Homo homini rodentius est

Genetic Fundamentalism

gay babyThe New York Times has finally gone to the rats. Far be it for me, a guy who pretends to be an escapee from a lab maze, to complain, except an [article] they published — another in a seemingly endless series about genes and behavior — is a little more absurd than most. Somehow they go from a finding about genetic factors in animal domestication to suggested causes of “human domestication”. I think that used to be called… society. Presto! Ten thousand years of history, philosophy, politics and literature are reduced to the suggested impact of “a single gene that affects the timing of neural crest cell development”. Spare us.

In a [recent post] I wailed about those who try to reduce complex human characteristics and behaviors to simple genetic factors. Since I wrote, the New York State Court of Appeals [denied rights] to homosexual couples — their decision turning largely on a notion of essential qualities lacking in gay people (namely, ability to procreate and parent), and last week a [particularly bizarre] resurrection of the debate over whether people are born gay lit up the blogs. From hypothesized “God genes”, that give rise to religious experience, to genes that make us engineers or gamblers, the search is on for the keys to our nature. But it is the obsessive debate over genetic determinants of sexual identity, specifically homosexual attitudes and behavior, that is perhaps the most persistent example of the desire to reduce people to a fundamental biological essence. Not since the Nazi obsession with eugenics and its relation to the “Jewish problem” have we seen such obsessive attention to what determines the characteristics of a class of people. The difference is that, this time, it’s the Left that embraces the idea of essential difference — with the attendant risks — and it’s the Right that argues for a more inclusive anti-essentialism.

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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?

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How to be happy

bowl of cherriesDan Gilbert isn’t your typical Harvard egghead (though his balding pate does bear a striking resemblence to this morning’s hard-boiled breakfast…). His [website], which identifies him as the head of the Harvard Hedonic Psychology Lab, contains the expected lists of academic credentials and awards, but also links to a video entitled “The Hand Puppet Dance”; shows his impressive and august Curriculum Vitae, as well as a section on how to “Control A Man in A Chicken Suit.” As you may guess, Gilbert is exceptional in many ways, not least in that he can write — clearly and humorously — about very important things. Like Happiness.

If you stroll through Barnes & Noble you may find his book [Stumbling on Happiness] sitting uncomfortably in the Self Help section. It’s in the wrong place — this isn’t a Deepak Chopra exercise in better living through purple prose. Rather, like Freakonomics, this book belongs to that rare collection of popular science books that are so well-written and go down so easily you may not even realize your understanding of the world has changed profoundly until you finish the last sentence.

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Bad news for Gawker…

smileyA couple of scientists at the University of British Columbia have come up with some interesting [findings] about what kids find cool thesedays.

Apparently nice is the new snark. As described by surprisingly studly study director [Ilan Dar-Nimrod], “Just being nice and friendly and having talent — all the things your mom would love you to be — is the main part of how people perceive coolness now.” Dar-Nimrod sees the origins of the stereotypical cool rebel as arising from disempowered outgroups of the 1950s — blacks and youth — who wanted to resist the culture through personal expression. According to Dar-Nimrod’s colleague Ian Hansen, “open rebellion could get you killed, so a safer way to rebel would be ironic mockery of the dominant culture. Original coolness was a way of feeling like you were resisting oppression without actually doing what was necessary to throw it off.” Kids today are, apparently, not feeling very disgruntled about things and are more than happy to just get along. Exemplars of this trait are “cool”.

Of course, we can chalk a lot of this up to the general conservative vibe in the world and this study was, after all, conducted in Canada (sweet people, those Canadians), but it makes you wonder about who is consuming all the snarky too-ironic-by-half sludge that gets pumped from media outlets. Maybe not the next generation of media consumers. If I was Nick Denton I’d start wondering if I was really on the cutting edge of the next wave in publishing — or just pandering to the aging cynical wheezebags of the last generation.

The Male Pill. DOA.

OrestesThe BBC and others are [reporting] on a breakthrough in the development of male hormonal contraceptives — the Male Pill. Chalk this up to politically correct wishful thinking. Do they honestly think men are going to turn the tables on thousands of years of behavior and suddenly start shooting themselves up with God-knows-what to prevent their women from getting knocked up? Someone forgot to tell them that men already have an effective method of avoiding the repurcussions of unplanned pregnancy: it’s called walking.

Of course some men may very well try this — risks and all. But the ones most likely to adopt it are exactly the ones — well-educated upper middle class liberals — who already enjoy a close to zero fertility rate. If they really wanted this stuff to have a positive effect on society they’d slip it into the beer at Rangers games, cock fights, wrestling matches and Nascar races.

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