Homo homini rodentius est

The search for a genetic grail

genetic brainEverytime you turn around, there’s a story in the news about a new study that is described as finding “biological” causes of behaviors and traits that, traditionally, were matters of individual inclination or moral suasion. Just in the past few weeks, I’ve noticed stories in [The New York Times] about genes for risk-taking, yet another “what-makes-them-gay” [article] suggesting birth order is the key — even one saying that [choice of occupation] may be at least partially determined by your genes. There seems no end to our appetite for stories that locate our essence in the laboratory. But at what risk?

graph of behavioral genetics referencesBehavioral genetics is a relatively new field that, alongside sociobiology and evolutionary psychology, aims to reduce complex human traits to their essential factors — genes and their interplay with the environment. Like any academic undertaking, their project is not without [critics]. There’s nothing new about internecine academic squabbles. What is new is the ready embrace by mainstream media and the public of controversial, unproven — or even entirely false — theories. Why the attention? I would say it’s because people sense that we’re in the midst of a change in worldview about how human nature is defined that will have profound implications for social and political thinking.

A perfect example of how scientific beliefs are diffusing into the public and political sphere can be seen in the June 26, 2006 issue of [The New Republic]. Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker, a proponent of evolutionary psychology and author of the best-seller [How the Mind Works], presents a recent theory by scientists at the University of Utah that says Ashkenazi Jews enjoy an advantage in intelligence as a result of recent evolutionary selection. The claim is controversial and that is why Pinker presents it. He wants to get your attention. I won’t address the specific truth value of the theory here for two reasons: one, I’m not qualified to assess the value of the claim as science and, two, I am more concerned with the form of Pinker’s argument.

Over a number of pages, he presents the seven hypotheses that underpin the theory. Fully five of the seven require a genetic component to explain the performance on intelligence tests of this group of people compared to the population at large. The presentation of the hypotheses is itself interesting in that he apparently means to break down a theory that depends on subtle genetic detail into a form that is easily digestible by a non-academic readership, but the text is choked with turgid explanations of “genetic drift”, references to homozygotes and heterozygosity, sphingolipids and the BRCA1 gene. It’s hard going for readers who turn to The New Republic for their fix about where the Bush Administration screwed up again. And what is the upshot of their effort? Pinker announces, twenty-four paragraphs into the article, that the Utah theory, as yet untested, “is tentative and could turn out to be mistaken.” A committed reader who has soldiered through the mountain of terminology might well wonder at the point of their effort — if this theory has not been tested, why bring it up? The answer to that question comes in the remaining eight paragraphs of the article.

Pinker spends the rest of the article debating (with himself) the social effects of genetic research, especially the genetics of groups, and the implications of the Utah theory if it turns out to be true: “… the power to uncover genetic and evolutionary roots of group differences in psychological traits is both more likely to materialize and more incendiary in its consequences [than fears of eugenics]”. The implications of a theory that implies that Jews are smarter than others could be profound, given our history and penchant for stereotyping people. Pinker acknowledges this, but is optimistic. Not surprisingly, whenever someone engages in a debate with themselves, they win. We can assume his bias from his conclusion: “In theory, we have the intellectual and moral tools to defuse the dangers.” Having stated that the theory in question is unproven, Pinker goes on to reassure the reader that they can handle it (or others like it) being true. He has stopped being a scientist at this point and is now a propagandist. Through subtle argument and reassurance, he is inventing a Zeitgeist.

Richard Lewontin, an eminent biologist and critic of the overly reductionist project of behavioral genetics, says in his book [Biology as Ideology] that science has replaced religion as the dominant social institution that explains human nature and legitimizes social structures. However, “[science itself] is a supremely social institution, reflecting and reinforcing the dominant values and views of society at each historical epoch.” Pinker, in his 2003 book, [The Blank Slate], which carries the modest subtitle “The Modern Denial of Human Nature”, goes well beyond where Lewontin and others would feel safe by directly addressing socio-political “hot buttons” and expanding on recent findings from the lab and what they say about “human nature”. Not surprisingly, the chapter on Gender is especially charged. His argument is basically that science is finding more and more evidence of differences between the sexes that “explain” (Lewontin would say “justify”) social beliefs in the nature of gender. Pinker holds up a straw man version of feminism to argue that inequality of outcome need not derive from inequality of opportunity, but from essential differences of capacity. He believes that any political theory of equality needs to be grounded in the findings of science… but he’s wrong.

What he fails to see, as he clomps into the political minefields, is that political theory is intellectually independent of scientific findings. There is no reason at all that someone might not demand that human endeavors surpass biology. I wonder what Pinker would make of Simone De Beauvoir’s apothegm that a human is a being whose essence is in not having an essence? People strive to surpass biological limts all the time — it is the engine that drives medicine and, ironically, much of science. Why limit political theory to current understanding of “human nature” that is, itself, colored by ideological biases that reify stereotypes?

In today’s New York Times, a resident science writer, Olivia Judson — herself an evolutionary biologist — [writes] of her bafflement at the taboo on research into genetics of groups. It’s not that hard to understand. Things like blood, incest and stereotypes become taboo because people, rightly, perceive them to be dangerous. Powerfully volatile compounds are often unstable and must be handled carefully. So it is with genetic “explanations” of basic human qualities. Philosophers and political theorists have been grappling for centuries with basic questions of human nature and have amassed a huge and subtle body of work to help us understand what it means to be human. People like Pinker who wade into the political waters without a more complete understanding of that history may find themselves in over their heads.

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