Of Genetic Determinists and Unicorns

There are and have been legions of cultural determinists, that is, people who believe that all human behavior, or all that really matters, is a product of learning, experience, and culture.  For example, a whole gang of them self-identify in that invaluable little fragment of historical source material, Man and Aggression, a collection of essays edited by arch-Blank Slater Ashley Montagu and published back in 1968.  Presumably, genetic determinists are the opposite; those who believe that our behavior is “all in our genes.”  For all I know, such beings may actually exist, or have existed once upon a time.  If so, however, they must be as rare as unicorns, for I have never actually seen one, or even found an artifact of one in the literature.

We are a diligent species, though, and the search for them goes on.  Those on the quest include the usual suspects among the left over Blank Slaters, “modern” cultural determinists who accept the idea that genes might influence behavior, but react with fury or scorn if anyone dares to suggest a specific example or says anything mildly supportive of evolutionary psychology, and, well, others, people who for one reason or another become queasy at the thought that those nasty little snippets of DNA might be missing with their free will.

One lucky prospector by the name of Nathaniel Comfort, a professor in the Department of the History of Medicine at Johns Hopkins, recently imagined he’d struck pay dirt.  And who can blame him?  He stumbled across an article by Bruce Grierson at the Pacific Standard website entitled, Is the Will to Work Out Genetically Determined?  I must admit that the thought of someone so naïve as to pen such a title in this day and age is, as one of Evelyn Waugh’s “bright young things” might have put it, terribly shy-making.  It’s something like watching a politician from the sticks guilelessly telling an ethnic joke in his first speech on the floor of Congress.  However, if you actually read the article, it’s clear enough Grierson isn’t the real thing.  For example, he writes,

There’s increasing evidence that the will to work out is partly genetically determined.

Well, if the will to work out is “partly” genetically determined, then it must be “partly” culturally determined as well.  In other words, while Grierson did commit the sin of using the naughty word “determined,” he can’t really be a “genetic determinist” unless he’s also a “cultural determinist” at the same time.  If you actually read the article, you’ll find that Grierson is actually a freelance writer who’s just written an inspirational book, entitled What Makes Olga Run, about Olga Kotelko, a 94-year old athlete whose favorite pastime is working out.  Olga also appears in his article, along with the speculation that her DNA might have something to do with her affinity for staying in shape.  Such speculation might have been “out there” among the more puritanical Blank Slaters of the 1960’s, but wouldn’t raise many eyebrows today.

However, for whatever reason, Prof. Comfort saw red when the phrase “genetically determined” popped up on his radar screen, for all the world as if he were one of the hoary Blank Slaters of yore.  I doubt that he actually is one, because his writing lacks that faint, characteristic stench of Marxism.  For all that, he struck a pious pose that would have done any of them proud, and proceeded to scribble a fiery denunciation of the evil “genetic determinist” on his Genotopia website, sporting the sanctimonious title, Genetic Determinism:  Why We Never Learn – and Why it Matters.  With a stern shake of the head he writes,

What’s troubling here is the genetic determinism… Reducing a complex behavior to a single gene gives us blinders:  it tends to turn social problems into molecular ones.

Untroubled by the fact that nowhere in his article does Grierson come anywhere near “reducing a complex behavior to a single gene,” he charges on to accuse him of guilt by association with the popular science writers who coined the term “warrior gene,” referring to an allele of the monoamine oxidase A (MAOA) gene.  That gene, which is associated with the breakdown of certain neurotransmitters in the brain, is indeed responsible for increased levels of aggression in response to provocation, according to several papers that have appeared in the literature over the years.  I read a couple of the ones most often cited, and both of them emphasized the prominent role of environment in moderating the influence of the gene.  Neither of them makes the claim that the gene “determines” behavior, or anything close to it.  Many other papers on the subject are referenced at the Wiki page on the gene, in case the interested reader wants to go searching for a stray genetic determinist on his own.  Ignoring the actual content of these papers, Comfort thunders on,

The best science writers understand and even write about how to avoid determinist language.  In 2010, Ed Yong wrote an excellent analysis of how, in the 1990’s, the monoamine oxidase A (MAOA) gene became mis- and oversold as “the warrior gene.”  What’s wrong with a little harmless sensationalism?  Plenty, says Yong.  First, catchy names like “warrior gene” are bound to be misleading.  They are ways of grabbing the audience, not describing the science, so they oversimplify and distort in a lazy effort to connect with a scientifically unsophisticated audience.  Second, there is no such thing as a “gene for” anything interesting.  Nature and nurture are inextricable.

As far as the “best science writers” are concerned, you can say that again.  They’re well aware by now of the vigilance of the pathologically pious among us for any language that might justify a delicious rant about “determinism.”  As for admonishing popular science writers to stop writing catchy headlines, good luck with that.  Beyond that, of course, is the stubborn fact that neither Grierson nor the authors of the MAOA papers ever claimed that “nature and nurture are extricable.”

More troubling is Comfort’s insistence that there is no such thing as a “gene for” anything interesting.  If I were a pedant, I could come up with all kinds of good-sounding reasons for denouncing people who use the term “gene for.”  However, it would be at the expense of deliberately blinding myself and my readers to some important facts about evolution.  Allow me to quote from Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene at length on the subject:

For the purposes of argument it will be necessary to speculate about genes ‘for’ doing all sorts of improbable things.  If I speak, for example, of a hypothetical gene ‘for saving companions from drowning’, and you find such a concept incredible, remember the story of the hygienic bees.  Recall that we are not talking about the gene as the sole antecedent cause of all the complex muscular contractions, sensory integrations, and even conscious decisions, that are involved in saving somebody from drowning.  We are saying nothing about the question of whether learning, experience, or environmental influences enter into the development of the behavior.  All you have to concede is that it is possible for a single gene, other things being equal and lots of other essential genes and environmental factors being present, to make a body more likely to save somebody from drowning than its allele would.  The difference between the two genes may turn out at bottom to be a slight difference in some simple quantitative variable.  The details of the embryonic developmental process, interesting as they may be, are irrelevant to evolutionary considerations.

That is, at least in my experience, the sense in which the term “gene for” is normally used.  One wonders what on earth Comfort is thinking when he claims that “there is no such thing as a ‘gene for’ anything interesting.”  If that’s true, how was it possible for evolution to happen?  Did cosmic rays set off sprays of ionizing radiation that just happened to hit whole gene complexes in just the right places, all at the same time?

But Comfort isn’t through with the unsuspecting Grierson yet.  It turns out he is also a villain for daring to suggest that some pill might be invented to channel dangerous drug and other addictions into a “good” addiction to working out.  Comfort pontificates that Grierson’s fall from a state of grace into such potentially mortal sins is the entirely predictable result of sliding down the slippery slope from the original sin of “determinism.”  I’m no partisan of the pharmaceutical companies myself, but this strikes me as a bit overwrought.

What can I say, other to inform Prof. Comfort that the glittering trinket he dug up is actually fool’s gold?  On the other hand, I personally would be willing to part with a quarter at a circus side show to see a genuine genetic determinist if one is ever actually discovered.  If the truth be told, though, I would rather see a unicorn.

Author: Helian

I am Doug Drake, and I live in Maryland, not far from Washington, DC. I am a graduate of West Point, and I hold a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering from the University of Wisconsin. My blog reflects my enduring fascination with human nature and human morality.

3 thoughts on “Of Genetic Determinists and Unicorns”

  1. So call me a unicorn but I thought if you had the Tay Sachs gene you were pretty well determined to get Tay Sachs. Same with FRAXA and Gauchers and lots of other rare variants…

  2. Quite true, and the same goes for hair color, having two eyes instead of three, having five digits on each hand instead of six (with rare exceptions) etc., etc. We’re not talking about physical characteristics here. We’re talking about what’s known in the vernacular as human nature – the predispositions responsible for moral behavior, etc.

  3. I see. But FRAXA will give boys IQ < 70. We do not, correctly, hold them to the same behavioral standards as normal people. My point is that society acknowledges some HBD.

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