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.

Alas Poor Evolutionary Psychology: Take 2

Back in 2002, Robert Kurzban, who writes a blog for the journal Evolutionary Psychology, wrote a review of Alas, Poor Darwin:  Arguments Against Evolutionary Psychology, by Steven and Hilary Rose.  The Roses, ideological zealots and leftover Blank Slaters who have devoted their careers to scientific obscurantism, had regurgitated all the usual specious arguments against human nature, which had already become hackneyed by that time.  Anyone with a passing interest in human behavior likely knows most of them by heart.  They include the claim that the hypotheses of EP are unfalsifiable, that evolutionary explanations of human behavior serve evil political ends rather than science, etc. etc., usually topped off with that most ancient and threadbare red herring of them all, that anyone who dares to say anything nice about EP is a “genetic determinist.”  In his review, entitled, “Alas Poor Evolutionary Psychology:  Unfairly Accused, Unjustly Condemned,” Kurzban demolishes them all in turn, writing in his conclusion,

There are now a collection of dialogues in the popular press between evolutionary psychologists and their critics. The discussions all seem to have the same form: Critics assert that evolutionary psychologists are wrong in believing behavior is genetically determined, that every aspect of the organism is an adaptation, and that discovering what is informs what ought be. Evolutionary psychologists reply that they never made any of these claims, and document places where they claim precisely the reverse. The critics then reply that evolutionary psychologists are wrong in believing behavior is genetically determined, that every aspect of the organism is an adaptation, and that discovering what is informs what should be.

The contradictions between what evolutionary psychologists have said and what their critics have said they said are as clear as they are infuriating. All of the correctives that I have presented here have been discussed before, and all of them are in the pieces cited by the critics of evolutionary psychology. It is unfathomable how the Roses and the other contributors to Alas Poor Darwin could have come away from the primary literature with their impressions of genetic determinism, panglossian adaptationism, and so on.

I suspect that Kurzban fathomed the reasons well enough, even then.  Such attacks on EP are not scientific refutations, but propaganda, designed to prop up pseudo-religious ideological shibboleths that happen to be badly out of step with reality.  Even then, they already had all the familiar trappings of propaganda, including the “Big Lie”; endless repetition while studiously ignoring counter-arguments.  Nothing has changed in the ensuing decade.  “Genetic determinism” is still as much a fixture in the screeds of left-over Blank Slaters as ever.  Pointing out the absurdity of the charge is as futile as trying to refute the charge of “fascism” by carefully explaining the theory of the corporate state.  Razib Khan, who writes the Gene Expression blog for Discover magazine, notes that he was just denounced as a “genetic determinist” for daring to even question the scientific credentials of cultural anthropologists, in a couple of posts that didn’t so much as take up the question of the connection between genes and behavior.

All this points up a fact that is as true now as it was in the days of Galileo.  “Science,” understood as a disinterested and cautious search for truth inspired by a spirit of skepticism, can still be as easily derailed by secular religious zealots as it was by the more traditional “spiritual” variety who intimidated Galileo and still fume against Darwin.  The puerile myths of the Blank Slate represented the prevailing orthodoxy in the behavioral “sciences” for decades, propped up, not by a tolerant and open spirit of academic freedom, but by vilification and intimidation of anyone who dared to step out of line.  Evolutionary psychologists are hardly the only victims, but they are probably the most prominent.  They have the misfortune of representing an idea that happens to tread on far more ideological toes than most.  Blank Slate orthodoxy is hardly unique in that regard.

For example, one of the common hypotheses of evolutionary psychology that there may be an innate component of human morality immediately elicits a “territorial defense” response from the legions of those who spend their time devising new moral systems for the edification of mankind.  Most of them spend their time cobbling elaborate proofs of the existence of the Good just as their intellectual forebears once concocted proofs of the existence of God.  Consider, for example, the case of the author of the Atheist Ethicist blog, who has demonstrated that, because a equals b and b equals c, it therefore follows that anyone who dares to claim that there is “an evolutionary basis for morality” is immoral.  To make a long story short, the “ethicist” believes that those insidious evolutionary psychologists are not limiting themselves to studying the “is” of human moral behavior, but have a disquieting tendency to lap over into the “ought,” a territory which he has reserved for himself and his revolutionary moral system of “desire utilitarianism.”  He does not actually name any specific examples of the most egregious of these evildoers, but no doubt we can trust him given his unique moral qualifications.

It isn’t difficult to find similar examples illustrating why the ideologically inspired find EP such a tempting target.  However, the fact that it is is a stroke of very bad luck for our species.  After all, EP is a field devoted to expanding our understanding of our selves, and there is no more critical knowledge than self-knowledge.  For example, what if the greed of evil corporations, or the imperialist pretentions of certain uniquely evil races, or “frustration” don’t turn out to be completely adequate and all-encompassing explanations of human warfare after all?  Is it really possible to know with absolute certainty that innate behavioral traits play no role whatsoever?  If they do, the failure to discover and understand them may threaten our very survival.  I happen to prefer survival to the alternative.  For that reason, it seems to me that the time for refuting such charges as “genetic determinism” with patient, reasoned arguments is past.  It is high time to begin fighting back against the ideological zealots with the same weapons they have long been using against their victims.