The soul of soulless conditions?


The soul of soulless conditions? Accounting for genetic fundamentalism

Joseph schwartz

Twenty-five years ago, I was browsing in my university library when I came across Richard Hernnsteinʼs article ʻIQ and the Meritocracyʼ in the Atlantic Monthly. My heart sank. ʻNot that againʼ, I thought. A few days later my brother Mike rang. He insisted that we needed to respond to what purported to be new research showing that eighty per cent of the variability in IQ scores was due to genetic variation.

Actually, I was intrigued. Eighty per cent? How could such a figure be arrived at? I was a physicist working in biology and psychology. My brother was a mathematically trained sociologist. We spent the next several weeks digesting the pompous formalism of biometrical genetics and rerunning the IQ test score correlations. After a spirited exchange with referees, we succeeded in getting our counter-analysis published in the journal Nature (vol. 278, pp. 84–5). Somewhat mischievously, we called it ʻEvidence against a Genetical Component to Performance on IQ Testsʼ. Using exactly the same data, but analysing it with proper controls and different assumptions, we produced an estimate for the heritability of IQ performance that was consistent with zero. We had nearly a thousand requests for reprints.

We wrote two other technical pieces and, along with Susie Orbach, Laura Anker and Jeremy Pikser, wrote magazine articles to spread the news. We visited one of the lionsʼ dens, the Department of Genetics at Birmingham University, where, curious to get the measure of the perpetrators, Orbach and I took on John Jinks FRS and his associate Lyndon Eaves in the staff common room in a 100 decibel confrontation, to the astonishment of graduate students who had never even considered that Eʼs (Environment) and Gʼs (Genetics) were interchangeable in their equations.

But we couldnʼt help noticing that, even among friends who welcomed our counteranalysis, there was a strange discomfort. ʻNo genetic component at all?ʼ, they muttered in a low voice. This was intriguing. Why not zero heritability? ʻThe real me is my DNAʼ seemed to be the message. What was this about?

The latest skirmish

Last June the latest skirmish in the continuing battle about the role of genetics in human affairs occurred when the media picked up a Nature research paper that was read as saying, in the inimitable words of the Guardian headline writer (12 June), ʻGenes say boys will be boys and girls will be sensitive.ʼ It was the same dreary stuff.

Give a test to members of two genetically distinct groups, and then assume that any difference in test scores, or the measures derived from them, are due to the genetic differences between the groups. In this case the test was a questionnaire to parents of girls suffering from Turnerʼs syndrome (a missing X chromosome), containing such questions as: ʻDoes your child lack an awareness of other peopleʼs feelings?ʼ Differences were observed between girls who inherited their X chromosome from their mother (average score of 9), and those who inherited their X chromosome from their fathers (average score of 5). Susie Orbach and I got out our files and duly wrote a response, much to the delight of the Saturday Guardian editorial staff (14 June). But why was the story picked up in the first place?

The original paper was published in Nature as part of a minor technical dispute, the hypothesis of so-called genomic imprinting – the notion that the same gene could be differently expressed depending on whether it was inherited from mother or father. But the senior author of the paper had bigger fish to fry and, with aptly placed speculations on the implications of his results for differences between men and women in general, succeeded in putting the cat among the pigeons yet again. As the piece moved forward in Nature from the research report section, with its formalized, circumspect language of ʻconsistent withʼ and ʻpossibly a mechanism forʼ, to the News and Views section, with its headline ʻA fatherʼs imprint on his daughterʼs thinkingʼ, to the cover headline ʻGenetics – Imprinting good behaviourʼ, and thence on to the Guardian with its shout line: ʻNature not nurture is responsible for feminine intuition and menʼs lack of tact, scientists argueʼ, we arrived back in the never-never land of a mystified, never-to-beverified genetic theorizing.

Phil Campbell, the editor of Nature, is a good physicist with no genetic axe to grind.

Nevertheless, as a journalist he and his staff know what is newsworthy. And so it was.

Interestingly, in the very same issue of Nature there was a good summary of a recent conference thoughtfully addressing reductionism in general and genetic fundamentalism in particular, an article not picked up by Tim Radford in his scan of the scientific press.

What is going on here? Why are genetic explanations of human behaviour newsworthy?

What is this deep resonance in our culture about?

Cultural resonances

We need to understand that the depth of a belief in genetics affects researchers as much as the rest of us. Although there has been the famous cheating of Sir Cyril Burt, who despite recent attempts to rehabilitate him still stands convicted of fabricating the data for the IQ scores of a presumed 30,000 father–son pairs by copying out the distribution of the scores from the mathematical tables, most of this research is conducted by workers in the field so convinced of the existence of genetic mechanisms that the need to test alternatives, to provide controls and do proper statistical tests doesnʼt even arise.

From the failure to report null results because ʻno one would believe that identical twins were not more similar than fraternal twinsʼ (Nature, vol. 248, pp. 84–5), to neglecting to put Eʼs into equations instead of Gʼs, where this error is known as a confusion between parameter estimation and hypothesis testing, this is not simply bad science. It is just a particularly egregious example of how research reflects the values and assumptions of the culture in which it is embedded.

Critics of the studies share similar views. Four generations of informed commentators have invariably prefaced or ended their critiques by affirming – no atheists they – that of course genetics plays an important part in our human make up, it is just this study that is flawed. In more sophisticated affirmations of the Fundamental Importance of Genetics, it would be said that genetic and environmental ʻinfluencesʼ interact in just such a way as to make it impossible to tell which is which: genetics is present, of course, but not in a way that one can ever verify. What a relief.

Something is missing. Historically, it is clear that there was a cultural resonance with the Protestant doctrine of predestination in the acceptance of genetic theories of human destiny at the turn of the nineteenth century in Britain and the USA. The nouveau couche sociale (Hobsbawm) of scientists, journalists and civil servants formed a class fraction in a strategic position to formulate an enduring ideology that secured a privileged place for the sons of a disowned bourgeoisie in the emerging corporate order.

An early formulation by Francis Walker, second president of MIT – the rent of ability – would be transformed into the concept of inherited intelligence. Like money it could be measured; like money it could be inherited; and, like money, some people had more of it than others.

Psychologically, however, genetic fundamentalism has been too powerful to be dispelled by mere historical analysis. Part of this reflects our incomplete understanding of what makes us human. We know that gender – ʻIs it a boy or a girl?ʼ – is a critically important category. Parental expectations, unconscious identifications, and ensuing behaviour are such that we know without a doubt that girl children and boy children receive very different parenting. Such early differences create psychologies that feel so personal, fixed and immutable that it is as though they are as good as genetic as regards their permanence and lack of plasticity. In many respects we are as good as genetically formed, and we accurately sense the depth of experience that forms us, which is what the genetic metaphor expresses.

But why couldnʼt ʻitʼ be genetic? Indeed. The reason is that reductionism does not imply constructionism. You cannot predict the shape of the Royal Albert Hall by the knowledge that it is made of bricks. Although reductionism still has plenty of life in it, the successes of molecular biology have made it increasingly apparent that biological phenomena cannot be understood, even in principle, in terms of the laws of physics.

The 1930s vision of the physicists Max Mason and Warren Weaver of the Rockefeller Foundation, that biology would never become more than mere stamp-collecting without mathematics and physics to guide it, has been proved completely false – helped in no small measure by the physicist Max Delbruck, who believed that the variegated, historically formed, unique phenomena of life could not be reduced to the few simple words characteristic of the laws of physics. Known to some as emergent properties and to others as complexity, it is now only a matter of time before it becomes generally recognized that the properties of complex emergent systems lie in the organization of the component parts, not in the properties of the parts in isolation. The replicative properties of DNA in its cellular environment cannot be understood in terms of atomic properties of its nucleotide bases.

Yet I stray. A resolution of the interrelationships between the levels of organization of matter – of how the shift from the quantitative to the qualitative occurs – will not help us understand genetic fundamentalism. What is the attraction of idealist views of the world? For, make no mistake, genetic theories of human capability locate the causal factors of human action outside the real world, in a mythic, pseudo-materialist universe where genes can be postulated for everything from aggression to xenophobia. Genetic theories would seem to be the philosophical idealism of a scientific age, a neo-idealism made kosher by appeals, not to god, but to genetic material.


How can one analyse this remarkable phenomenon of neo-idealist genetic theorizing?

Three factors come to mind. We could locate our sense of human autonomy in our DNA because that seems to be the safest place for it, the place where it cannot be touched by social forces over which we have apparently little control. In this view DNA is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, the soul of soulless conditions.

A second factor may be located in the myths of Western individualism – not in class society per se, but in a specifically Western vision connected with breaking free from the great chain of being: the myth of the individual. ʻThe real me is my DNAʼ is a me unfettered by social ties in the war of all against all. Or we can locate the myth of the individual, with its attendant rejection of the centrality of human attachment, in the vicissitudes of patriarchy where women do the unacknowledged emotional labour to maintain the interpersonal relationships without which we do not become human.

Is this why genetic theories are news? A confluence of patriarchy and class society in a scientific age creates the conditions for a powerful ideology of genetic fundamentalism which gets reflected into the research community, and back out again as confirmation of deeply held, unexamined beliefs.

To some extent we are all in thrall to genetic theories of human action. The great clinical discovery in the 1940s of the Scottish psychoanalyst W.R.D. Fairbairn that, fundamentally, the human being is socially relationship seeking, and not biologically pleasure seeking as Freud guessed, is as little known outside psychoanalysis as the reconceptualization of science achieved by an entire generation of radical scientists, historians and sociologists. We remain ignorant of what makes us human, and blinded by science. Should we be surprised that equally ignorant scientists find it attractive to move into the vacuum of understanding with theories that turn reality, if not exactly upside down, then certainly inside-out or rather outside-in? Sex-role differences, differing performance on IQ tests, crime, schizophrenia, physiological disturbance – anxiety, anger, depression – become located internally on an idealized human genome, instead of externally in the real world of lived experience. And although lived experience can cause damaging – even irreversible – changes in our physiology, which can only be ameliorated by biochemical intervention, we learned long ago that we will never understand the causes of these or any other disturbances by appealing to godʼs will.