The Politics of Genetic Determinism

Another article has just appeared on the website of the journal Evolutionary Psychology relating to the influence of our innate mental wiring on the likelihood that our political outlook will be conservative or liberal. Entitled, “Extending the Behavioral Immune System to Political Psychology: Are Political Conservatism and Disgust Sensitivity Really Related?” it isn’t fundamentally different from other papers that have appeared in behavioral science journals recently exploring the same theme.

The conjecture that human beings have an innate tendency to identify with ideological points of view that are either to the right or the left of the political spectrum has been around for a very long time, and recent research seems to verify it. However, such work must necessarily be carried out in the context of human societies charged with the types of emotion it seeks to study. It is hardly as irrelevant to those emotions as, say, research into the behavior of some new type of amoeba. It should come as no surprise if the results of such studies are crudely distorted and transmogrified into propaganda weapons by one ideological faction or the other.

Specifically, there is a danger that research in this area will be trivialized to “prove” determinist arguments the same way other research into innate aspects of human behavior has been used in the legal system to claim that criminals are not responsible for their behavior because “their genes made them do it.” An example of what I’m talking about turned up on the Foxnews website today. Referring to a different but related study, it carries the headline, “Researchers find the ‘Liberal Gene’”. This is immediately followed by the byline, “Don’t hold liberals responsible for their opinion – they can’t help themselves.” The rest of the piece is considerably more nuanced. For example, a bit further down we read,

“The way openness is measured, it’s really about receptivity to different lifestyles, for example, or different norms or customs,” he (research paper author James Fowler) told “We hypothesize that individuals with a genetic predisposition toward seeking out new experiences [a measure of openness] will tend to be more liberal” — but only if they had a number of friends when growing up, Fowler cautioned.

This isn’t a typical gene association study,” he said. “There’s a combination of genes and environment that matter.”

No matter, as all good propagandists and students of the media are aware, a great number, if not most, readers never look beyond the headline and the byline. That’s where you should always look if you want to get the “message” straight up. That “message” is set forth a great deal more explicitly in an “opinion” piece that is linked directly under the main article entitled, “A ‘Liberal Gene’ You Say — Now That Explains It All, Doesn’t It?” The author, Martin Sieff, quickly hammers the nuanced scientific observations of the original article into a handy propaganda tool:

Can there really be a liberal gene? They’ve got to be joking.

But no here it is, straight from Fox News today: James Fowler, a professor medical genetics and political science (cool combination) says liberals can’t help being – liberal.

Sieff goes on to “rearrange” the research paper to suit his own political point of view:

Of course, what Fowler calls the “liberal gene” he also explains as being the “open minded” gene. And that might well apply to modern conservatives instead of liberals, because which of them is more open-minded?

After all, Fowler defines his “liberals” as being open minded and open to new ideas and new solutions. But does that fit modern American liberals, who stick to disastrous failed ideas and policies in the face of all the evidence? Or does it apply to American conservatives, who are right now thrashing out a redefinition of conservative policies for the new century?

So perhaps Fowler’s “liberals” were really open-minded conservatives all alike, and his “liberals”, while certainly not conservative, were just rigid, closed minded defenders of a disastrous, failed status quo all along.

The deterministic message is again served up straight in the “zinger” lines at the end of the article:

This means of course, that conservatives should show more tolerance the next time they hear President Obama or House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. After all, they can’t help it, can they?

It also means that so-called principled liberals, like Obama, are far more likely to run the country into the ground than cynical opportunists like President Bill Clinton did. Obama and Pelosi, by contrast are what they are, and they always will be. Not even national ruin will change them.

My intention here is not to single out conservatives for criticism. Leftists can and will bowdlerize exactly the same research papers to create deterministic mythologies supporting their own points of view. In the process they will be just as adept as conservatives in transmuting nuanced predispositions into rigid instincts.   In fact, there is no single gene that determines an individual’s political point of view, nor is environment irrelevant to shaping that point of view, nor are our highly developed rational minds incapable of overriding ideological predispositions. Perhaps more importantly, the degree to which ideas are true or false is not altered by the degree to which they fall on one side or the other of the political spectrum. Researchers might do well to lay more stress on these facts in their research papers, and at the same time bear in mind the fact that they are not immune to the emotional behavior they are studying themselves.

The Case of Margaret Mead: Icon of the Blank Slate

Margaret Mead

I wonder how many of the people who have been furious detractors or avid supporters of Margaret Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa have actually read the book. Very few, if the comments I’ve seen about it are any guide. The book is supposed to be one of the holy Gospels of the Blank Slate, or the theory that there is, for all practical purposes, no such thing as innate human nature, a palpably false notion that somehow managed to mesmerize the practitioners of the sciences of human behavior through much of the 20th century. How such a seemingly innocuous little book could have risen to such prominence and been accorded such ideological significance is a subject that may well busy future generations of psychologists.

On the face of it, the book seems to be a collection of observations concerning the natives of Samoa written by a talented and intelligent young anthropologist who had visited the islands for a period of something under a year. A student of the noted psychologist Frank Boas, she was particularly interested in finding if the apparent stress and strain of adolescence for girls growing up in western societies was really unavoidable, or merely the reflection of a dysfunctional culture. I find no intent to deceive in the book, no excessive confirmation bias, and no evidence that Mead was a person easily duped by the individuals she was studying into believing something that she wanted to believe, but that was actually false.

Boas did Mead no favor by writing in a foreword to the book:

The results of the painstaking investigation confirm the suspicion long held by anthropologists, that much of what we ascribe to human nature is no more than a reaction to the restraints put upon us by our civilization.

The statement is both crudely unscientific (a brief study like Mead’s could “confirm” no such sweeping conclusion one way or the other), and self-contradictory (why would human beings “react to restraints” if it is not their nature to do so?). Such inflammatory nonsense amounted to putting a target on Mead’s back. I am not familiar enough with her work to know if she ever made such a sweeping claim herself in some other work, but nothing like it appears in Coming of Age. In Dilthey’s Dream, a collection of essays by Mead’s great foe, Derek Freeman, he makes the claim,

In the thirteenth chapter of Coming of Age in Samoa, Margaret Mead went even further, claiming on the basis of her enquiries into adolescence in Samoa, that explanations other than in terms of environmental factors could not be made.

I have carefully parsed the chapter in question, and can only conclude that Freeman had a lively imagination. Mead did constantly stress the importance of culture in the book, but I find nothing, in the thirteenth chapter or elsewhere, that positively excludes other than cultural influences on human behavior. What she actually did say was consistent with a comment that appeared in a preface she wrote for the 1973 edition of the book:

But the renascence of racism among some scientists and the pleas for a harsh, manipulative behavioralism among some psychologists make me wonder whether the modern world understands much more about the significance of culture – the interplay between individual endowment and cultural style, the limits set by biology and the way in which human imagination can transcend those limits – than was known in 1928.

Here Mead is wearing her well-known political activism on her sleeve, but she clearly distances herself from the extreme versions of the Blank Slate that were prevalent in 1973 and explicitly acknowledges that there are “limits set by biology.” This statement, written near the end of her career, seems to position her closer to modern theories of human nature than to the extreme “nurture vs. nature” orthodoxy of the mid-20th century.

Freeman isn’t the only one who has transformed Coming of Age to an ideological icon in his imagination, attributing extreme claims to it that one searches for in vain in the actual book. In rounding up the usual suspects, we find that Steven Pinker, that master chef of philosopher soup, has done the same thing. In his book The Blank Slate, he cites Coming of Age as a prime example of the “noble savage” fallacy, claiming in particular that Mead portrays Samoan society as egalitarian. She does no such thing. Her book is full of descriptions of the hierarchical traditions of the culture, and the consciousness and importance of rank and status. As far as the “noble savage” is concerned, Mead explicitly rejected some aspects of Samoan culture as inimical to those values of Western civilization that she believed should be preserved.

As for Freeman, he was a strange bird. Like Sam Harris, he had the notion that his understanding of human nature was so acute that he could use it to cobble together a new morality. For example, again from Dilthey’s Dream:

One of my main conclusions then is that there is a need for a critical anthropology of human values. Human cultures being value systems are “experiments in living,” and a critical anthropology would be concerned with assessing the consequences of these “experiments in living” in the hope that we might gradually learn to select our values with greater wisdom.

He seems to have elevated Mead to the role of quintessential representative of the Blank Slate in his imagination, and was obsessed with the bizarre notion that, if he could only prove that her claims about sexuality in Samoan adolescents were wrong, he would not only debunk Mead, but single-handedly demolish the Blank Slate itself. In fact, whether adolescent Samoan girls in the 1920s were as chaste as the most straight-laced Victorians, or just as Mead described them, it would “prove” nothing at all about human nature. Factual or not, Mead’s version of Samoan sexuality was well within the parameters already observed in other societies by observers both modern and ancient.

The question remains of whether Mead’s findings about the relative sexual freedom of women and girls in Samoan society were true or, as Freeman claimed, a figment of her imagination based on the claims of Samoan girls who told her what she seemed to want to hear as something of a practical joke. It happens that there is much of relevance to this question in a book entitled An Account of the Natives of the Tonga Islands by an Englishman who had lived among them for many years published in 1817. Thanks to Google books, this account, a wonderful anthropological study in its own right, can be read online. In includes a section on sexual behavior, noting that married women tended to be true to their husbands, but that marriage bonds were weak, and many of them were married multiple times. Unmarried women, on the other hand, enjoyed virtually untrammeled sexual freedom. Quoting from the book (page 173):

If a man divorces his wife, which is attended with no other ceremony than just telling her that she may go, she becomes perfect mistress of her own conduct, and may marry again, which is often done a few days afterwards, without the least disparagement to her character: or if she chooses, she may remain single and admit a lover occasionally, or may cohabit with her lover for a time, and remain at his house without being considered his wife, having no particular charge of his domestic concerns, and may leave him when she pleases, and this she may also do without the least reproach or secrecy.

…once divorced, they can remain single if they please, and enjoy all the liberty that the most libertine heart can desire.

…As to those women who are not actually married, they may bestow their favours upon whomsoever they please, without any opprobrium.

Remarkably, the author claimed that, in spite of this, the women were relatively chaste, if not compared to Europe, than at least compared to other island groups in the region, including Samoa, to which the natives occasionally traveled in their ocean-going canoes. In a review of the book that appeared in the April 1817 edition of the British Quarterly Review we learn, for example:

The women are much less immodest than in the other islands, and maternal affection exists as strongly among them as among the nations where the instincts of nature are fostered and strengthened by the sense of duty.

In a word, score one for Mead. It would seem that Freeman was the one who had his leg pulled.

If there’s a lesson here, perhaps it is that, before becoming firmly convinced about what an author said, it is useful to actually read her book beforehand.  Paul Shankman has written an account of the Mead – Freeman controversy entitled The Trashing of Margaret Mead: Anatomy of an Anthropological Controversy. An interesting review of the book may be found here.