Frankenstein Science: The Creation of the Warrior Gene
“We pass through this world but once. Few tragedies can be more extensive than the stunting of life, few injustices deeper than the denial of an opportunity to strive or even to hope, by a limit imposed from without, but falsely identified as lying within.”
- Stephen J Gould, from the Mismeasure of Man
The Birth of a Monster
It may seem a stretch linking Shelley’s Frankenstein to an exploration of ‘the warrior gene’ 5 years on, nevertheless the links are clear and unmistakable. Most will be familiar with Frankenstein-the-monster if not the novel, however this itself is a confusion as Frankenstein is in fact the name of his creator – Dr Frankenstein. Though which is the monster is a fitting question here.
First published in 1818, on the surface Frankenstein is a cautionary tale of the inherent dangers of uncontrolled scientific experimentation, and of the unforseen consequences such meddling can bring about. Dr Frankenstein brings to life the dead in the isolation of his scientific laboratory, a miraculous act that brings misery to the doctor, those he loves, and his creation. It is a tale that calls into question the ethical and moral implications of science; of the potential fall-out that ensues when one’s reach exceeds one’s grasp. For this reason ‘Frankenstein science’ is often linked to any kind of genetic meddling that might result in the creation of pseudo-animals or human beings – cloning. However as will be explored here, one need not tamper with genetic material (or lightening in the case of Dr Frankenstein) to risk creating a monster.
At another level, Frankenstein exposes the exhilaration and terror that wrest within the exercise of power. This iconic science fiction tale begins at the story’s end aboard an explorer’s ship where Dr Frankenstein with his dying breath recounts his misfortunes. The theme of exploration is key here. It is not coincidental that Frankenstein was written at a time when Britain and other countries of Europe were expanding their imperial and territorial reach across the globe. The author, Mary Shelley cites Columbus as inspiring themes of discovery and invention when developing the story’s plot. The penetration and conquest of inner nature undertaken in Dr Frankenstein’s laboratory is mirrored by that of outer nature – colonial conquest. Whether the unknown territories of physiological science, or the unknown territories of foreign lands – both were to be explored, possessed, dominated; with little thought of the consequences for those in the way. If tying the two together seems too great a leap, check out the image to the right which appeared in an English newspaper in 1843 depicting the long-colonised Irish as akin to Frankenstein’s monster. As analogy, Frankenstein is thus a fitting setting in which to explore the ‘discoveries’ of science past and present, and their role in colonial processes and ideologies.
Throughout colonial expansion, the discovery of and desire to rule over ‘the other’ on foreign shores required rationalisation. A European/British population that classified itself as most civilised could not maintain such superior status if, when confronted with other human forms in foreign places, it merely proceeded to ransack them. Enter the role of science in providing credibility to the argument that brown and black bodies were colonised or enslaved or both because of their inherent inferiority and need of a civilising presence – the white man’s burden.
Its all in your Head
At the time that Frankenstein was gaining in popularity, so too was the science of Craniometry. Scientists of the 1800s wielding this exacting ‘science’ claimed to be able to determine a person’s soundness of mind by the capacity of their skull – utilising a number of unusual and complex measurements including cranial capacity. Simplified, the size of the head was equivalent to the size of the brain. According to the science of the time size did matter! A large skull meant a large brain and high intellectual capacity, a small skull indicated a small brain and decreased intellectual capacity.
Thus were peoples variously ranked on the European hierarchy of civilisation. And who was to be found wanting? It should come as no surprise to those familiar with history. Women – according to Paul Broca who used his fastidious examination to argue against allowing women access to education – after all with such inadequate neural matter to begin with, what would be the point? The Irish Catholics – whose depiction as Frankensteins was not to be taken literally (as in the size of the monster’s head) – these conquered peoples too were deemed intellectually wanting. And every group that found themselves subject to colonial rule, from those in India, Africa, African American slaves, to the native peoples in North America and Australia. Here in Aotearoa/New Zealand army surgeon A.S. Thompson delivered the ‘scientific’ view in 1859 that
“the New Zealanders’ (Māori) heads are smaller than the heads of Englishmen; consequently the Māori are inferior in mental capacity to the Englishmen”
Having a big head as I rediscover every time I go to buy a hat (despite my Māori descent), I could almost lean toward favouring this theory. Alas, the relationship between head size and mental ability has long since been repudiated. But perhaps only to be replaced by other more sophisticated tools essentially delivering the same message. Which brings us to the travesty of the ‘warrior gene’.
A new monster of science
In 2006 news broke in New Zealand and Australian media (later the international media) of the discovery of the ‘warrior gene’ in relation to Māori, specifically Māori men; a claim made by NZ researchers at an Australian conference on genetics. Originally dubbed the ‘warrior gene’ in relation to research with Rhesus monkeys, this was the first time the gene was linked to a specific ethnic group. Dr Rod Lea and colleagues from the Institute of Environmental Science and Research (ESR) cited evidence from a sample of just 46 males who had at least (in some cases only) one Māori parent, and estimated on that basis that 56% of the entire Māori population (numbering around half a million) would be predisposed to warrior-like behaviour. Later claiming media mishandling for the furor that followed, it pays to note that the conference presentation was provocatively titled ‘Tracking the evolutionary history of the warrior gene in the South Pacific‘. Protestations that the research set out to ‘help’ New Zealanders through investigating the MAO-A gene in relation to alcohol and tobacco addiction match neither the conference presentation title nor subsequent media interviews in which Lea is quoted as saying:
“Obviously, this means [Māori] are going to be more aggressive and violent and more likely to get involved in risk-taking behaviour like gambling”
Frankly its poor science, the specifics of which have been pulled apart by one of New Zealand’s leading geneticists and in a number of published journal articles in New Zealand and overseas. Rather than rehash the conclusions of the research on scientific grounds, given the invocation of ‘the warrior’ as a trope for all things violent, I want to explore specifically a different type of violence – what Teo (2008) termed epistemological violence. Big and clever sounding word that it is, epistemological can in this instance be read as a method of knowing – so a method of knowing that is violent. Teo argues that empirical science in its most commonly practiced form, at least as it relates to human behaviour, involves the collection of data – numbers. The data or numbers themselves say nothing – those who produce them must provide an interpretation, an understanding of what they mean. This leap from data to conclusion is made on the basis of theory; on what has already been speculated or ascertained and thus has some basis in what is most plausible in the light of evidence to date. According to Teo, violence occurs when interpretations paint the ‘other’ as problematic or inferior when competing and equally compelling interpretations are available. Singular unsubstantiated interpretations, passed off as ‘knowledge about’, become an exercise in power over: violence. In his words:
“interpretations of data are presented as ‘knowledge’ when, in fact, harm is inflicted through them”
Hence it is necessary to view the basis upon which Dr Lea and associates made the speculative leap from data to knowledge. Knowledge that by Lea’s own admission was “controversial because it has implications suggesting links with criminality among Māori people”. The theoretical basis, published by Lea and Chambers in the NZ Medical Journal in 2007 is as follows:
“It is well recognised that historically Māori were fearless warriors. Indeed, reverence for the “warrior” tradition remains a key part of Māori cultural structure today and one that many New Zealanders take an obvious pride in, especially in the sporting context.
In an effort to explain the significance of our research findings we reason that the MAO-A gene may have conferred some selective advantage during the canoe voyages and inter-tribal wars that occurred during the Polynesian migrations and may have influenced the development of a substantial and sophisticated culture in Aotearoa (New Zealand)”.
So- an evolutionary stab, based on a common colonial stereotype of ‘fearless warriors’, that relates migration and ‘inter-tribal’ wars to natural warrior-hood. The received histories of Māori migration as well as inter-tribal warring are highly contested, and yet still appear to inform scientific truth claims. I have yet to see ship voyages of (un)settlers from Britain and war-making on indigenous peoples proferred as an evolutionary explanation of contemporary white behaviour. So much more accessible is the historically created image of ‘the warrior’ in relation to black/brown bodies. The repitition of this image is the topic of a future post, suffice to say it is a re-presentation that has informed numerous popular depictions of Māori including NZ writer Alan Duff’s book Once were Warriors, later made into a movie. It would seem from their own article such depictions are drawn on by Lea & Chambers who cite novel writer Alan Duff in it. And yet stereotype it is – as Moana Jackson and others have argued Once were Warriors as fictional title was always going to be more popularly received than other titles which might more accurately capture past and present Māori realities: Once were philosophers, Once were gardeners, Once were scientists. I am not arguing here that Māori never fought wars, never employed ‘warriors’ in battle. Rather I seek to question why war-making is depicted as the primary activity of native peoples. Why would it be plausible that any more time was spent in such pursuit than say gardening or the gathering of, and hunting for, food? Love-making? Recreation? And whose purposes does such a depiction suit?
All genes are equal, but some are more equal than others
Undoubtedly the still unpublished (in any extended form) findings of Lea and the ESR team in relation to a warrior gene in Māori, qualifies as epistemological violence. That the hypothesis as they lay it out cannot similarly be applied to Chinese people – an ethnic group that evidenced an even higher estimated percentage of the MAO-A gene (77%), is immaterial to their pursuit of ‘knowledge’. It is highly likely that the 46 participants in their study were not made aware of the warrior-links to be made - the research, it is asserted, is health-related and for the benefit of ‘all New Zealanders’. The irony of the perpetrators of violence deeming the ‘other’ naturally so, is lost on these scientists who defended their position as “logical scientific interpretation”. If their hypothesis is considered reasonable one wonders whether a similarly plausible hypothesis in relation to white people could ever be investigated. One that speculates that those descended from Europe carry a thievery gene and are therefore naturally predisposed to taking what does not belong to them in the pursuit of wealth and/or power. Given the current prevalence of white people implicated in white-collar and corporate crime, for those of an evolutionary bent it surely requires similar attention. And yet the headline below, mirroring the exact headline-plus-byline that TVNZ ran in 2006 with the substitution of thievery for warrior, and White or Pakeha for Māori, is unlikely to be seen.
Thievery Gene prevalent in White people
White people, including New Zealand
Pākehā carry a “thievery” gene which
has been linked to exploitation,
criminal acts and risky behaviour, a
scientist has controversially claimed.
There is no doubt that the media play an important role in propagating ‘scientific’ findings such as these. While Lea later muted his warrior-gene enthusiasm to the point of recanting on previously proposed links between Māori and potential criminality as having “no scientific support whatsoever and should be ignored”, once the genie was out of the proverbial bottle it couldn’t be stuffed back in. In the 5 years that have followed the genie has travelled, all the while growing in strength and mis-information. It has permeated television, the internet and popular scientific fiction. Best-selling author Michael Crichton wrote a novel titled Next in 2006 informed by the warrior gene hypothesis and has one of his characters describe it as a gene for “anti-social personality disorder … associated with violence and crime” (p.297). The possibility that the book becomes a movie is high given many of his books have (such as Jurassic Park), potentially providing an even bigger audience for the misconception of a specific gene-behaviour connection. That the author would so easily fall for the warrior-gene hype is not surprising given his predisposition toward native peoples. In September 2003 he gave a speech to the Commonwealth (often referred to as the Stolenwealth by Australia’s native peoples) Club in Los Angeles expounding on indigenous character:
“[T]he early peoples of the New World lived in a state of constant warfare. Generations of hatred, tribal hatreds, constant battles. The warlike tribes of this continent are famous: the Comanche, Sioux, Apache, Mohawk, Aztecs, Toltec, Incas. Some of them practiced infanticide, and human sacrifice. And those tribes that were not fiercely warlike were exterminated … How about the human condition in the rest of the world? The Maori of New Zealand committed massacres regularly. The dyaks of Borneo were headhunters. The Polynesians, living in an environment as close to paradise as one can imagine, fought constantly, and created a society so hideously restrictive that you could lose your life if you stepped in the footprint of a chief”.
In print-media (also available on the internet) the UK Telegraph and Australia’s literary science magazine Cosmos describe aggressive behaviour as “common among New Zealand’s Maoris” (note the jump from 56% of 46 men to ‘common’) and support their stories with stereotypical images old and new emphasising the warrior theme. For added impact. In the US a 2009 article in Science Daily provides support for a new warrior gene study by alluding to Lea’s claims:
“Only about a third of people in Western populations have the low-activity form of MAOA. By comparison, low-activity MAOA has been reported to be much more frequent (approaching two-thirds of people) in some populations that had a history of warfare. This led to a controversy over MAOA being dubbed the “warrior gene.””
A history of warfare. Because World War’s I and II do not constitute a ‘history of warfare’. The US at war every year for over 200 years does not constitute a ‘history of warfare’. Histories of warfare are ascribed to the demonised ‘other’, no matter how far past, or how contentious the claim. Who believes this shit? Plenty it would seem. When there are colonial histories to deny, academic/scientific careers to be built, and money to be made. That people experience real and long-lasting suffering as the result of continued violent re-presentation is just so much bad luck, really. Unintended (ignored) consequence, or to borrow a phrase ‘collateral damage’. Do we really have to wait another century for people to look back and tut-tut, as they do with the once lauded craniometrists, the racist ideology that informs such psuedo-scientific nonsense? While in between, say 20 years from now, the latest societal crisis de jour cites ‘scientific’ evidence of the warrior gene as solid support for its next spurious insistence on the inherent inferiority of the ‘other’. That’s how myth-making works. Layer upon layer, year after year; same tired story in a new guise/presentation. In a field of representation of Māori (and other subjugated peoples) both fed by and contributing to a white supremacist ideology that permeates the global at every level, it is just so much common sense. ‘Common sense’ being a clear indication of dominant ideologies at work.
The violence of naked emperors
While the creation of the warrior trope cannot be laid solely at the feet of ESR or its scientists, there can be little doubt that this latest layer of what Māori scientist Raumati Hook (2009) calls “speculation and fantasy about the nature of Māori” (p.5) adds fuel to an always smouldering fire. If contributing the weight of scientific credibility, particularly given the believability factor associated with DNA evidence (just look at the difference DNA testing has made in the area of criminal law) is not a violence on an entire group of people, then I guess I don’t understand violence. While science touts its technological advancements, its now stringent ethical processes, what must be taken from the warrior gene debacle is the degree to which such ‘progress’ still serves the dominant ideologies of those who wield power. Those who fall subject to it, be they Frankenstein’s monster or native peoples whose realities are invisibilised behind the (re)creation of a popular mythical image, are sacrificed in the name of scientific ‘progress’, and for the ‘good of all’. The ‘objectivity’ empirical science claims for itself is here unmasked; given its collusion in colonial practices and ideologies past and present, its role in making the socially-created appear nature-inspired should ring alarm bells in indigenous and marginalised peoples everywhere. The scientific-emperor has no clothes.
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Crichton, M. (2006). Next. London: Harper.
Raumati Hook, G. (2009). “Warrior Genes” and the disease of being Māori. Mai Review. Retrieved from http://www.review.mai.ac.nz.
Teo, T. (2008). From speculation to epistemological violence. Theory & Psychology, 18(1), 47-67.