Monday, December 30, 2013

"Italians are lovers, not fighters!" -- genes, behavior and ideology

In what now seems like a long time ago, I was an Air Force weather officer, stationed at a NATO base in England.  One of my fellow forecasters, Gus Leshner, the best forecaster I ever met, was a Warrant Officer who had fought in WWII in Italy.  He once told me that, in a wartime discussion with some Italians just after their country had rather easily surrendered, one of them told him rather unembarassedly that Italy lost because "We Italians are lovers, not fighters."

At the time, and in its context, that story seemed an apt metaphor for Italian culture as we saw it at the time.  Gus told me a few of his other war stories while we finished working up the morning forecast for the swarm of pilots who would shortly call for their pre-flight briefings.

I never thought about his quip except as an apt description of a rather weak military country that is loaded with culture--sculpture, opera, paintings, intellectual movies, fantastic food, and people who talk by waving their hands.  Organized crime aside, it's a warm and appealing image, and it befits Anne's and my wonderful son-in-law, a native of that land.

But then along came sociobiology....

In their genes
Sociobiology is one of several names for that field of biology (evolutionary psychology, known as evo psycho by some, is another) that seems to think that everything we do or say is mandated by our inherited genomes (sometimes, possibly affected in minor ways by the environment).  Even our culture itself is the product of our genes. Our genes make us do what we do, and if we do it well, our population proliferates (as a corollary, behavior has Darwinian-based values that proponents of this view can easily identify).  You may know how the theory goes, as it's all over the news media.

A few decades ago, , as I recall, Robert Ardrey, an author about as highly qualified as Richard Dawkins to write about the nature of life, proclaimed about Italians that their honking, fist-shaking impatience in traffic (another clearly inherent trait, as you know if you've ever tried to actually drive in Italy) was part of their genetic make-up (Ardrey was a playwright, so that, like others of his scientific ilk, inventing fiction was his specialty).

Well, when it comes to the lusty Italians, one can't resist conjuring objects of what's in their (excitingly tight, body-hugging) jeans as well as genes, given various memorable cinematic and statuary representatives of their genome.  The Land of Lovers!  Soft violin music, or a Verdi aria in the background, a glass or two of Valpolicella, and....well, one's imagination is hard to control.

But wait--isn't, um, Rome in Italy?
When these thoughts pass, we find that we've got some reconciling to do: the image of the pacific Italian lover vis-à-vis the Romans (who were from Italy, as we recall).  They were for many centuries the dominant military power, by unrepentant force of arms controlling the biggest empire the world had known (til the Brits came along, and nobody ever accused them of being lovers rather than fighters, given their gloomy climate).
Tough guys, or sissies?: http://annoyzview.files.wordpress.com/2012/03/roman_soldier_1.jpg

Romans with shields, chariots, wielding their swords (in combat, that is)!  They had oval chariot-combat arenas, and gladiatorial combat centers (coliseums, probably named after food-brands or insurance companies now lost to history).  They slaughtered vicious lions to prove their mighty valor, and slaughtered each other to prove their, well, I'm not sure what, but it certainly wasn't about love!

Now, I have myself seen these scenes of brutality in many places, and have read about what happened in them, even in books by authors from that time (e.g., Galen, one of whose important jobs was fixing up gored and sliced gladiators, and another was taking care of the slashed and stabbed soldiers of Emperor Marcus Arelius), and in Charlton Heston movies.  The Romans were rather nasty beasts.  If the classics are anything to go by, a favorite sport was crucifixion.

But then how is this possible?  I mean, everyone's heard about lovers' spats, but this seems rather different!

The Roman empire fizzled out only about 1500 years ago.  Maybe some Jews and a few other stragglers from the Middle Eastern part of the Empire, or Turks and their like, ended up in Italy as that fizzling happened.  But, hostility to immigrants being what it is (and, sociobiologists would tell you, it's inherently genetic), these drifters certainly didn't replace the Romans and their seed.

But, if we're to believe the story told by the likes of evolutionary psychologists, the very same population that is now amorously pacific by nature was once quite violent.  So how on earth did the requisite nation-wide genome replacement take place, and how were gladiator genomes exterminated by the soft-and-sexy, artsy ones that now fill the Mediterranean boot?

Our inclination is to venture to say that culture is not, after all, in our genes, and that genes enable all sorts of behaviors, but don't prescribe them.  But that must be wrong, because so many anthropologists and others who should know, assure us that what we are can be read off a DNA sequencer.  Indeed, we hear tell of a new book, due out in the spring, by a New York Times 'science' (op/ed?) writer of a particularly determinist persuasion that will insist that this is so.

To quote Thomas Huxley in 1891, an acerbic critic of religious orthodoxy who, even back then and unlike many of their lot today, actually understood evolution, himself quoting Goethe from 1833; "There is nothing more terrible than energetic ignorance." [Huxley, 1891, "Hasisadra's Adventure".]

It's going to be a long, hot spring.

27 comments:

Aaron Goetz said...

Who are these evolutionary psychologists who hold these views? And is the author a group selectionist or are the mysterious evolutionary psychologists?

Ken Weiss said...

This post is of course a spoof, but strong darwinian deterministic views of behavior are rampant these days (a kind of unaware resurgence of an earlier unfortunate time, in my view). 'Group selection' is so vague a term or concept that your second question is hardly answerable. Cultural evolutionary views might say that cultures that 'succeed', for whatever reason, spread and persist. But cultures, if that is even definable to a satisfactory degree, have horizontal transfer among each other, so the 'group' concept is elusive, even where or if relevant. Others would attribute strong darwinian concepts to culture, and still others will attribute culture to genes.

For explication of those ideas, this is not the place to go!

JayMan said...

"He once told me ... unembarassedly that Italy lost because 'We Italians are lovers, not fighters.'

At the time, and in its context, that story seemed an apt metaphor for Italian culture as we saw it at the time."


I guess this isn't going to go over too well here, then:

Heaven and hell

But, in reality, these stereotypes developed for a reason, as all stereotypes do.

"Sociobiology is one of several names for that field of biology (evolutionary psychology, known as evo psycho by some, is another) that seems to think that everything we do or say is mandated by our inherited genomes (sometimes, possibly affected in minor ways by the environment). Even our culture itself is the product of our genes. Our genes make us do what we do, and if we do it well, our population proliferates"

Well, behavioral genetic evidence clearly shows us that All Human Behavioral Traits are Heritable. Regardless of your opinion on the methodology of twin/adoption studies, this is buttressed by genome-wide complex trait analyses (GCTA). This is solid.

"A few decades ago, as I recall, Robert Ardrey, an author about as highly qualified as Richard Dawkins to write about the nature of life, proclaimed about Italians that their honking, fist-shaking impatience in traffic (another clearly inherent trait, as you know if you've ever tried to actually drive in Italy)"

Well on that, you might want to see:

An HBD Summary of the Foundations of Modern Civilization | JayMan's Blog

Note the data from the World Values Survey. Reliable national differences do exist.

"Romans with shields, chariots, wielding their swords (in combat, that is)! ... They slaughtered vicious lions to prove their mighty valor, and slaughtered each other to prove their, well, I'm not sure what, but it certainly wasn't about love!"

"The Roman empire fizzled out only about 1500 years ago. ... But, hostility to immigrants being what it is (and, sociobiologists would tell you, it's inherently genetic), these drifters certainly didn't replace the Romans and their seed."

1,500 years was a long time ago. More than enough time for genes to change (also known as evolution). Indeed, we have considerable evidence for such substantial change. See the above post, and see this compilation of evidence here:

HBD Fundamentals: On the evolution of modern advanced civilized peoples | JayMan's Blog

"But, if we're to believe the story told by the likes of evolutionary psychologists, the very same population that is now amorously pacific by nature was once quite violent. So how on earth did the requisite nation-wide genome replacement take place, and how were gladiator genomes exterminated by the soft-and-sexy, artsy ones that now fill the Mediterranean boot?

Our inclination is to venture to say that culture is not, after all, in our genes, and that genes enable all sorts of behaviors, but don't prescribe them."


Evolution my dear Watson.

Of course, you might not like this, but it gets worse. While, as we see, evidence for genetic influence on behavior is many and robust, we don't have a lot of good evidence for environmental effects on behavioral traits. Much of it is based on the a priori supposition that such effects must exist, not because we have reliable proof.

See this comment of mine on the topic.

Aaron Goetz said...

Thanks for the reply. My perception is that you accuse evolutionary psychologists of holding certain views, then when asked about specifically who holds these views, you cannot point to anyone. That seems irresponsible at the very least.

My second question about group selection refers to your caricature that reads, "Our genes make us do what we do, and if we do it well, our population proliferates." It wasn't clear if *you* think that genes associated with adaptations are selected so that our population proliferates, or if you think that *evolutionary psychologists* argue that genes are selected so that our population proliferates. Or maybe you meant neither.

Brian Wood said...

Entertaining read but I wonder if this is the best way to push back against the "long, hot spring" that you predict. It sounds like what you are foretelling is that a writer cut from the same cloth as Robert Ardrey will soon publish a book, cherry-picking research from evolutionary psychology and behavioral genetics, popularizing a simplistic, and even damaging, portrait of human behavior or human nature. I think it would be helpful to be more vigilant about how science and infotainment differ. Certainly the boundaries between these two things are often blurred. One way to help reinforce those boundaries would be to critique research in evolutionary psychology based on scientific criteria, and books like what you describe, as story-telling and motivated reasoning, embellished with carefully selected science-derived factoids. Such books are a modern form of mythology. I really enjoy what Karl Popper wrote about the interplay of myth and science -- "Science must begin with myths, and with the criticism of myths". It would be more constructive to criticize such myths with science than to critique evolutionary psychology vis-a-vis such myths.

Holly Dunsworth said...

Hi Brian, I like what you have to say but have to pipe up to remind all readers that this is a daily blog where we share daily thoughts, not complete or thorough ones that stand alone to serve all the purposes. If you look back through the years of work posted here I'm sure you'll find many other posts coming from many different angles with different attitudes, some of which would fall under the category of what you're wishing this one did.

Anne Buchanan said...

You may be correct that no evolutionary psychologist has ever made the argument about Italians that Ken has laid out here, but as he says, the post is a spoof. The serious point is that evolutionary psychology too often is ideology -- the cause is assumed to be genetic, the experiment is not for testing it but for proving it, and the adaptive reason the behavior evolved is fill-in-the-blank, and there always is one.

But if you troll through many many of the posts here on MT, you'd see that it's not just ev psych that we critique, but any ideology that assumes a cause and effect and sets out to prove it. Primarily when it comes to genetics, because we think there's still a lot that's not understood, and a lot that's assumed, and not enough respect for the difference between what we know and what we think we know.

Ken Weiss said...

I'll agree with both you and Holly, Brian. The problem is that many such arguments (in what we think are darwinism on steroids) are by nature irrefutable. How can you show that some behavior, for example, is not at all related to genes? First, of course, everything is affected in some ways by genes, so the issue is the extent and nature of the effect. But evolutionary just-so stories got their name because they may be fanciful and not supported by seriously strong evidence, but are constructed after the fact so they always can be fitted to those facts. To take our satirical example and say, for example, that Italians are lovers (or fighters, or whatever) is almost in itself meaningless. To argue that some trait here today is not due to natural selection is often almost in itself as meaningless as to assert that it is due to selection. There are many issues: if due to selection why so variable still? If not due to selection how can one test a negative of that sort?

And if genes 'make' you do something, but each person's genotype, and each person's behavior, are different, or the 'proof' of the assertion is a weak statistical significance level (meaning that it takes hefty samples to show that the purported cause has its purported effect), then the association may well be due, for example, to unmeasured confounders, or may be culturally ephemeral, or may in any case be not very important, compared to the strengths of assertion about it.

Anyway, there is subjective judgment about the nature of all of this and the disputes on viewpoint are real. True believers have plenty of places to make their assertions, and invoke 'evolution' with whatever understanding or strength of evidence they wish. MT provides our personal perspective of course. Personally, I think the issues are serious and I am particularly concerned about genetic assertions about human social behavior (I don't care as much about assertions about beetle or ant behavior). With just as much self-confidence, by similarly employed 'experts', and with more or less the same (lack of) strength of evidence, genetic assertions about human behavior, inevitably leading to value judgments (after all, why pick the juicy traits everyone picks to study?) have led to the decades of eugenics in the previous century. Should all subjects even be on the table?

It seems impossible to ask measured questions in this area. The assertion that behavior has no genetic effects, or that selection has never been involved with them, is as useless as to argue (as so many do, I believe) in effect that we are strongly determined in specific behavioral ways, and that it's all written in our genes.

And there are sociopolitical sides to this too. Should policy be based on such kinds of assertions (about, say, criminality, sexuality, and so on)? And why does it often very quickly spill over into group characteristics, such as by race?

Science and popular science have I suppose always gone hand in hand. But if we're in the age of science, at least we should be able to tell the difference in our journals and major public media.

Aaron Goetz said...

Thanks for the reply. I appreciate what you're doing on this blog (i.e., advocating caution and skepticism when encountering claims), and we're largely on the same team. I disagree, however, with your perception of evolutionary psychology. Evolutionary psychologists are not geneticists, so we typically don't study genes, just as most animal behaviorists using evolutionary perspectives aren't studying genetics. Evolutionary psychologists are, or should be, testing for functionality, and you don't have to invoke genes to study functionality. As an example, most people understand the function of the heart and could devise experiments to test hypotheses related to the function of the heart (e.g., if the heart was designed to pump blood, it should have values, chambers, and ducts/tubes). Our testing of these hypotheses is not hindered by our lack of understanding about heart genetics. I don't know shit about heart genetics, but I understand the function of the heart. A better example would be the herding behavior of Border Collies. Breeders can select for that psychology without understanding genetics associated with that psychology. Something's being transmitted.
I must admit, though, that I agree that there are some evolutionary psychologists who provide little or poor evidence for their evolutionary hypotheses. This variation in quality is common in all sciences, however, and is not specific to evolutionary psychology.

Holly Dunsworth said...

I agree with your second paragraph but not your first. When someone describes a trait or variation in a trait with adaptation, that's assuming hefty genetic determinism whether anyone understands the genetics of the trait or not. And if my experience as a consumer and participant is accurate, selection is the basis of the vast majority of explanations for traits studied by evol psych and paleontology and probably other evolution-based fields too.

Ken Weiss said...

What you say is a form of strong determinism, and is debatable or testable on that score. As to the genetics, if you make the argument evolutionary, rather than about current function, then you are implying genomic or genetic causation (depending on how simplistic the implied assertion), and that's where trouble arises.

If you stick with current function, then one can ask about sample size, amount of variance, and definitiveness of testing,etc. You also can be questioned about how culture- and time-dependent your inferences and observations are. Evolutionary explanations are more global and have to be shown to be consistent with what we know about genomes and their evolution, and so on.

I have rather critical views on much of ev psych when it tries to imply genetic determinism on socially dicey traits like criminality, political behavior, sexuality, IQ, and drug-related traits. I wonder why those traits, often and readily linked to race and group concepts, are the objects of study. To take what might be called a post-modern viewpoint (one I hate taking), the trait choice reflects as much about the investigator as about the subject itself.

The existence of extensive variance, such that substantial studies are required to find associations, argues that at best genetic determinism is variable, context-dependent, and overall weak. The studied traits are often ones that should be closely tied to reproductive fitness, yet there is still substantial variation. Why? One answer is that the effect even if true is weak or contextual rather than stipulated or prescribed by natural selection.

No one can deny that dogs and agricultural species respond to selection. But that selection is strong, rapid, specific, and teleological. Natural selection is generally not like that.

That variation in quality exists, or questions are difficult to pose or answer, is certainly correct. But the strength of assertion by popular writers as well as professionals is worthy of the criticism we subjected it to, I think.

Behavior is clearly a relevant biological trait. So is culture. Both evolve, and we know at least something of how that happens. But we don't have measured discussions under current circumstances, and that situation goes back to Plato, at least, who argued about how the ideal Republic could preserve its 'best'.

If we could unhitch from juicy stories and a media-feeding frenzy, and go back to quiet, serious scholarship, and could get reasonable funding without hyperbole, then the issue might get better attention, I think. But it's not 'in our genes' to behave with such restraint.....

Brian Wood said...

Thanks for your thoughtful comments Holly and Ken. When faced with great uncertainty and weak evidence, the tendency of most scientists, I would recon, is to agnostically shrug one's shoulders or stay mute. Unfortunately, this self-selection means that the public is more likely to hear from those with less stringent standards of evidence. The important critiques that Ken makes here about evidence for causation, effect sizes, and socio-political implications are probably widely held (count me as one) but seldom heard by the public, because they live in the opaque world of research design, peer review, and grant reviewing. I think it's really important to bring more of this into the light, thank you for doing so.

Aaron Goetz said...

Holly and Ken, I hope you don't mind if I use your first names. Let me know if you do.

Holly, please consider reading the abstract of this paper (http://bit.ly/1bDZwW5), and then let me know if you think that it's potentially (1) good science, (2) genetic determinism, and (3) aiding our understanding of that species. My "potentially" above gets you out of reading the entire paper and making strong claims.

Ken, I hope to reply to your comments soon. I'm currently in the throes of recommendation letter writing season.

Holly Dunsworth said...

Unfortunately, if reaching the public is the goal, we're not really doing that as much as it might appear. When we get love from Ed Yong we get a broader public reach, but I'm pretty sure that most of our regular readers are academics and, then, I'd guess in second place we have science writers, professional and otherwise. Lots of students too since I know I assign quite a few of our top posts as reading material. And they're the public for sure, just one part of the spectrum of it. I could be wrong about our public reach though and I hope Ken and Anne correct me if they know that I am!

Ken Weiss said...

Any message worth saying is worth stressing because, especially if it challenges widespread beliefs or reflexes, it will have to be heard repeatedly. And it will have to be circulated, tweeted, and the like, so the more general public hears it.

If the media representatives and writers, those not in thrall to the ideology, see and get the message, they can make it more widely spread.

Of course, the TV and other media won't likely pick it up, because it doesn't lead to melodramatic video programs, or magazines that can be displayed at checkout counters: it is the evil seed--inherent sex, crime, drugs, and so on--that sells.

Anne Buchanan said...

I think you're right, Holly. We're a 'niche' blog -- unless we mention pubic hair. That always draws 'em in. Being small is good in some ways (cuts down on trolls), but does limit our influence!

Holly Dunsworth said...

That was a major lesson from 2013! Mention pubic hair, broaden the science outreach.

Ken Weiss said...

Well, pubic hair sells (or, these days, maybe its absence?). We do have one advantage over checkout counters and People magazine, at least. We can mention pubic hair right up front (so to speak) on our blog, but they can't confront grocery store customers with it on their covers!

Holly Dunsworth said...

That one with "pornography" in the title's golden too.

Ken Weiss said...

Yes, well of course. This is an 'academic' blog, so that for us academics to get a bit of a thrill, we have to to it surreptitiously or else we'd be not acting with enough dignity. So sneaking such words in our 'academic' work makes that possible.

Patrick Clarkin said...

I wanted to take a different tack (apart from evolutionary psychology, and apart from pubic hair). This post reminded me of Sapolsky's story of the baboons of Forest Troop, and his warning against seeing behavior of species as fixed, in particular with regards to seeing them as docile or aggressive. He wrote:

"The most disquieting fact about the violent species was the apparent inevitability of their behavior. Certain species seemed simply to be the way they were, fixed products of the interplay of evolution and ecology, and that was that."

He went on to tell the story about how the aggressive males in the troop had succumbed to disease contracted from human contact, and how the culture of aggression had shifted to a more peaceful one (unheard of in baboons). And not only that, but newcomers from surrounding troops embraced this weird peaceful culture upon arrival, and these changes were lasting. The same could be said for shifts in human behavior, from Roman Centurians to Italian lovers, or from Vikings to modern Danes (who have since apologized to other neighboring countries for the trespasses of their ancestors).

http://opim.wharton.upenn.edu/~sok/papers/s/sapolsky-foreignaffairs-2006.pdf

Ken Weiss said...

Well, damn! You've dashed the idea of a genetic replacement! I wondered if maybe it was the Gothic genes, of the rapine Vikings, that had replaced the Roman genes. But that would just have been one violent group re-gening another. But if the Barbarians have their softer side after all (and, being half Danish in ancestry, I'm predisposed to accept your assessment), then maybe that's what happened.

Well, I had better go get a beverage, as I am now thoroughly confused.

Patrick Clarkin said...

I'll consider my day a success if anything I wrote causes someone to reach for a beverage.

Holly Dunsworth said...

I'm not sure I understand my assignment. What human behavioral trait is analogous to feather looseness?

Texbrit said...

All we need to do is seek out a few second-generation immigrants to Italy, and see if they also wave their hands around.

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately, some hold the following views.

Jonathan Haidt:

http://www.edge.org/q2009/q09_4.html#haidt

"traits that led to Darwinian success in one of the many new niches and occupations of Holocene life — traits such as collectivism, clannishness, aggressiveness, docility, or the ability to delay gratification — are often seen as virtues or vices. Virtues are acquired slowly, by practice within a cultural context, but the discovery that there might be ethnically-linked genetic variations in the ease with which people can acquire specific virtues is — and this is my prediction — going to be a "game changing" scientific event."

Geoffrey Miller:

https://www.dropbox.com/s/3d50ch5aiybaocu/2010%20polygenic%20mutations.docx

“We may need to find radical new ways to reconcile the empirical facts about human diversity with our classical liberal values of equality, meritocracy, democracy, and multiculturalism. In short, evolutionary genetics is undermining the old anthropological assumption about ‘the psychic unity of mankind’, and we better learn the scientific and moral sophistication to deal constructively with the consequences.”

pharmacogenomics company said...

Make love not war. Jokes aside the genetic component to this makes for an interesting discussion. Do genes make that much of a difference or is it more the environment.

Classic Nature vs Nurture situation and proponents or opponents all have valid arguments for and against it seems....