Monday, December 14, 2015

Genetics in an age of fundamentalism

I heard a program the other day on the BBC Radio 4's In Our Time about the origins, rise, and persistence of Chinese Legalism. Introduced in the 4th century BC, and the hallmark of the rule of the first emperor, the philosophy of Legalism was based on laws and their strict implementation.  It was the basis of a brutal, authoritarian state, elements of which have lasted 2500 years.

Here's one description (found here):
...Legalism is a Classical Chinese philosophy that emphasizes the need for order above all other human concerns. The political doctrine developed during the brutal years of the Fourth Century BCE. The Legalists believed that government could only become a science if rulers were not deceived by pious, impossible ideals such as "tradition" and "humanity." In the view of the Legalists, attempts to improve the human situation by noble example, education, and ethical precepts were useless. Instead, the people needed a strong government and a carefully devised code of law, along with a policing force that would stringently and impartially enforce these rules and punish harshly even the most minor infractions. 
                                                                                              L. Kip Wheeler 
To overly simplify, but I'm just trying to make a point, in Legalism, allegiance must be paid to the role of the ruler, rather than to a particular leader.  And, the system of rulership is absolute.  Further, Legalism views people as much easier to control if they are uneducated, and there's no sense in which they are expected to improve themselves.

In contrast, another ancient Chinese philosophy, Confucianism, was much more benevolent, with an optimistic view of human potential; people are basically good, and if taught new things they can be cultivated into better people.  Confucians see authority and leadership as something everyone has the potential to achieve, whereas in Legalism, the ruler dictates and people are expected to follow.

This contrast between people as good and improvable vs inherently evil, the absolute vs the relative, is of course a familiar dialectic, not at all restricted to philosophy of nation states.  Theism vs agnosticism,  laissez faire or free market vs regulation, the US Constitution as fixed or as flexible, cultural relativism vs universal human rights, free will vs predetermination, and of course tabula rasa or blank slate vs inherency, or nature vs nurture.


The consistency with which people view the world in either absolute or relative terms is curious to me, and indicates that we aren't necessarily learning from observation, evaluating and interpreting the facts as we see them as we go about choosing our favorite economic system, or whether cultural practices that are alien to our own have any merit.  It seems instead that we've got an a priori view of the world that informs those decisions, an ideology that guides us in what turns out to be a fairly predictable direction.  In a loopy sort of way, those with an absolutist ideology would say that that ideology is genetic (and, indeed, that things like how we vote are genetic), while those with a relativist ideology would disagree, saying it's learned.

But at least our mythology about science is that it's supposed to be fact-driven, not ideological.  Often it is, though how do most people decide whether or not they accept that humans are driving climate change, or that all life evolved from a common ancestor?  Unless we're climate scientists or evolutionary biologists, we generally don't have the knowledge to evaluate the data in any meaningful way.  So these decisions become ideological.  In that sense, facts do not rule, not even in relation to science.

And what about the role of genes in making us who we are?  Ken and I have been sneeringly called "blank slaters" more than once, because we don't embrace the idea that who we are is determined by our genes.  The assumption is that if one doesn't accept that genes are always destiny, one must accept that they never are.

But, there's another way, and it's more subtle, and more nuanced, and that is to recognize that there's a continuum of gene action, from predictable to unpredictable.  Some alleles pretty reliably are associated with a given trait (alleles associated with Tay Sachs or cystic fibrosis), while others are not (APOE4 and dementia, HFE and  hemochromatosis).  With a few exceptions, specific genetic variants can't be predicted from most complex traits, and vice versa.  So, sometimes Legalism might be a good analogy for the relationship between genes and traits -- dictator, strong-arm genes -- and sometimes Confucianism; genes interacting with environment.  But there's also Daoism, another ancient Chinese philosophy, which taught that people were to live in harmony with nature, that government is unnatural, and that the best government is a weak government -- no dictator genes, mostly environment.

It used to be said that one's politics could be predicted from one's stand on genetic determinism, but determinism has become so pervasive that this is no longer true.  Atheist free-market constitutional modernist cultural relativist Bernie Sanders supporters are as likely to be genetic determinists these days as are, well, the opposite.  Determinism has become a pervasive ideology, and this despite a lot of evidence to the contrary.  Philosophers of science have long tried to define and describe how science is done, but I think fundamentally, while science is different from a lot of other human endeavors in that we do have ways of verifying that we're learning things, the role of ideology in what we think we've learned should not be underestimated.  And in many ways, it is heavily affected by emotions and by scientists' personal situations (careers, biases, and so on), even when they try to be 'objective'.  In recent decades, some 'science studies' work has clearly shown this (even if the practitioners have their own sociocultural axes to grind); given human nature, it should be no surprise. 

When did Lyndon Johnson propose the Great Society in the US?  It was in the mid 1960's, when we saw communism as a huge threat.  We reacted by becoming more like our 'enemy'.  Is it too simplistic to suggest that the same could be happening now, when our 'enemy' is religious fundamentalism?  


Anonymous said...

I disagree with this dismissal of a big body of evidence in favour of a type of genetic determinism (really more like 50% to 70% genetic determinism) in most traits. One really must be ignorant of the entire field of behaviour genetics to think this.

I would like to ask, do you believe to no amount of variance between the difference races and between the sexes is biological in its etiology?

Have you read Dr. Stuart J. Ritchie's rebuttal of Oliver James, an ideologue who seems to hold the same opinions as displayed in this essay?

Anne Buchanan said...

You've made my point, thank you.

Show me you've got an open mind on genes and behavior, then we can talk. A priori belief about how things work isn't how to move science forward.

Anonymous said...

Genetic determinism is most important when it comes to behavior -- to what extent is human behavior genetically determined?

We know a lot of it must be because so much of animal behavior is genetically determined and we are animals too. However, we can also on occasions overcome those animal instincts.

The problem is that it is at present impossible to say which behaviors are mostly driven by genes and which are not with certainty. After all the genetic basis of something comparatively simple in comparison such as disease has turned out to be almost impossible to figure out. We can be quite confident about some (behaviors that help maximize inclusive fitness in particular) but we have no mechanism.

But in the same time we need some guidance on that and we need it urgently -- because understanding the innate components of human behavior seems to be indispensable for properly organizing society. There are good reasons to think that any society designed around concepts about human nature that disregard its animal components is doomed to self-destruction. Given all that, it might be wise to err on the side of overestimation of the role of genetics...

Anne Buchanan said...

Thanks for clarifying. I'll respond briefly to a few of your points. First, of course we're animals, and of course some component of behavior is 'genetic', but there are multiple meanings of 'genetic'. I assume what you mean is that behavior is genetically determined, like eye color, or having 10 fingers and 10 toes. If so, then why can we teach a dog not to bite when angry? And, why do orangs behave differently when their environments change?

And, as for behaviors being driven by evolutionary dictates, why do young people become suicide bombers, or abort their own fetuses, or commit infanticide? Or, for that matter, use birth control? Our brains -- and indeed those of other animals -- have evolved to the point where we can choose to do things that don't maximize our fitness. We can create culture, we can think up behaviors that overcome 'nature'. If our behaviors were all genetically programmed, we couldn't do that, so what difference does it make, really, whether there are genes that influence what we do?

As for disease being simpler than behavior -- really? As I say in the post, there are few diseases for which we can predict the genes responsible, and few genes for which we can predict a trait. Of course there are some -- Chinese Legalism does rule sometimes. But, as we've written many times here on MT, most traits are impossible to predict from genes. Confucianism and Daoism are much more common, except for generally rare pediatric traits. And, this has to be true of behaviors as well. Sure, some behaviors will be predictable from genes, but they will be rare and outliers, on the extremes of the distribution of behaviors. As with disease, there have to be many pathways to most behaviors, and those pathways will involve genes and experience. And everyone's will be different.

To me, the awesomeness of life is in its complexity. Science is trying to reduce it to the simplest bits, but I think the evidence is that most traits, behaviors and otherwise, are not reducible in that way. Just as so many of our disease problems aren't going to be solvable through genetics, our social problems won't be either. And, it won't surprise you that I wonder why you want that to be so.

Ken Weiss said...

We'll talk about this in a forthcoming post. There is no evidence that genetic determinism is 'most important' in regard to behavior. That is just a subjective assertion with antisocial implications. Furthermore, there is no 'need' much less an 'urgent' one, to know whose 'behavior' is innate so we can 'properly' organize society. That smacks of the old eugenic worldview and we know where that got us. As long as we don't all 'properly' have similar environments (resources, opportunities, etc.), which are by far the greater determinant of how we live, then prying into genetic determination is not worth the cost in societal as well as monetary terms. No serious person can deny that genetic variation affects behavior. For clearly genetic debilitating genetic variants, we have active biomedical research and support systems. The really urgent need, if there is any, is to make people understand what lies just beneath the surface of strident behavioral genetic determinism.

O. Douglas Jennings said...

I'm not a scientist but I admire and respect the principles of science and the scientific method to help us make sense of the universe. And I think general scientific understanding (education) of a populace helps promote shared societal well-being and democratic values. All this to say I enjoy your discussion on the impact of science on governance and the ideologies that come to bear on the scientists themselves.

And I appreciate your efforts to question and objectively assess the various viewpoints/ideologies prevalent among scientists. It reminds us that the scientific community is not a monolith; and also that ideologies have consequences in the application of a society's understanding of scientific findings upon state policy.

Ironically, my mind turns to Art to guide me in my posture toward scientifc inquiry as I think of the quote from Hamlet:

"There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy. "

To me that phrase cautions against foregone reductionist conclusions and ideological petrification.

Anonymous said...

There's an interesting history of the relationship between politics & genetic determinism. Just a few aspects.

Eugenics era: huge swath of political spectrum from robber barons to revolutionary socialists accepted some form of genetic determinism. One of the anti-eugenics bulwarks was the Catholic Church (which rejects theological predestination - maybe a link?).

Progressivist 'determinist': human nature includes desire for freedom and not to be denigrated and exploited. Some have argued that rather than part of universal human nature these are individualist values associated with the West. Chinese officials (and other undemocratic governments) have cited supposed 'Asian values' contrary to Western individualism which must be respected and hence human and civil rights records of these countries should not be criticized.

Progressive vs conservative variants of environmentalism: conservative environmentalists blame poverty & crime on bad cultural values (bottom up), progressive environmentalist blames structural inequality (top down).

Determinism debate in LGBT: does gay & lesbian (and more recently trans) dignity & rights depend on these being wholly genetically determined (or at least innate - often conflated with genetic determinism) or does life experience, culture, even choice, play a role? For a long time activists and theorists supported determinism & innatism but recently some scholars have argued that LGBT lived realities are valid regardless of causation.

On reason these scientific / political debates cycle because these systems are extremely complicated and overarching explanations like genetic determinism on the one hand and structural inequality on the other are conceptually relatively easy, while applying complex systems concepts (pattern formation, self organization, networks, phase transitions etc.) to real world phenomena is very difficult.

Ken Weiss said...

We need to keep body and soul together, so to speak. Science, at its best, takes care of the body, which of course is very important. The arts, and even the wonderment of science, take care of the soul.

Anne Buchanan said...

Thanks for the additional examples, Anonymous2 (I assume you're two different commenters, anyway). I agree with you about why simple answers are appealing. I wonder if we're smart enough to understand the complexity, or perhaps seeking single explanations, no matter how complex, for complex phenomena is in fact the problem.

Anonymous (from post #3) said...

We'll talk about this in a forthcoming post. There is no evidence that genetic determinism is 'most important' in regard to behavior. That is just a subjective assertion with antisocial implications. Furthermore, there is no 'need' much less an 'urgent' one, to know whose 'behavior' is innate so we can 'properly' organize society.

We're talking past each other -- I am pretty sure you and I have very different things in mind when we use the word "behavior".

Also, I don't think we have the same thing in mind when we use the word "determinism" -- when it comes to behavior, if 90% of people will reliably do the same thing in a given situation and this is because of genetic factors, while 10% do something else because they can overwrite those, that's pretty much the same as "determinism" for practical purposes.

Anyway, the reason behavior is "most important" and the situation is "urgent" was aptly demonstrated in Paris a couple days ago. The world faces a sustainability crisis that will with very close to 100% certainty cause the collapse of civilization over the next century or two. The root cause of that is what we have a very good reason to think is an innate, genetically determined behavior to expand one's numbers and environmental footprint up to and beyond the limits of the carrying capacity of one's environment. That's why we have such things as exponential population and economic growth with no end in sight. Those have to end (and for a while in fact reverse), and the current system has to be replaced by a system that places firm checks on those tendencies (instead of the current one that not only lets them run amok but encourages it). Now, do we have any proof that they are innate that will match our lofty epistemic standards? No. Can we afford to wait until we get it? No. Can you convince people to accept that kind of changes without that proof? You couldn't even if you had it (as, again, Paris a couple days ago demonstrated). It's quite a conundrum. That's what I had in mind.

Ken Weiss said...

90%, way more than 90%, of people 'do the same thing' these days: speaking English, shopping at grocery stores, wearing shoes, and so on, but that in no way makes it 'genetic'. If I know the rules, which are culturally established (as different world cultures clearly shows) then I use my sensory input and my brain to suss out what would be good for me given my situation. There need be no specific genes for the resulting action.

Paris proves nothing at all, except in a most generic sense that cultural conflicts based on economics, or religion, or group identity and conflict can occur. Terrorism and its like are cyclical or episodic and varied. The number of people partaking at present is very different from other times in the past, and relatable to cultural circumstances. There is no reason to think it's genetic. And it's urgency is cultural, not genetic for a host of reasons.

This doesn't mean there are not individuals who might be more prone to, say violence or theft or drug dealing or offshore banking to evade taxes, in the same circumstances, for some genetic reasons. But the evidence is obvious that this is not the main cause. One doesn't have to be a genetic-effects denier to see that, but one has no cause to attribute so much to specific genetic causation.

Anonymous said...

"innate, genetically determined behavior to expand one's numbers and environmental footprint up to and beyond the limits of the carrying capacity of one's environment."

I'm not so sure but it would take a long essay to explain. See: the historical record of demographic transition and post-industrial reforestation / carbon reduction (really). Also: life history theory, reaction norm, extended inheritance, cultural evolution, niche construction...


Ken Weiss said...

There is a confusion (on your part) between behaviors such as wanting resources, safety, and mates that are generically genetic with many millions of years of history, and specific genotypes determining behaviors. All the things you mention can be accounted for by humans having these various 'drives', somehow genetic in the most broad sense, and humans' ability to develop technologies that enable us to do things not before possible. If they are 'genetic' they are generically so and to change them you'd have to put some magic chemical in the water to affect everyone, not think that some individual genotypes are responsible. Or to stop our tendency to violence, aerate all homes with Soma. There may be urgent societal issues, but they're not genetic ones.

But of course we disagree fundamentally, so this is the end of this exchange. You need to set up your own blog where you can post your necessary long essays. Or perhaps set up a genetics lab where, to prove your point: like soothsayers of old, you can then gaze into the crystal ball of sequencer-output and foretell everyone's future. Of course, you'll be competing with NIH, who is investing heavily in that endeavor.

Nathaniel said...

Heh, well-played!
Nice piece; subtle and right on point.