killer diseases such as heart diseases, diabetes, many cancers and mental senility. Yes, in each case the researchers found a few genes that seem to be specifically involved but they only contributed something like 5% or 10% to the likelihood of the disease actually developing. At least scores more, perhaps hundreds, of other genes were also involved. Furthermore, some potentially lethal genetic orchestrations also needed to be tripped off by specific features in the environment of the individual concerned — such as diet or daily habits. A person can carry a lethal predisposition but is lucky (or sensible) enough to avoid the environment which has a high chance of sparking it off.
Even more astonishing to post-2003 geneticists was the realization that new epigenetic orchestrations could not only arise in the lifetime of an individual, according to particular life-circumstances, but also that those orchestrations could be inherited by the next generation, and then the succeeding one, and so on. The reason for this is that the genes that take part in a particular orchestration actually acquire specific chemical tags and the complete set of such tags for any particular life-effect can be passed on just as certainly as genes themselves are passed on.
For the purpose of this morning’s piece (I’m endeavouring to make this as short as possible) two more points about epigenetics need to be mentioned. One is that, unlike genes themselves, the epigenetic tags are not quite as permanent as genes. If the same environmental conditions are not repeated in succeeding generations then the tags can gradually fall away from their genes. A particular epigenetic orchestration that has taken several generations to develop (and thus spread around in a population) can also degrade over further generations if the environment changes. Finally, that particular disposition will disappear altogether and the genes that were involved no longer carry those particular tags.
Secondly, epigenetic orchestrations are not confined to predispositions to physical effects (such as a particular cancer) but also to psychological and behavioural effects. For example, a pair of identical twins (with identical genes and identical epigenetic tags at birth) might behave quite differently in adult life. One might become schizophrenic (this is believed to be epigenetic) and the other, living in a different environment, might not. One might become a cheerful optimistic person, the other gloomy and pessimistic.
We can now translate these findings into considering cultures. Some cultures, after living in the same sort of environment for many generations will have inherited a fairly widespread predisposition to some particular diseases, while others, not noticeably different in other ways, will experience quite a low incidence to the same diseases. On the other hand, the latter are each highly likely to have an idiosyncratic collection of diseases to which they are particularly prone. Also, disparate cultures of long-standing will each have their own blend of psychological and behavioural predispositions. In both cases, however, even if a particular culture acquires a brand new environment overnight, then its physical and psychological predispositions would take generations to disappear and be replaced by new ones.
The sub-science of epigenetics is still very new, but what has been discovered so far is fully compatible with what historians tell us. Thinking about politics and government, modern Russia, for example, is scarcely any different in many respects (domination by secret police, lack of sufficient property law) — despite two immense make-overs — than Tsarist Russia was a century ago even though Russians may know intellectually what they should be doing before they can approximate to the standard of living of, say, America. That’s just one example of dozens that could be instanced.
Thus, in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, although an educated youthful minority may know what is desirable by way of becoming Westernized — which is what the vast majority of their populations want — the older culture, dominated by Islamic imams, is already resisting and taking advantage of the opportunities offered them. In the West, it took most countries two or three hundred years of civil strife to bring about our voting procedures. The Islamic countries will be no different. We now have some scientific evidence to back up one’s intuition that it’s going to take more than one or two generations before the necessary psychological predispositions are in place and being inherited.