The Corner

More Squid Ink From David Brooks

Oh no. Are yours truly and the patient guys over at Gene Expression going to have to deconstruct David Brooks all over again?

[B]ecause genes respond to environmental signals, there’s the complexity of the world around.

Genes do indeed respond to environmental signals; but a given gene can respond in only a finite — usually very small — number of ways. Whether my desk lamp is on or off depends on environmental factors: someone being there to press the switch, mainly. It will only be on or off, though. It will not play the National Anthem or solve Rubik’s Cube, no matter how you jigger those environmental factors. This consideration enormously simplifies the problems to be solved in genetics.

Prof. Eric Turkheimer of the University of Virginia, conducted research showing that growing up in an impoverished environment harms I.Q.

Er, no. The Turkheimer study showed a correlation between heritability of I.Q. and the kind of unstable environment that goes with low socio-economic status. Not the same thing. (And not, so far as I know, yet replicated by other researchers. Let’s have a little respect for scientific method, Dave.)

For a time, it seemed as if we were about to use the bright beam of science to illuminate the murky world of human action.

But everybody’s given up on that dumb, naive idea now? No they haven’t (see below).

Instead, as Turkheimer writes …

Again with the Turkheimer. Does David have the guy on a retainer?

 … in his chapter in the book, Wrestling With Behavioral Genetics, science finds itself enmeshed with social science and the humanities in what researchers call the Gloomy Prospect, the ineffable mystery of why people do what they do.

The implication being that trying to figure out “why people do what they do,” and to connect behavior to genetics, is now universally recognized to be a fool’s errand, confronted as it is by an “ineffable mystery.” In fact, research in behavioral genetics is thriving, and delivering new results all the time. (Here is one from this week’s newspapers. And it’s only Tuesday!) Why is the International Behavioural and Neural Genetics Society (and a thousand similar scholarly bodies) still in business, if their enterprise is so hopeless? Would you like to hazard a guess as to whether the number of, and membership figures for, and funding for, these societies are increasing or decreasing, David? David?

Starting in the late 19th century, eugenicists used primitive ideas about genetics to try to re-engineer the human race.

Wildly overstated. The furthest they got in any free country was compulsory sterilization of mentally retarded and criminal people. Deplorable enough, but well short of “re-engineering the human race,” and scotched by the courts before some fraction of 0.1 percent of the population was affected. And milder versions of state-enforced negative eugenics — the preventing of births considered by the state to be undesirable are on the statute books in the U.S.A. to this day, to nobody’s great vexation so far as I can see. To get a marriage license in my state, for example, you have to aver that you are not a close blood relative of the person you intend to marry. Private-choice positive eugenics is a feature of all societies, and always has been. It’s called “choosing a partner.”

Saying farewell to the sort of horrible social engineering projects that dominated the 20th century is a major example of human progress.

Yay to that, but then:

We can take people out of environments that (somehow) produce bad outcomes and try to immerse them into environments that (somehow) produce better ones.

And that wouldn’t be social engineering? “On the basis of what we think we know”?

Whether behavioral genetics will ever deliver benefits to the human race is an open question. Whether, and how, it will, or should, guide social policy, is another one. The clouds of squid ink being emitted here by David Brooks are not much relevant to either question. They are intended to obscure the fact, which is daily more plain, that the “blank slate” model of human nature is false, and that genetic determinism, though of course not the whole explanation for “why people do what they do,” is a mighty big component of human personality and human affairs — a severe constraint on what any individual human being can be or do, and a similarly limiting factor on what social policy can hope to accomplish.


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