The Dialectical Biologists

Earlier this year, Charles Murray, one of the authors of the infamous Bell Curve, was confronted with spirited protest during a speech he gave at Middlebury College. He was there hawking his new book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960–2010. In it he argues that there has been an ethical and intellectual disintegration of the white working class since the 1960s. He claims that it will only get worse because unintelligent and unethical people tend to have children together, passing on their traits. Murray’s disgusting racism of the 1990s is now complemented by his obscene elitism. Middlebury was right to protest; these ideas have to be confronted. Although there is much debate within the Left on how best to oppose bigotry, it is a relief that Haymarket Books is republishing an indispensable ideological weapon in this struggle: Not In Our Genes: Biology, Ideology, and Human Nature by Richard Lewontin, Steven Rose, and Leon J Kamin.

In the first chapter, the authors lay out how their political moment, the mid-1980s, was a key time for scientists to play a role in societal debate. The turbulent revolts against oppression that characterized the 1970s were giving way to the neoliberal slashing of the

social safety net. Biological determinism, or the idea that innate, biologically hardwired features of humans determine their behaviors, would be very useful ideologically for this new economy. Biological determinists argue that both difference and inequality derive from genes (usually) and justify that inequality by concluding it to be “natural.” However, another generation of biologists took a firm stance against this current. Among them, Stephen Jay Gould’s Mismeasure of Man and Lewontin, Rose and Kamin’s Not in Our Genes were incredibly important antidotes.

The authors cite a 1969 article by Arthur Jensen, which argued that differences in observed IQ between Black and white people were primarily genetic in origin. Jensen came to the logical conclusion of his work: that higher education was wasted on Blacks, who should be provided with more trade skill education as befitted their natural gifts. What became known as “Jensenism” was adopted whole cloth by no less than President Richard Nixon. When scientists, cloaked in a mantle of objective authority, tell politicians what they already want to hear, policy is born. This example and others are used by the authors to demonstrate the political utility of biological determinist arguments.

They are careful to point out however, that the problems with biological determinism are not solely found in the effects. Going back to the birth of modern science in the early days of developing capitalism, they note the contradiction inherent in our current political economy. Feudalism, with its authority rested in the church, was overthrown by appeals from the bourgeoisie to working people that equality could and should exist. Of course the bourgeoisie really wanted the freedom to make profit, not the freedom of humanity in general. So once in charge, inequality remained and it needed an ideology to explain its continuation. Enter the new priests: Scientists, and a helpful philosophical framework—reductionism.

Reductionism, as applied to human behavior, was important for an emerging capitalist society as an effective means of social control over workers. In this case, a social and historical phenomenon--an efficient workplace--is reduced to an innate biological attribute of individual workers, like a machine can be reduced to its smaller parts. As science expanded, this premise could be made more precise; this specific gene makes this specific trait that makes this specific feature of society. Note the causal arrows here; the most reduced component determines the phenomenon. Another component of the reductionist method is to see societal phenomena as an aggregate of individual behavior. The biological determinist says because of these genes, humans exhibit aggression and this causes war. Therefore, war is part of human nature!

Early on in the book, the authors take on one of the major premises of the racist arguments about intelligence: how much of human intelligence is heritable. The typical way people study this question is through testing the IQ (intelligence quotient) of related people against unrelated people. Huge controversy exists about the metric itself. However, they chose to address a different set of methodological errors in most of these studies.

In an attempt to separate “nature and nurture,” studies of twins separated at birth compared with those raised together are often conducted. Then the IQ of a particular child can be compared with the biological and adoptive parent to produce a number—a quantified correlation interpreted as “heritability.” However, these adoptive parents are not a random sampling. Adoptive parents are carefully screened and tend to be wealthier and more educated. As a group, they all tend to have a very similar IQ. (One of the strongest correlations to IQ is socioeconomic status.) Because of the way these statistics are run, if you don’t have decent variation in a sample, you will never find a correlation to the variation in the other (child’s IQ). Doomed from the start, these studies all show that IQ is heritable—although they disagree by a factor of four on how much influence DNA has.

Having dispatched the studies saying intelligence is primarily inherited, the authors pursue another problem with the use of IQ data used to justify racism: the definition of race itself. They point out that there is no biological basis for a dividing line between one “race” and another, although they are careful to remind the reader that even if “race” is a fiction, racism is a social fact. The argument stems from examination of highly variable versions of a gene, or alleles. In an attempt to find a genetic basis for race, the frequency of different alleles within “races” was determined. But even the genes that had the biggest differences in frequency between different populations still had overlap. And many genes have more variability within a “race” then between groups. Thus there can be no difference in IQ between races —the whole question is wrong.

The next argument the authors take on surrounds the “innate” traits exhibited by different sexes. (They do make a distinction between sex and gender.) By looking at differences between sexes at birth, they show how scant the evidence is for the grand claims made about humans later in life. Instead of denying differences, however, they probe the causal claims: genes make girls worse at math, etc. One of the popular explanations at the time for male dominance (which still lingers) was that the hormone testosterone caused the aggression and strength that was associated with it. They remind the reader that all sexes have a suite of hormones--estrogen, testosterone, and progesterone--which are found in different levels at different times in the life of every individual. Also, they confront the use of analogy to non-human animals to justify contemporary patriarchy. By examining other species, scientists are capable of projecting human patterns into places where it is not accurate. More recent studies, conducted during the height of the women’s liberation movement in the 1970s, discovered completely different interpretations of some mating patterns. The prevailing circumstances in which research is conducted narrows and shapes our intellectual horizons.

Next the authors examine the pathologizing of “unruly” behavior. There is a long history of this; from Soviet Russia to the Watts rebellion, scientists have been trying to locate and then “fix” the biological basis for dissent. They note the dramatic increase in diagnosis of what is now known as ADHD. This form of biological determinism carries the premise that if you can’t fix the genes causing the behavior (because that’s called eugenics and is no longer considered acceptable), then you fix the biochemistry caused by those “bad genes.” They point out that these ventures are profoundly lucrative for the pharmaceutical industry and find serious flaws with several of the studies that are used to say these drugs are even effective. They continue with this by tackling some of the claims of heritability among other mental disorders, especially schizophrenia.

In this section, they contrast a biological determinist view with that of the cultural determinists. Cultural determinists, such as the psychologist B. F. Skinner, posit that behavior is solely or primarily determined by social conditioning. Skinner famously advocated operant conditioning, or behavior change based on negative or positive reinforcement. He described all behavior as being caused by a series of different reinforcements for one or another behavior. Both in prisons and in schools, some mixture of biological and cultural determinisms underlie systems of social control. And although these two forms of determinism seem to be opposites, they share a fundamental premise: Both are essentially “victim blaming,” locating the problem inside the individual, who must be tailored to fit the social order that he or she so evidently mismatches at present.

The authors also address sociobiology, or what has morphed into evolutionary psychology more recently—which also represents a form of biological or genetic determinism. The authors take aim in particular at E. O. Wilson, author of the 1975 book Sociobiology: A New Synthesis. Wilson used animal behavior and a great deal of speculation to identify the human behavioral traits that, he claimed, allowed for greater reproductive success and therefore were kept in the population. Wilson argued, write the authors, “that territoriality, tribalism, and xenophobia are indeed part of the human genetic constitution, having been built into it by millions of years of evolution.” The authors quote Wilson’s claim that, “Even in the most free and most egalitarian of future societies men are likely to continue to play a disproportionate role in political life, business, and science.”

The authors identify several fatal flaws in sociobiology. First, sociobiology makes arbitrary and unspoken choices about the size of the unit of selection. If the modern human chin is neither selected for or against but is merely a product of other selective pressures, how much more difficult then to identify a single behavior or sets of behaviors that could be independently subject to natural selection.

Second, they make modern concepts and social relations a thing, that is to say reify them, and then project them back into the past. The tendency to horde private property, for example, cannot have been selected for or against in pre-class societies because such a tendency, and such a form of property, did not exist. Sociobiologists also use circular methods of argument: taking metaphors derived from human social relations, applying them to other species, and then using that observation to “prove” its naturalness to human life. For example, they view ant societies, call them slave societies, and then say slavery is a part of nature. Finally, they tend to lump behaviors together in ways that confuse instead of elucidate the issue. Aggression can be anything from a person arguing over a parking space to a deeply reluctant soldier, who just wanted the college tuition, serving in Iraq.

Against all of the critiques of reductionist and determinist biology the authors put forward a different vision, one that doesn’t answer the “nurture versus nature” question, but instead rejects the dichotomy as unhelpful for understanding the world. They remind the reader that organisms are both a product of the forces of the environment and also shape it in turn. The simplest example is found in bacteria; when they break down carbohydrates they can make acid, e.g. cheese, but eventually the environment becomes too acidic and then they swim elsewhere. So is it nature or nurture that caused the swimming behavior? Now translate that precept to humans: Development—and certainly human psychic development—must be regarded as codevelopment of the organism and its environment, for mental states have an effect on the external world through conscious human action.

As the authors explain regarding “nature vs. nurture”:

We reject this dichotomy. We do assert that we cannot think of any significant human social behavior that is built into our genes in such a way that it cannot be modified and shaped by social conditioning. Even biological features such as eating, sleeping, and sex are greatly modified by conscious control and social conditioning. The sexual urge in particular may be abolished, transformed, or heightened by life history events. Yet, at the same time, we deny that human beings are born tabulae rasae [blank slates], which they evidently are not, and that individual human beings are simple mirrors of social circumstances. If that were the case, there could be no social evolution.

In place of a reductionist, determinist approach to understanding human society, we must take an integrated and dialectical approach that includes both our biologically endowed amazing plasticity, and our own capability to profoundly reshape the environment around us.

The debate about biological determinism is far from over. In May an article came out in the prestigious journal Nature Genetics claiming to have identified eighteen areas in the human genome that are “influencing human intelligence.” But just like their forebearers, they had some serious methodological problems. I am looking forward to a new generation of people reading Not In Our Genes so we can together mount a powerful response.

Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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