Mutation and Genius
Written by: You-Sheng Li

(2003, rewritten May 2010)

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Now it becomes crystal clear that the driving force behind human evolution is gene mutation. What is gene mutation? You can find a precise definition in any genetics textbook. But such a definition is only professional jargon which doesn’t make any sense to ordinary people who have a much broader view. Gene mutation is really the decay of our genetic material, DNA. It decays like a deserted city which eventually becomes ruined, not distinguishable from its natural surroundings. Gene mutation is part of the universal process, a process from order to chaos.


Human body uses haemoglobin, one of the thousands of proteins, to transport oxygen. Most mutations of the haemoglobin gene are neutral if they do not affect the binding and releasing capacities of oxygen. When they do, as you can imagine, the mutations usually reduce the binding and releasing capacities except a few which benefit human beings. Many of them may be lethal, such as those which kill the fetus within the first few weeks of pregnancy. Some peculiar examples are those mutations that make it much harder for malaria parasites to grow inside the red cells, therefore the patients become resistant to malaria infection.


Human evolution gave way to cultural evolution when our first ancestors appeared one hundred thousand years ago in Africa. Those human beings relied on their social cooperation to survive rather than on the advantage of their physical bodies.


Some scholars believe that the driving force for this cultural evolution of human society is still mutation: cultural mutation, which is far removed from conventional thinking. Statistics also tell us that a genius’s close relatives have a high rate of schizophrenia. As a direct result, such non-conventional even abnormal behaviours can be hallmarks of genius for certain people. One group of literature and artistic virtuosoes in the last century was called decadents. The term implies that they were geniuses in art and literature but decaying elements in society. I recently watched a video, Total Eclipse. It was about the life and relationship of two notable French decadent poets, Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine. It was an experience of humiliation and indignity to watch such a movie. The occasional reciting of their beautiful poems was not enough to serve as a palliative dose against the pain it caused. Their lives moved along a zigzag course straddling the line between creative talent and the most destructive force. The destructive force not only ruined themselves but also ruined anyone who happened to be related to them, though the video tries to obscure this part. In an incident, Verlaine left his infant daughter to his wife and fled with Rimbaud. They caused pain and trouble everywhere.


What about scientists? A Chinese scientist may serve as an example to illustrate the mutated unconventional elements of scientific minds, which can also be destructive when powered by politics.


In the late 1940s and early 1950s, a young intelligent Chinese man, named Chan, studied nuclear physics in the United States. He was not a sociable person but had a strong left-wing political tendency. He had some trouble with the FBI, which made him delve deeper into left-wing thinking. He eventually managed to go back to the People’s Republic of China through a third country. He late became one of the few father figures who helped China to develop their own nuclear weapons. His fanatic, political stance was soon nationally known. He entered the most powerful Central Party Committee during the cultural revolution when millions of intellectuals fell in disgrace.


In the 1950s, China barely managed to feed their enormous population on limited lands. It fell far short of matching the new leaders’ political appetites, especially when those leaders had just jumped from nowhere to the heavenly top of this huge country. Young Chan sensed the frustration of the new country’s leaders. He offered a magic dose, a farfetched fantasy: He argued that if all the energy of sunlight could be transformed into chemical energy, and stored in grain such as wheat and rice, then the food produced from a limited piece of land would be limitless. He expanded his fanciful theory, saying that city people could be fed by growing crops on top of their buildings and there would no longer be any need to transport food from the countryside. Among the 600 million Chinese people at that time, Chan could convince none with his fairy tale fantasy except one, Chairman Mao, the most powerful man in the world and the living god of China. To be exact, Mao was only half-convinced for a few months. But that was enough to put China into Chaos for a few years, and killed some twenty or thirty million people. Were those thirty million people willing to die without a fight? Of course not. But they failed, and failed miserably. One of the critical events was the neglect of the autumn harvest in 1958, the year of the great leap forward. If you do not harvest in autumn, there will be no food for winter and next spring. That was a truth well known to all Chinese peasants. Thus in 1958, half a billion peasants wanted to harvest crops to ensure their winter food but Mao and Chan still thought the crops they grew on top of city buildings would be enough to feed the whole China, and peasants should do something more important than harvesting, such as catching up with the Americans by melting cooking pans to make steel and so on. The gap was too big. Millions of communist officials went to the countryside to stop peasants from harvesting their crops. How could they stop those hungry peasants from taking the food they had grown themselves? Of course, violence was essential. Many peasants were beaten to death. But in the end, those millions of communist officials only managed to succeed in some areas of China. If they had succeeded all over China, there would be no Chinese left today.


Twenty years later in 1978, two years after Mao died, a provincial Chinese newspaper carried an unusual news story saying that an 11 year old boy could read books with his ears. Chinese newspapers did not normally carry such news and regarded it as superstitious. That provincial newspaper received severe criticism from its superior office, and published a correction and apology a few days later, saying the boy was a liar and played tricks to get cigarettes. But Mr. Chan, now a much more powerful and influential figure both in politics and in science, interfered in this matter, saying it was possible to read books with one’s ears. The boy’s story went to the national newspaper, People’s Daily the next day. An additional 50 boys from the same region were encouraged by the news and claimed the same ability. Due to Chan’s strong, perverse, unyielding support, within in a few years, numerous supernatural persons emerged from all over China, who, mostly poorly educated, claimed that they could not only read books with their ears but also could cook meals in their bare hands, fly into the sky without any wings, go through solid walls, and so on. There were many research institutes and numerous publications that promoted such miracle making. Nobody dared to say anything. The former general secretary of the Party Mr. Hu, whose death triggered the Tiananmen Square Events in 1989, was reported to have once said, “China is too poor to spend money searching how to read books with one’s ears but let Mr. Chan do what he wants.” At a time, many Chinese dropped to the ground and broke their legs when they tried to fly. The local hospitals issued a formal warning on a city newspaper, saying “We hospital staff do believe patriotic Chinese can do all sorts of miraculous things while foreigners cannot. We fully support those Chinese people who want to fly by jumping from a high building. But remember, do fly please after you jump, and don’t fall to the ground and break your legs. Our hospital space is limited.”


Some American scientists heard the story and went to China to challenge those people who claimed to be able to do all sorts of miracles. Their challenge was well broadcast and published. But not a single person turned out. Those American scientists had to leave China disappointed. This did not embarrass Mr. Chan, nor stop those people who continued to perform all sorts of miracles.


One young man claimed that he could do four kinds of miracles including going through solid walls. He also claimed that he was the only person in the world who could talk to God and persuade him to postpone his plan to explode our planet. But this young man took a political approach, which made him different from Mr. Chan who was most loyal to the party. One day, twenty thousand of his followers marched in front of the Chinese Communist Party’s Headquarters. The Party leaders were outraged and arrested many of them. The Party started an all-out national campaign against those superstitions.


What has been the reaction of the one billion Chinese people? They now use those “miracles” as a laughing-stock to cheer themselves up in their busy life. You can hear people talking on the streets: “Can you cook me a meal using your bare hands? I am hungry.” “Were you trying to fly when you fell off your bicycle?” and so on. Is there something missing in those sarcastic jokes? One thing is certain. Jesus had to hear the sarcastic questions when he was crucified, “Can your father save you?” Two thousand years later, some Chinese prisoners have to face similar questions: “Can you go through the prison walls to escape?”