This is the piece I was writing when the brick hit my deck, inspiring this earlier post, which is now a finalist for the 3QuarksDaily science blog prize. For a more detailed and absolutely deadpan look at Wade, see Dick Dorkins’s review.
BAM! A sharp thud on our little back deck about a yard from me the other day. I looked and saw a brick, lobbed over the fence by three kids in the alley. I yelled an obscenity and dashed for the gate. The kids took off and I gave chase, barefoot, indifferent to the shards of back-alley glass. The boys were young—between 9 and 12—brown-skinned. They outran me easily after a couple of blocks. But I got close enough to get a good look. They were clean and well-groomed. Nice-looking kids. They probably had moms who would give them a licking if they knew what their boys had done. Fortunately, no damage was done. I didn’t get a concussion or a bone bruise. It didn’t total my laptop. It didn’t shatter a window. The event was not serious in the wider scheme of city crime. But it was an invasion, a violation. It pissed me off and I thought about it the rest of the day. I weighed their crime as racially motivated. They were black and I am white and they probably wouldn’t have thrown that brick into a black family’s yard. Then I thought about it as motivated by class. Houses in our neighborhood are modest, but probably by those boys’ standards we are wealthy. I thought about how much violence lay behind the gesture. The beefy white cop who took my statement told me to dispose of the brick safely (lest it explode?) and suggested I work in a safer place than my back deck. The brick remains, as a reminder, and I continue to write in the garden. I will not be cowed by a nine-year-old. In the end, I concluded that class was more important than race—and mischief more important than class. The incident was the more troubling because two days earlier, I had also been writing outside when helicopters began circling. We live near a hospital with a Medevac, and traffic copters occasionally make a few passes when there’s a jam or an accident on a nearby artery, so a couple of minutes of their drone is normal. But these persisted, and then I saw that they were black police choppers. A few minutes later, a woman ran up our small one-way street screaming and wailing into her cell phone. We thought we heard her scream, “My baby!”
I checked the Baltimore PD Twitter feed and my heart sank:
Shooting. 3600 block Old York Road. Adult female and juvenile reported to be shot.
It was about five blocks from my house, across the busy thoroughfare marking my neighborhood from the friendly but sketchier one to the east. It’s not “The Wire” sketchy. Just a lower-middle-class neighborhood, mostly black, higher-than-average unemployment rate, lots of families and low-budget hipsters. Shootings are rare there, and broad-daylight gunplay is rare anywhere. But this particular afternoon, three-year-old MacKenzie Elliot was playing on the porch. Caught a stray bullet. Was dead by sundown. The piece I was trying to write that weekend was a review of several books, on genetic and cultural theories of race. One is Nicolas Wade’s A Troublesome Inheritance, which received a satirical review on these pages. It is a pernicious book, a defense of white privilege on biological grounds, cloaked in the same phony tone of reason that eugenicists and anti-evolutionists have evoked for decades: I just want to talk about this issue. Science has to be able to investigate any question, no matter how unpopular. Help help, the Political Correctness Police are trying to silence me. Blah blah blah.
In the early 1980s, I learned that the nature/nurture controversy was officially over. The Victorian polymath Francis Galton had coined the phrase “nature vs. nurture” a century before.
Everyone knows now that it’s a false dichotomy. Everything interesting is shaped by both genes and environment, and moreover, genes and environment mold one another. The relative influence of genetics on a trait is not fixed; the trait may be primarily genetic under some conditions, primarily environmental under others. Scientists know this. Science journalists know it. Scholars of science know it. We have moved past it. Twenty-first century biology is about the interplay among heredity and environment: gene–gene, gene–environment, and environment-environment interactions.
Except it isn’t. Why else do we still have books like Wade’s? If anyone ought to be up on the latest findings in genetics it ought to be him, a long-time reporter on the genetics beat for the New York Times. Yet instead of providing a fair survey of the field as he was trained, he chose to be persuaded by a narrow slice of work that continues a long-discredited scientific tradition. One focusing on the biological race concept and its supposed connections with intelligence, sexuality and other tinderbox issues. As Sussman shows, much of this research is sponsored by the blatantly white-supremacist Pioneer Fund. When it comes to those qualities we think of as quintessentially human, the basic question of nature or nurture seems independent of the state of scientific knowledge. The question returns with force whenever the trait is morally charged. Sexuality. Violence. Intelligence. Race.
Since the 1970s, the brilliant Marxist population geneticist Richard Lewontin has been arguing that the essence of using genetics as a social weapon is equating “genetic” with “unchangeable.” For decades, Lewontin has been pointing out examples of how that’s not true. It’s even less true now, with biotechnology such as prenatal genetic diagnosis and genome editing. Increasingly, the eugenicists’ dream—the control of human evolution—seems to be coming within our grasp. The new eugenicists want to give individuals the opportunity to make the best baby money can buy. No government control, they insist, no problem: if the free market takes care of it, the ethical problems disappear. Adam Smith’s invisible hand will guide us toward the light. As we take control of our own children’s genomes, the rich white people may have rich white babies, but, once we equalize access to whole genome sequencing, IVF, and prenatal genetic diagnosis, then poor black couples can have,…um…the smartest little black babies they can. And so can the Hispanics! And the Catholics who believe procreation shouldn’t require intervention, well they can produce “love children,” just like in GATTACA. It’ll all be fair and market-driven, once we socialize it a little bit.
So why are we even still talking about race and IQ? To Wade and others who say that it is a reasonable scientific question, that proper science has no politics and that the Morality Police have no business blocking scientific progress, I respond: What progress? What benefit? In order to frame this as a scientific question one has to define race, and any definition of race has a moral dimension. There is no way to ask whether racial associations with IQ are “real” without an agenda. The association of race and IQ is a legitimate historical question, but it must be acknowledged that even the most objective historian can only be interested in that question for moral reasons. If the scholarship is good, the agenda will be transparent, evaluable, debatable. But not absent. A good scholar (or reporter) will seriously investigate other viewpoints, present all sides. But he or she will not make pretense to absolute objectivity. The great danger of scientific investigations of questions such as race and IQ is just that pretense.
Science has immense cultural authority—it is the dominant intellectual enterprise of our time. Consider the state of funding or education for “STEM” (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) fields versus that for the humanities, social sciences, or arts. A good deal of science’s cultural authority stems from its claims to objectivity. Thus when a scientist investigates race and IQ, or a science journalist writes about it, they can invoke a cultural myth of science as having privileged access to The Truth. Not all do it—those with historical sensitivity recognize and teach the fallibility of science. But it’s common enough, even among experienced science educators and reporters, to be a crucial justification for the scholarly study of science as a social process. Science has a potent Congressional lobby. Like any industry, it needs watchdogs. Science is not just any industry. Aspects of it remain curiosity-driven, independent of the profit motive. It has an aesthetic side that unites it with the arts. And yet, for many types of questions, it provides a pleasingly rigorous set of methods for cutting through bias and pre-expectation. When scientific methods are pitted against superstition, belief, and prejudice, I side with science every time.
But when you study a lot of science; when you examine it over broad swaths of geography and time, rather than focusing on one particular tiny corner of it; when you study the trajectories of science; when you study the impact of science; when you examine the relationship of science to other cultural enterprises; you find that scientific truth is always contextual. The science of any given day is always superseded by the science of tomorrow. Despite popular myth, science does not find absolute Truth. “Science erases what was formerly true,” wrote the author John McPhee. When I was in college, brain-cell formation stopped shortly after birth. The inheritance of acquired characteristics was debunked nonsense. Genes were fixed and static. Humans had about 100,000 of them. IQ did not change over one’s lifetime. There were nine planets in our solar system. All of that was scientifically proven. None of it is true any more. Only a scientist ignorant of history can be confident that what she knows now will still be true a generation hence.
Which brings me back to the murder and the brick. On one level, the shootings a few blocks away were another incident of violence, probably drug-related, in a poor, predominantly black neighborhood. When they catch the bastard that shot that little girl, if they do a DNA test they might find genetic variants that occur with higher frequency in black males than in the population as a whole. If I catch the little punk who nearly beaned me with that brick, should he spit on my clothes and were I to have it analyzed, the lab might find SNPs in his DNA associated with a predisposition to violence. Whether those differences exist are legitimate scientific questions. But they are moot. The only reason to ask them is to prove an innate predisposition that, historically, has tended to foster racism and hinder social change. They may be legitimate scientific questions, but they’re stupid questions, and the motives of anyone who asks them are suspect. It’s not censorship to declare certain inquiries out-of-bounds. And people knowledgeable about science but outside the elite ought to be part of the process. Scholars. Journalists. Technicians. Students. Research funding should be less of a plutocracy, more of a representative democracy, so we can make better decisions about what questions are worth asking. In my case, the right questions are not “What biological differences account for that brick or that murder?” They are, Who is that brick-throwing kid’s mom? Can I, a “rich” white male, win her trust enough for her to let me into her house, to tell her my story in a way she can hear, so that she can discipline her child and get him back on a more positive path? What can we do to take our neighborhoods back, to make them not shooting galleries but communities again? How can we get people to get to know their neighbors, to keep their eyes open, to watch out for each other?
The other night, my wife took me along to an impromptu wake for the murdered girl, a five-minute bike ride away, near where the shootings occurred. In conventional racial terms, the crowd looked like Baltimore: about two-thirds black, one-third white (the latter mostly young), a sprinkling of Asians. But culturally, it was a black event, run by black women. The MC was the head of the neighborhood community association, a black woman. Words were said by the mayor, a state senator, a city councilwoman—all black women—and the governor, a white man. There was a prayer led by Sister Tina, a holy-rolling preacher who could make a middle-aged, over-educated, white atheist’s eyes well with her furious message of love and community. After the prayers and speeches, one young man threw down a Michael Jackson imitation, lip-synching and doing every move in Michael’s bag—full splits, knee-drops, and skids—on the coarse, hot Baltimore asphalt. The crowd whooped its approval. But the power that evening was held by the women. As we got ready to leave, I walked up and introduced myself to a few of those formidable, warm women. I threw my arms around Sister Tina and told her I thought she was amazing. She beamed and said she could see that the light of God was in me, she could see that I understood. And maybe I did. I know too much about evolution to believe in a literal god, but our mutual warmth and shared ideals are real. It may have been a culturally black event, but all were welcome. I understood in a new way how race matters in exactly the ways, to precisely the extent, that we want it to. Searching for the SNPs that make “them” and “us” different, seeking differences in test scores between the mixture of genes and culture Americans call “black” with those we call “white,” divides us. But here in this corner of this city, we have opportunities to celebrate each other’s cultures, and we have opportunities to share each other’s grief. The more I take those opportunities, the less value I see in the sciences of human racial difference.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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”).
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.
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.
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.
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.