Tag Archives: genetic determinism

Hail Britannia! (Dorkins Reviews Wade)

Editor’s note:
Regular readers of Genotopia will be familiar with Dick Dorkins, a genomicist, faculty member of Kashkow University, and founding President of the Society for the Prevention of Intelligent design, Theology, Or Other Nonsense (SPITOON). Given the forceful nature of some of Dorkins’s opinions, we hesitated when he offered to review this book. But we acceded to his wishes, because we do indeed love our daughter and would, in fact, hate for something to happen to her. One can find a two-part interview with Dorkins here and here

A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race, and Human History, by Nicholas Wade (New York: Penguin) 2014, 288 pp.

Dorkins profile pic 150x150 Hail Britannia! (Dorkins Reviews Wade)It really is a bloody shame that India just had yet another free and fair election, because Nicholas Wade’s new book is so bally good it makes me want to dig out the old pith helmet and mustache wax and jolly well troop off and colonize her again. Since I can’t conquer India, I itch to conquer Mrs. Dorkins and spread my genes, via more little Dorkinses. Alas, Wendy says she has a headache (again!), so the next best thing is to dab my favorite plume into grandfather Dorkins’s inkpot and, in my best public-school hand, pen this little squib on behalf of Wade’s latest. Perhaps I can prompt the some of you lot to do your Darwinian duty and either have or not have more children, depending on your race.

Let me begin by stating that I haven’t read such a stirring work since the sixth form, when our English Master (jolly good word, “Master.” Woody.), Old Man Donglethwaite, cracked the whip and put us through our paces on Lord Acton’s History of Freedom and Herbert Spencer’s What Social Classes Owe to Each Other. For what Wade manages in this book is to resurrect bally old triumphalist English history and social Darwinism, girding them with modern-day genomics. One sincerely hopes that modern science can provide those gallant traditions with a foundation strong enough to last.

Wade, a journalist whose previous books include Before the Dawn: Recovering the Lost History of Our Ancestors and The Faith Instinct: How Religion Evolved and Why It Endures, has composed an argument so elegant, so accessible, so unassailable that it might have been written by Spencer himself—had Spencer known the genetics that supports his ideas. Wade’s fundamental question is not original but rather classic: Why is the West superior to the East—or, god help us, the global South? The truth of this axiom is undeniable: we have the best of everything. The most money, the most freedom, the best science, the neatest gadgets, the finest music and art (never mind Justin Bieber), the strongest militaries, and the most money. Granted, in sports we sometimes lose, and you have to include North America in Europe even though many of the Americans’ achievements are by ethnic Africans and Asians, so it gets a little messy if you examine it too closely. But those are fine points. In the War of the Continents, it’s Europe all the way—and mostly Great Britain—if you look at it right.

Bleeding-hearts such as the anthropologist Jared Diamond have feebly explained the Rise of the West as accidents of geography and climate. Social “scientists” such as Ashley Montagu and the population geneticist Richard Lewontin (honorary social scientist, because he’s so political) have tried miserably to erase the very question of race, as if denying that the term has meaning could make it go away. Burlap-clad, politically-correct academics have even strapped on their Birkenstocks and paraded around the quads, protesting entire fields of inquiry that bear crucially on this question. Only an ideologue would deny the freedom of science to merely ask the question, for example, why white people are smarter than blacks. But Wade—whose peer-reviewed scientific articles have never been called into question—points out that such arguments are disqualified because those wuzzle-headed liberals have an ideology, something that of course has no place in modern science. No, Wade staunchly insists, true science must be blind to values and morals. It must deal exclusively with facts. Wade selects his facts brilliantly, using the latest and best of Western science to explain why Western science is the latest and best. The answer, he courageously concludes, is that we Westerners have better genes.

He argues irrefutably that behavior is shaped by genes, as demonstrated by an Everest of evidence in animals and in humans. Evolution did not stop when the first African hunter-gatherer stepped from his dugout onto the mighty shores of Europe to begin the painful process of civilization; nor did it cease when some enterprising Mesopotamian plucked a leathery handful of wild wheat seeds and poked them purposefully into the Fertile Crescent; nay, nor did it halt even at the coronation of James II in 1633, as he began his campaign to rein in Parliament in the name of liberty. Natural selection is still with us, ruthlessly but efficiently plucking society’s fittest, sweeping the best alleles across the land like so much seed corn. Though it pains one to say it, really it does, the result is that in the genetic lottery some are winners and others are losers. The winners, self-evidently, are those who have been globally dominant these last seven centuries or so: we Westerners, and most especially—here I lower my eyes, reflecting the humility that is my birthright—the British. And, alright, the Americans, who are, or at least were, mostly British. Okay and the Jews. Who, one notes, Britain and America welcomed with open arms after the war, ensconcing them in our finest universities as much as our quotas would allow.

History is not made by individuals, insists Wade. It is made by peoples. Peoples with the finest qualities. Qualities such as patience, thrift, innovation, openness, nonviolence, and civility. Demonstrating those very qualities himself, Wade acknowledges that there have been minor blips along the way, such as colonialism and the Third Reich. One might add slavery, the Columbian Exchange, and the Crusades. But these are mere trifles compared to the wise stewardship with which we have managed the planet over much of the preceding millennium. The practically invisible hand of the free market has brought untold riches to literally hundreds of people worldwide. It has rendered arable vast trackless wastelands of rainforest, making it possible to raise beef cattle for millions of our beloved Big Macs. For much of this period, our oceans and rivers teemed with plump and tasty fishes; likewise the skies with birds and the plains and tundra with wild game. And today, the climate is becoming ever more interesting and will, within a few short decades, bring the luxury and tranquility of coastal life to millions of people now toiling their lives away inland. All this and of course much more constitute the fruits of these peoples. Our peoples. Your peoples. But not their peoples.

The qualities that have made these developments possible, Wade shows, are probably genetic. At least partly. Wade, a journalist, has for decades covered the genetics beat for a little paper you might have heard of called The New York Times. He has extraordinarily broad secondhand knowledge of the arcane panoply of research coming out of Western laboratories published in English; which is to say, the most important, reliable, cutting-edge, and objective facts in the world. So when he says that the traits that underlie the rise of the West are probably at least partly genetic, you know he has read some papers in reliable major journals that seem to suggest this. In addition, Wade cites a wealth of objective, ideology-free facts by leading thinkers such as Charles Murray (co-author of The Bell Curve), Arthur Jensen—whose bold article of 1969 (pdf) demonstrated that compensatory education must fail, because objective, ideology-free science shows that blacks are simply not as intelligent as whites—and Richard Lynn, a British—note—distinguished psychologist and eugenicist who sits on the board of the objective, ideology-free Pioneer Fund, as well as that of the Pioneer-Funded journal Mankind Quarterly, which soldiers on as an objective, non-ideological stronghold of classical eugenics, social Darwinism, and white supremacy in an academic world that has moved leftward in lockstep, as if manipulated by a socialist puppeteer. Murray’s, Jensen’s, and Lynn’s writings, it must be observed, are controversial, an objective fact that may be partly explained by an occasional propensity toward language that can be taken the wrong way—as racist, social Darwinist, or eugenic. Wade, then, has become a cheerful cheerleader for a network of fearless scholars associated with what some have uncharitably branded “scientific racism,” but which I prefer to call “racial scientism.”

In short, if the West has won—and anyone who says otherwise is asking for a drone strike—it is because we are an intelligent, gentle, open, and creative people, and also because we have, as the Americans would say, a Big Gulp of Whoopass in the cup-holder of our figurative Escalade. Genetics suggests that genes underlie social traits such as intelligence, gentleness, creativity, and whoopass. Western populations must therefore have higher frequencies of the alleles for these traits. And so, little ones, we prevail not because might makes right, but because right makes might. We are on top because this is the natural order of things. As the Yale sociologist William Graham Sumner so aptly put it, “A drunkard in the gutter is just where he ought to be.” One might add that an upper-class Briton running over that drunkard in a mint-condition 1970 Aston Martin is just where he ought to be.

One quibble, to reinforce my objectivity: the book’s only serious problem is the title. This inheritance isn’t troublesome at all. It’s marvelous—for someone with the good taste to be born upper-class, C. of E. (Church of England, sod it), and Oxbridge-bred, like Wade and me, anyway. And yes, you marmots, in fact I was born Oxbridge bred: if five generations of Dorkins Firsts doesn’t breed it into you then epigenetics is a joke. What could be troublesome about my inheritance? I closed the cover of this pioneering work of retrograde science writing with a wink and a plummy little smile, lit my pipe, and reflected on how good it is to be rich, brilliant, tall, and English. On top of the world, dominant in every way that matters, and here not by force but by right, dammit, Mother. Did you hear my fist—beknuckled with a light pelage, masculine but not atavistic—pound my oaken desk? The cats lit’rally jumped off the divan.

 

Suicide genes? Just kill me now

I’m in the middle of writing a grant, so I’ll have to leave it as an exercise for the reader to think about the implications of genetic profiling of potential suicides, as hinted at in this story over at Forbes. Six genes predict suicides among those with bipolar disorder. As attentive followers will guess, my criticism is not that such correlations are impossible—it’s that they are inevitable.

277px Edouard Manet 059 Suicide genes? Just kill me now

Manet’s The Suicide

Hmm, possibly there’s a future piece on why a conservative money mag seems to be emerging as a bastion of the new genetic determinism…

Genetic determinism: why we never learn—and why it matters

Here it is, 2014, and we have “Is the will to work out genetically determined?,” by Bruce Grierson in Pacific Standard (“The Science of Society”).

Spoiler: No.

The story’s protagonist is a skinny, twitchy mouse named Dean who lives in a cage in a mouse colony at UC Riverside. Dean runs on his exercise wheel incessantly—up to 31 km per night. He is the product of a breeding experiment by the biologist Ted Garland, who selected mice for the tendency to run on a wheel for 70 generations. Garland speculates that Dean is physically addicted to running—that he gets a dopamine surge that he just can’t get enough of.

human hamster wheel Genetic determinism: why we never learn—and why it matters

Addiction theory long ago embraced the idea that behaviors such as exercise, eating, or gambling may have similar effects on the brain as dependence-forming drugs such as heroin or cocaine. I have no beef with that, beyond irritation at the tenuous link between a running captive mouse to a human junkie. What’s troubling here is the genetic determinism. My argument is about language, but it’s more than a linguistic quibble; there are significant social implications to the ways we talk and write about science. Science has the most cultural authority of any enterprise today—certainly more than the humanities or arts!. How we talk about it shapes society. Reducing a complex behavior to a single gene gives us blinders: it tends to turn social problems into molecular ones. As I’ve said before, molecular problems tend to have molecular solutions. The focus on genes and brain “wiring” tends to suggest pharmaceutical therapies.

To illustrate, Grierson writes,

File this question under “Where there’s a cause, there’s a cure.” If scientists crack the genetic code for intrinsic motivation to exercise, then its biochemical signature can, in theory, be synthesized. Why not a pill that would make us want to work out?

I have bigger genes to fry than to quibble over the misuse of “cracking the genetic code,” although it may be indicative of a naiveté about genetics that allows Grierson to swallow Garland’s suggestion about an exercise pill. Grierson continues, quoting Garland,

“One always hates to recommend yet another medication for a substantial fraction of the population,” says Garland, “but Jesus, look at how many people are already on antidepressants. Who’s to say it wouldn’t be a good thing?”

I am. First, Jesus, look at how many people are already on anti-depressants! The fact that we already over-prescribe anti-depressants, anxiolytics, ADHD drugs, statins, steroids, and antibiotics does not constitute an argument for over-prescribing yet another drug. “Bartender, another drink!” “Sir, haven’t you already had too much?” “Y’know, yer right—better make it two.”

Then, what if it doesn’t work as intended? Anatomizing our constitution into “traits” such as the desire to work out is bound to have other effects. Let’s assume Dean is just like a human as far as the presumptive workout gene is concerned. Dean is skinny and twitchy and wants to do nothing but run. Is it because he “wants to exercise” or is it because he is a neurotic mess and he takes out his anxiety on his wheel? Lots of mice in little cages run incessantly—Dean just does it more than most. His impulse to run is connected to myriad variables, genes, brain nuclei, and the reported results say nothing about mechanisms. We now know that the physiological environment influences the genes as much as the genes influence physiological environment. The reductionist logic of genetic determinism, though, promotes thinking in terms of a unidirectional flow of causation, from the “lowest” levels to the “highest.” The more we learn about gene action, the less valid that seems to become as an a priori assumption. The antiquated “master molecule” idea still permeates both science and science writing.

Further, when you try to dissect temperament into discrete behaviors this way, and design drugs that target those behaviors, side effects are sure to be massive. Jesus, look at all those anti-depressants, which decrease libido. Would this workout pill make us neurotic, anxious, jittery? Would we become depressed if we became injured or otherwise missed our workouts? Would it make us want to work out or would it make us want to take up smoking or snort heroin? In the logic of modern pharmacy, the obvious answer to side effects is…more drugs: anti-depressants, anxiolytics, anti-psychotics, etc. A workout pill, then, would mainly benefit the pharmaceutical industry. When a scientist makes a leap from a running mouse to a workout pill, he is floating a business plan, not a healthcare regimen.

And finally, what if it does work as intended? It would be a detriment to society, because, having a pill, it would remove yet another dimension of a healthy lifestyle from the realm of self-discipline, autonomy, and social well-being. It becomes another argument against rebuilding walkable neighborhoods and promoting public transportation and commuting by bicycle. A quarter-mile stroll to an exercise addict would be like a quarter-pill of codeine for a heroin junkie—unsatisfying. Not only is this putative workout pill a long, long stretch and rife with pitfalls, it is not even something worth aspiring to.

And that’s just one article. Scientific American recently ran a piece about how people who lack the “gene for underarm odor” (ABCC11) still buy deodorant (couldn’t possibly have anything to do with culture, could it?). Then there was their jaw-dropping “Jewish gene for intelligence,” which Sci Am had already taken down by the time it appeared in my Google Alert. I’d love to have heard the chewing out someone received for that bone-headed headline. Why do these articles keep appearing?

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 1990s, 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. Third, slangy, catchy phrases like “warrior gene” reinforce stereotypes. The warrior gene was quickly linked to the Maori population of New Zealand. Made sense: “everyone knows” the Maoris are “war-like.” Problem was, the preliminary data didn’t hold up. In The Unnatural Nature of Science, the developmental biologist Lewis Wolpert observed that the essence of science is its ability to show how misleading “common sense” can be. Yet that is an ideal; scientists can be just as pedestrian and banal as the rest of us. Finally, Yong points out that genes do not dictate behavior. They are not mechanical switches that turn complex traits on and off. As sophisticated as modern genomics is, too many of us haven’t moved beyond the simplistic Mendelism that enabled the distinguished psychiatrist Henry H. Goddard to postulate—based on reams of data collected over many years —a single recessive gene for “feeblemindedness.” The best method in the world can’t overcome deeply entrenched preconception. As another fine science writer, David Dobbs, pithily put it in 2010, “Enough with the ‘slut gene’ already…genes ain’t traits.”

As knowledge wends from the lab bench to the public eyeball, genetic determinism seeps in at every stage. In my experience, most scientists working today have at least a reasonably sophisticated understanding of the relationship between genes and behavior. But all too often, sensationalism and increasingly greed induce them to oversell their work, boiling complex behaviors down to single genes and waving their arms about potential therapies. Then, public relations people at universities and research labs are in the business of promoting science, so when writing press releases they strive for hooks that will catch the notice of journalists. The two best hooks in biomedicine, of course, are health and wealth. The journalists, in turn, seek the largest viewership they can, which leads the less scrupulous or less talented to reach for cheap and easy metaphors. And even though many deterministic headlines cap articles that do portray the complexity of gene action, the lay reader is going to take away the message, “It’s all in my genes.”

Genetic determinism, then, is not monocausal. It has many sources, including sensationalism, ambition, poor practice, and the eternal wish for simple solutions to complex problems. Science and journalism are united by a drive toward making the complex simple. That impulse is what makes skillful practioners in either field so impressive. But in clumsier hands, the simple becomes simplistic, and I would argue that this risk is multiplied in journalism about science. Science writing is the delicate art of simplifying the complexity of efforts to simplify nature. This is where the tools of history become complementary to those of science and science journalism. Scientists and science writers strive to take the complex and make it simple. Historians take the deceptively simple and make it complicated. If science and science journalism make maps of the territory, historians are there to move back to the territory, in all its richness—to set the map back in its context.

Studying genetics and popularization over the last century or so has led me to the surprising conclusion that genetic oversell is independent of genetic knowledge. We see the same sorts of articles in 2014 as we saw in 1914. Neither gene mapping nor cloning nor high-throughput sequencing; neither cytogenetics nor pleiotropy nor DNA modification; neither the eugenics movement nor the XYY controversy nor the debacles of early gene therapy—in short, neither methods, nor concepts, nor social lessons—seem to make much of a dent in our preference for simplistic explanations and easy solutions.

Maybe we’re just wired for it.

DNA Ink

We’ve been pretty serious for a while, which always makes me a little edgy. And “tattoos” or some version thereof continues to be one of the biggest search terms for this blog. So, to raise the font size of “tattoos” in the tag cloud, I’ve put together a gallery of eye candy.

In their 1994 book, The DNA Mystique, Susan Lindee and Dorothy Nelkin write that “habitual images and familiar metaphors…provide the cultural forms that make ideas communicable.” The double helix is the scientific icon of our age—much like the Bohr atom was during the Cold War. Putting it on your body identifies you with science, with biotechnology, with life. It is also just a stone beautiful image, which works in a line, say down your spine, wrapped around a biceps or ankle, or curving sinuously just about anywhere. The best collection of science-themed tattoos of course is Carl Zimmer’s “Science Tattoo Emporium.” Many of these were borrowed from his archive, so a big hat-tip (tat-hip?) to him. I have the hardcover version Science Ink prominently displayed on my coffee table. Others drawn from elsewhere around the web. Click the picture to open the original url.

tree dna DNA Ink

A DNA riff on the Darwinian image of the “tree of life.” But it of course also reminds me of the eugenics tree…

eugenics tree DNA Ink

DNAfoot DNA Ink

Foot tattoos are hard. Here’s a cute rendition of unwinding DNA that flows nicely with the anatomy.

Invisible DNA Tattoo by LucidPetroglyphs666 DNA Ink

Not the best execution of the image (no major and minor grooves), but a neat black-light effect that reminds me of fluorescent labeling.

metallic DNA 3D Tattoo fairylandtattoos.com  DNA Ink

Just. Wow.

circular DNA Ink

All right, I admit I’m wondering whether this represents bacterial DNA (and is therefore circular).

biomech1 2sleeve DNA Ink

An interesting “biomechanical” visual effect.

DNA Stomber DNA Ink

Here artist Jason Stomber has woven the double helix into a full sleeve.

twinsisters 1024x595 DNA Ink

Clever use of the DNA icon by a pair of twin sisters. Of course, when they line them up, they become prokaryotes.

 

 

Stop saying “biologically programmed,” goddamit!

Here’s your quick daily dose of biological determinism. This is nice because it combines deterministic thinking about both genes and brains. If this article were a bird it would be a Great Blue Heron–not exactly rare, but impressive nonetheless. I’m going to pick on it, largely because I slept like crap last night and I’m feeling cranky.

US News and World Report asks, “Could a gene help make you obese?” Okay, that right there is either shocking (You mean it’s not just eating too much?) or trivial (No shit. Genes could and indeed do help in making me everything I am).

People who carry two copies of a variant form of the “FTO” gene are more likely to feel hungry soon after eating a meal, because they carry higher levels of the hunger-producing hormone ghrelin in their bloodstream, an international team of scientists found.

Holy crap! There’s a hunger-producing hormone? Bip! Bip! Bip! “Hello, World Health Organization? Yea, look, this is gonna sound crazy, but we can END WORLD HUNGER TOMORROW! Seriously! All we need is four tanker-freighters of anti-ghrelin…”

What’s more, brain scans revealed this double FTO gene variant changes the way in which the brain reacts to food and ghrelin.

Oh god, where’s the Alka-Seltzer? I knew I shouldn’t have had that third plate of deep-fried ghrelin poppers before the game last night. Probably why I slept so crappy…

And now we come to the neuro-determinism part of the post.

People with the double variant displayed different neural responses in the brain region known to regulate appetite and the pleasure/reward center that normally responds to alcohol and recreational drug use.

I don’t have a problem with referencing the nucleus accumbens, the so-called “pleasure center.” That research is decades old. But the phrasing here subtly and repeatedly encourages the crass phrenological misperception that the brain is just a bunch of lumps each dedicated to some 21st century activity, like chugging Jaegermeister, snorting Adderall, and swallowing whole Twinkies. It’s not, people. The genome doesn’t work like that and the brain doesn’t work like that. It seems that way, because we study them by trying to figure out how brains and genes influence stuff we already do. When you look from the bottom up at how they work to produce signals, it turns out to be much more complex and subtle.

“Oh, but Genotopia,” the journalist complains. “I can’t go on about the nucleus accumbens! I know it’s a simplification, but these little short-cuts are necessary in order to write about complex science for wide audiences!”

Okay, whiner, I’ll do it for you. Ta-da:

People with the double variant displayed greater activity in two key brain regions, one involved in creating the sensation of hunger, the other linked to feelings of pleasure.

You see? Easy. A couple of little tweaks and you introduce hints of contingency and inter-connectedness, rather than implying that we’re all made out of Legos. No waffling, and no Latin.

Just so the poor writer doesn’t feel singled out, the scientists do it too. The lead author on the study says,

 “What this study shows us is that individuals with two copies of the obesity-risk FTO variant are biologically programmed to eat more.”

Really? You’re going to go with “biologically programmed”? I thought we got rid of that language just after Jurassic Park. People homozygous for this one variant may well show a statistical correlation with obesity. It may even be legitimate to say they have a predisposition to eat more. But for Mendel’s sake, ban the cyborg-speak, will you?

Okay, I have to get to work, so I’m not going to go through this entire article. But look, this is an increasingly important issue. We are constantly being told how we have to take our healthcare into our own hands. Education is crucial. And the single most important concept in dealing with the really complex systems of the body–the genome, the brain, the immune system–is probability. By 2013, deterministic speech like this is just laziness. Good science writers and careful scientists don’t say this stuff any more. Doing so is a real disservice to a public that is increasingly dependent on translations of science for its understanding of biology and health. Trash those old metaphors, adopt a few new clichés and stock phrases, and we will be a long way toward a healthier understanding of our own bodies.

News of genes for: the latest examples—and further reflections on why we persist in believing in them

There is a basic contradiction in the lay response to genome news. Somehow, the more we learn about how complex and nuanced gene action is, the more we seem drawn to “gene-for” explanations. Collectively, we know that genes do not directly determine or control traits, let alone behaviors. And we know that single genes do not produce complex traits, except (maybe) in a few extreme and rare circumstances. There are no genes for; and yet we keep talking about them—possibly more than ever. Why is that?

Individual cases, drawn from current events, both demonstrate my premise and give us some leverage for prying apart the halves of this paradox.

So let’s roll up our sleeves and get started.

 

I stink, therefore I scam

One of the less appetizing findings of genetics is that if you can’t roll your earwax up into a nice, satisfying ball, your gym buddies in all likelihood choose lockers disconcertingly far from yours. The gene ABCC11 codes for a protein that is involved in the consistency of earwax—and that is apparently quite nutritious to the bacteria that produce body odor. There is, in short, a “key gene” that is “basically the single determinant of whether you produce underarm odor or not,” said Ian Day, a co-author of a new study on the behavior genetics of raunchy pits.

All this has been known for some time. A new paper, by Day and colleagues and published in the Journal of Investigative Dermatology, found that many people who lack “the underarm odor gene” nevertheless still wear deodorant.

One the one hand, this shows that genetics often makes very little difference in our lives. I haven’t confirmed the result with my own nose, but accepting for the moment that ABCC11 does in fact code a protein largely responsible for body odor, apparently few people are paying much attention to it. More important than whether we are actually olfactorily offensive, seemingly, is the marketing ploy that presents human beings as innately stinky creatures, who, in order to be socially successful, need to neutralize our natural stench with perfumes and deodorants. We deodorize independently of the presence of body odor.

On the other hand, then, although we are not slaves to our genes, this study suggests that we are slaves to our culture. Cultural norms and values often shape our behavior more than biological “reality.”

Nor surprisingly, the allele frequency for dry earwax/odorless axilla (the anatomical term for armpit; the middle-schoolers in your life will be thrilled to know this term) varies geographically: 98% of people of European ancestry are wet and stinky, while essentially all Koreans and most Asians generally are dry and odorless. In a nice double-header of genetic determinism plus medical Eurocentrism, Medical News Today bowdlerized the story as, “Two percent of people have armpits that never smell.” Of course, other things besides ABCC11 can make you smell bad. Given sufficient antipathy to bathing and/or doing laundry, anyone’s armpits (and everything else) will begin to reek. And it takes a remarkably blinkered perspective these days to report this result as two percent of people—to neglect the roughly 4/7 of the world population that is Asian. The whole thing makes me break out in a cold sweat.

 

Anthill Anarchy

Two more papers made claims that were more than skin-deep. A paper in Nature, not on humans but on fire ants, suggests the existence of a “social chromosome.”  A string of 616 genes was identified that correlates with the type of social system an individual ant will accept: either a single-queen system or a multi-queen system.

If all the workers in a colony carry the B variant only, they will accept a single queen that also carries only the B variant (marked as BB, because the chromosomes come in pairs). But if some workers in the colony carry the b version of the chromosome, the colony will accept multiple queens — but only those queens with a mismatched “Bb” set of chromosomes. From the Roman Empire to Occupy Wall St., with the flip of a switch.

In the 1960s, during the first flowering of human cytogenetics, the finding that a disproportionate number of inmates in a British hospital for the violently insane carried an extra Y chromosome led to the idea of the “criminal chromosome.” So-called XYY males were branded as potential criminals. These unfortunates, it was speculated, were predisposed to violent crime as a result of having an extra dose of maleness, with its attendant propensities toward aggression and lack of empathy. Several serial killers were labeled as XYY (incorrectly, in most cases) and the “my genes made me do it” defense was attempted in court, though never successfully. The XYY controversy made headlines through the late 1960s and early 1970s, particularly when the science-activism group Science for the People got hold of a Harvard study intended to interrogate this and other claims about the effect of extra sex chromosomes on behavior. The controversy died when the research arm of the Harvard study was suspended. Thus ended this particularly primitive version of the fantasy of preventing violent crime by identifying it before it starts by aborting affected fetuses (bg essay). More sophisticated versions would involve large complexes of genes and subtler therapies; medication, say, and counseling, perhaps lifelong.[1]

The implications of the ant study also lie in the area of behavior control, though the present work limits its conclusions to entomology. “Our discovery could help in developing novel pest-control strategies,” said paper co-author Yannick Wurm (I know, I know) of the University of London. For example, a pesticide could artificially deactivate the genes in the social chromosome and induce social anarchy within the colony.” What could possibly go wrong?

 

Gene for humanity

Another new study identified microRNAs–short strings of nucleic acid that regulate gene expression–that are found in human brains and (so far) only in human brains. The blog Why Evolution is True delivers a sober account of the finding: “We have a human-specific molecule, miR-941, that regulates gene expression in our brains, and some of the genes it might have regulated have dropped out of the pathway.”

This modest but interesting finding has been overblown in the media to a “gene for humanity,” says whyevolutionistrue. The term “holy grail” really should be used only in conjunction with killer bunnies but the phrase’s mytho-comic connotations are apt here, I think. How thrilling (and frightening) to think there might be a single gene that holds the key to separating us from the apes! Could a single wayward x-ray to the groin lead to a Cro Magnon blessed arrival, fruit of the loins of a middle-class mom from Dubuque? Could we, by means of genetic engineering and maternal surrogacy, resurrect an extinct humanoid species such as, say, a Neandertal?

 

Search for the root causes of the search for root causes

As always, there are two distinct but connected forces at play in these stories. Gene-for hype occurs on at least two levels. First is the scientific fascination with seeking the hereditary component of anything. The laudable emphasis today on multi-gene complexes and gene-environment interaction has done little to dampen our enthusiasm for seeking the genetic “roots” or “basis” of natural behaviors. The reasons for this are complex, but at least part of the explanation is inherent in the science. Quite simply, environmental influences are hard to analyze using existing scientific methods. So the cutting edge of behavioral research brackets the environment and asks questions that are answerable (and of course fundable). This de facto determinism is built into the style of scientific practice: what counts as interesting is shaped by what is convenient to study.

Second, as scientific results filter outward from the lab to the media outlets and blogs to the public eyeball, the natural and necessary distillation of complex, nuanced findings into plain, sixth-grade-level language easily becomes perverted. How many hits would you get by writing, “Genes regulated by human-specific molecule may have dropped out of cascade pathway thousands of generations ago”? Perhaps the more relevant human-specific trait here is the desire for simple explanations and sensational stories about root causes and “the key” to whatever.

It is tempting to write that this impulse for ultimate causation explains everything about genetic determinism. But that would create more problems than it solves.


[1] Court Brown, W. M. “Sex Chromosomes and the Law.” The Lancet 280, no. 7254 (1962 1962): 508-09; Maclean, N., J. M. Mitchell, D. G. Harnden, Jane Williams, Patricia A. Jacobs, Karin A. Buckton, A. G. Baikie, et al. “A Survey of Sex-Chromosome Abnormalities among 4514 Mental Defectives.” The Lancet 279, no. 7224 (1962 1962): 293-96; Jacobs, Patricia A., M. Brunton, M. M. Melville, R. P. Brittain, and W. F. McClemont. “Aggressive Behavior, Mental Subnormality and the XYY Male.” Nature 208 (1965 1965): 1351-52. doi:10.1038/2081351a0.

Walzer, S., and P. S. Gerald. “Social Class and Frequency of XYY and XXY.” Science 190, no. 4220 (1975 1975): 1228-9; Steinfels, M. O., and C. Levine. “The XYY Controversy: Researching Violence and Genetics.” Hastings Cent Rep 10, no. 4 (1980 1980): Suppl-1-32.

 

Risks of a genetic approach to crime prevention

I have a piece in the Hartford Courant‘s special set of editorials on the Sandy Hook tragedy. The headline-writer missed the point–I am not asking whether genetics could help in understanding and preventing such violence. Of course it can yield at least a partial explanation. My concern is the risk of any prevention program grounded in that genetic understanding. That way leads us toward pre-emptive medication of a class of “future criminals”–a frightening prospect indeed.

426x6001 Risks of a genetic approach to crime prevention

Adam Lanza [photo from The Blaze]

Here’s the piece.

The piece was written two weeks ago. Yesterday, Wayne Carver, the Connecticut Medical Examiner who ordered the genetic analysis, called it a “fishing expedition.” He continued, “but that doesn’t mean you don’t look.” Why doesn’t it? Only because you don’t see the risks as being greater than the benefits, however tiny they may be. My argument is that the risks are greater than we realize.