I take a deep breath. If you were here with me you'd have noticed that it was breath signifying annoyance, annoyance over something I've just read. The annoyance triggered my brain to trigger my diaphragm to contract and elevate my lower ribs and expand my thoracic cavity vertically, while at the same time my external intercostal muscles and interchondral muscles have elevated my upper rib cage to expand the width of my thoracic cavity to allow the intake of air. The process is reversed as I breathe out. It's a biological thing. My annoyance also surely triggered hormonal releases of some sort as well, and other downstream reactions that may or may not catch up with me someday in the form of "stress-related illness."
But ok, that deep breath out of the way now, I start to type. My brain has begun to formulate sentences in response to what I've just read, and now transferring those sentences to the screen requires a complex interplay between the parts of my brain that think (clearly or not) and the muscles that govern my fingers on the keyboard.
More biology. Genes are firing all over the place, creating and controlling the complex interactions that make all this, and more, happen simultaneously without me making it happen or even being aware of what's going on. That's because in many senses I'm nothing but an automaton controlled by my genetic makeup to respond to my environment with biological impulses.
But I'm also eating a pear as I type. My hunger is a biological drive -- a genetic predisposition, even -- to which I'm responding. I have to eat or I can't fulfill my darwinian destiny to survive and reproduce.
But why am I eating a pear and not a durian fruit? Or a betel nut? Or a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on Wonder Bread? Because durians and betel nuts aren't sold at my local grocery stores, or even my local farmers' markets, and I don't like Wonder Bread. (Have you tried peanut butter and pickle sandwiches though? My mother's favorite lunch, a taste passed down to me.) So my clearly biological drive has to be satisfied in culturally specific ways, and based on my own personal taste. In part taught to me by my mother.
Let's go back to the source of my annoyance. It's a commentary in this week's Nature: "Biology and ideology: the anatomy of politics," about how biology shapes our politics.
An increasing number of studies suggest that biology can exert a significant influence on political beliefs and behaviours. Biological factors including genes, hormone levels and neurotransmitter systems may partly shape people's attitudes on political issues such as welfare, immigration, same-sex marriage and war. And shrewd politicians might be able to take advantage of those biological levers through clever advertisements aimed at voters' primal emotions.
Many of the studies linking biology to politics remain controversial and unreplicated. But the overall body of evidence is growing and might alter how people think about their own and others' political attitudes.Of course biology affects our beliefs and behaviors, in much the same ways that it affects what we choose to eat or our responses to things that annoy us, which in turn have been affected by our culture and upbringing. The work described in this commentary annoys me but it might strike you as perfectly fine. We are biological beings, and everything we do and are is affected by genes and hormones and neurotransmitters. But that is not the same as saying that everything we do is determined by our biology. I eat a pear but not a durian fruit, if I'm a southerner I voted Democratic in my youth and Republican now.
Genetics is now becoming deeply entrenched in the social sciences; economists, psychologists, sociologists, political scientists are being seduced by the appeal of genetics and Darwin as they try to explain why humans do what they do. Hell, evolutionary theory is even used to explain why characters in classic novels behave the way they do.
But this shows how little social scientists understand what genetics can actually tell us about complex traits like, well, like all the traits of interest to these disciplines. We can't even find genes 'for' truly biological traits like type 1 diabetes or clinical depression, even if the commentary assumes we have:
The past few decades have seen a wave of research connecting genes to disorders such as schizophrenia, depression and alcoholism, and to complex outcomes such as sexual orientation and how far people progress in education.Well, but we have made very little progress in geneticizing such things, and where we've found genetic variants that affect such traits, they usually have very little, and inconsistent, effect. Indeed, when we throw in the effects of culture and learning, not to mention neuroplasticity of the brain, almost all bets are off in terms of identifying biological forces that shape what we believe or how we behave.
And then there's the question of just what phenotype is being measured anyway. This is hard enough for biological traits -- what constitutes 'high' blood pressure, obesity, or autism? Very large studies to find genes for obesity find essentially entirely different candidates depending on the measure being used (e.g., body mass index, waist-hip ratio), or the obesity-related traits like diabetes, hypertension, or Alzheimer's disease. So how on Earth do you measure political belief in such a way that it is a proxy for some protein coded for by some gene?
What about this sentence, that you might have just glided over above:
...shrewd politicians might be able to take advantage of those biological levers through clever advertisements aimed at voters' primal emotions.We've been down this road before.
Once Darwin gave people, especially the noble science class, the idea that Nature not God made people what they were, and that through their insight they the scientists rather than clergy, could divine what was good and bad, they (like clergy) are the ones who should evaluate who was naughty and who was nice, and indeed could help Nature out by doing something about the offenders. Of course it was all for the good. Just like clergy helping to save souls, scientists would help save society. And since Darwin showed that our essence was not our soul, but our biology, which within decades became genes, their term for their wise engineering was not absolution, but eugenics.
The temptation was of course to believe that they, through their science, could find out people's true essence, and recommend what to do about it. All for the protection of society. Does it sound a lot like the inquisition, where clergy decided how to test, and judge, and engineer (get rid of) those who polluted the true and faithful?
Eugenics in its early form, which crept in on little cat's feet, led by the biomedical research establishment, was all for human good, of course. But of course power corrupts and demagogues are always ready to use it, and scientists as we know very well from the past -- and today -- are easily co-opted by the hands that feed them. And of course that kind of thinking, in its various guises, led to the Nazi exterminations (and, here and elsewhere, incarcerations, involuntary sterilizations, and the like). It also led to the abuses of the Stalinist era called Lysenkoism, which was the inverse of Darwinism out of control.
Well, you might say, that was then and this is now. Yes, the early eugenicists were the well-respected scientists and physicians, but they were misguided. Now, we know better, and our scientists have only everybody (else's) good at heart, don't they? Intrusive abuses couldn't happen any more, could they?