Intelligent Design

You are your genes? Oh, maybe not

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I happened to be rereading Jonathan Wells’s The Politically Incorrect Guide™ to Darwinism and Intelligent Design, and thought I’d share this summary re genetics and behaviour:

Except for some rare pathological conditions, it has been impossible to tie human behavior to specific genes. (The “gay gene” that was much hyped a few years ago turned out to be a mirage.) If human behavior cannot be reduced to genetics, then according to neo-Darwinism it cannot be biologically inherited; if it cannot be biologically inherited, then it cannot evolve in a Darwinian sense. Still another problem with sociobiology is that it has been invoked to explain just about every human behavior from selfishness to self-sacrifice, from promiscuity to celibacy.

A theory that explains something and its opposite equally well explains nothing. It’s no wonder that sociobiology and its latest manifestation, “evolutionary psychology” (called “evo-psycho” by some wags), are held in low regard even by some evolutionary biologists.

Stephen Jay Gould once called sociobiology a collection of “just-so stories” in which “virtuosity in invention replaces testability as the criterion for acceptance.” And in 2000 evolutionary biologist Jerry A. Coyne compared it to discredited Freudian psychology: “By judicious manipulation, every possible observation of human behavior could be (and was) fitted into the Freudian framework.*

Truth squad notes: I am myself one of the wags who calls it “evo psycho.”

Evo psycho first attracted my attention when I noticed that it always offered explanations in terms of current popular culture, which is entirely contrary to the way real science works.

When, a couple of weeks ago, I asked the scientists at the Solar Neutrino Observatory in Sudbury, Canada, how they did their work and what they discovered from it, popular culture played no role in the discussion. But if I asked an evolutionary psychologist about marriage in prehistoric times, he would tell me some popular culture lore dressed up in “let’s play cave people” animal skins.

Whereas the SNO scientists actually know something about solar neutrinos, the evolutionary psychologist really knows nothing whatever about how prehistoric humans managed their domestic relationships.

Yes, we know a bit about marriage in the ancient world because of recovered marriage contracts, et cetera, and we also know a bit about marriage among modern humans who use only ancient technologies because anthropologists have observed them. But the rest is pure speculation.

So what do we know? Our genes play a role in our lives, and so do our experiences and our culture.

What we can really know about ancient relationships?: While we are here anyway: If you happen to recall the story in the Book of Genesis in the Bible about how Sarah got her husband Abraham to have a son with the servant girl Hagar, you will be interested to know that Abraham and Sarah had grown up in the Babylonian culture – and that culture specifically allowed an infertile wife this option. Memory of the custom was preserved in that story through many later centuries when it apparently was not an option any longer. So sometimes we do know, more or less what happened.

But just as dressing in animal skins would not make us Cro-Magnons, telling stories based on “evolutionary psychology” does not give us any special insights.

More evo psycho stories:

Evolutionary psychology: Moral judgement based on “rather primitive emotion”

Evolutionary psychology: Why do evolutionary psychologists exist?

Evolutionary psychology: So they really DON’T believe all that rot?

Evolutionary psychology: Gossip can be good for you

A Google Alert for evolutionary psychology pretty much tells you what you need to know about it

Evolutionary psychology: The scam getting nailed at last?

Lessons from the heroes of Mumbai

Evolutionary psychology: Police just as good as church in promoting socially helpful behavior -researchers

Evolutionary psychology: Do people see faces in cars?

Evolutionary psychology: Misunderstanding superstition

Evolutionary psychology: Why evolutionary explanations of religion don’t work

Mind: Current science less and less precise as it approaches the mind?\

Evolutionary psychology: British physicist targets theory-of-the-month on “how religion got started”

Evolutionary psychology: Women prefer men with stubble? Oh, no wait – beards – but we can explain that too …

Evolutionary psychology: The selfish gene in the art world

Evolutionary psychology: Key concept of “memes” trashed as “one of the bigger crocks hatched in recent decades”

*Reffs? You want reffs? Okay … :

10. Stephen Jay Gould, “Sociobiology: the Art of Storytelling,” New Scientist, November 16, 1978, 530–33. [Not, apparently, on line, but a bunch of fussy criticisms are.] Jerry A. Coyne, “Of Vice and Men: The Fairy Tales of Evolutionary Psychology,” a review of Randy Thornhill and Craig Palmer’s A Natural History of Rape, in New Republic, April 3, 2000. [Also not on line, but note this is.] There is also Tom Bethell, “Against Sociobiology,” First Things 109, January 2001: 18–24. That is on line, but, fair warning, like me, he isn’t fronting the nonsense.

8 Replies to “You are your genes? Oh, maybe not

  1. 1
    Nakashima says:

    it is ok if the genes aren’t there for behavior, it must all be in the junk DNA! 😉

  2. 2
    Dave W. says:

    More evo psycho stories:

    Evolutionary psychology: So they really DON’T believe all that rot?

    Okay, so you know that the premise in your last contest post was false.

    Isn’t it interesting, Mrs. O’Leary, that you, Stephen J. Gould, PZ Myers and Jerry Coyne all agree about evo psych?

  3. 3
    RDK says:

    Isn’t it interesting, Mrs. O’Leary, that you, Stephen J. Gould, PZ Myers and Jerry Coyne all agree about evo psych?

    Hogwash. Gould, PZ, and Coyne are obviously lying in order to save face against the media. Deep in their heart of hearts, they secretly love evolutionary psychology.

  4. 4
    Dave W. says:

    RDK wrote:

    Hogwash.

    Perhaps it is Mrs. O’Leary who “doth protest too much?”

  5. 5
    RDK says:

    Perhaps it is Mrs. O’Leary who “doth protest too much?”

    Methinks. I can understand healthy skepticism, because that is what drives scientific endeavor. But if you think you can get away with disproving modern evolutionary theory by simply claiming incredulity, then don’t be surprised when people just start ignoring you.

    One wonders why they single out biology. Why not question those pesky quantum physicists for mountain-piles of evidence? I’m sure they’d be happy to.

  6. 6
    timdean says:

    Oh, I see. There’s also no specific gene for height. And if height cannot be reduced to genetics, then according to neo-Darwinism it cannot be biologically inherited; if it cannot be biologically inherited, then it cannot evolve in a Darwinian sense. It’s just pure coincidence (or design) that height appears to be hereditary…

    The flaw in the above argument is the premise: if something is biologically inherited, there is a specific gene for it. That’s not necessarily true. There are many complex traits that result from the interaction between many genes, environmental and stochastic influences.

    There are few, if any, evolutionary psychologists who claim a ‘specific gene’ for a behaviour. Instead they talk of evolved mechanisms, heuristics, faculties etc, that combined with environmental input to result in behaviour. Likewise, evolutionary biologists don’t talk about a specific gene for the heart. But they acknowledge the evolutionary history that shaped the heart.

    I don’t believe all evolutionary psychology hypotheses are correct. But the discipline can and is yielding insights into human behaviour, and it would be folly to dismiss it entirely.

    And if you want evidence for genetic influence on behaviour, read up on some twin studies (Nick Martin from University of Queensland would be a good place to start).

  7. 7
    O'Leary says:

    TimDean, I gather height depends on how much the long bones grow before early adulthood.

    So people can be artificially dwarfed far more easily than they can be artificially tallened.

    In some societies where people are famously short, when the working class gets access to high protein foods, well … they soon need bigger stuff of all kinds.

    I’ve seen that myself among the children of new immigrants to Canada. The parents grew up somewhere on tea and rice, but the children grew up here on milk and beef – and the difference shows.

    So girls tower over their moms … whereas, in my group, where people have lived here for centuries, a group of women of the same family will mostly be the same height. (= because we had in fact reached our maximum height without hindrance due to malnutrition. And if we were short, well, we were short.)

    Re twin studies, I am deeply suspicious, for a number of reasons:

    1. People tend to see twins as more similar than they are. For example, the fact that one twin tends to be dominant and the other subdominant produces key differences that are not even noticed – but similarities of twins are always captured.

    2. Even where twins are similar, it can be hard to determine how much is genes and how much is environment. Twins both vote Liberal? Or Conservative? In a society where a five per cent difference can determine who rules, one needs to be cautious in interpretation.

    3. There’s no randomness factor in how separated twins are assigned to families, nor could there be. In a properly functioning social services system, children will not end up living in the Angels’ Club House or the Best Little Hoo-House in Texas or with Jim Jones (that DID happen to some foster children in 1979, sadly, but it was a very bad day indeed for the system, and it ended any contribution those children might make to the gene pool).

    If people need to believe in twin studies, well then they do. I wouldn’t give them much attention myself because I don’t start out with the assumption that genes matter way more than environment or choices in how people turn out.

    I think that for most aspects of life, genes merely suggest a direction (proneness to diabetes, for example, is a big one here in Canada).

    But what happens after that is environment and lifestyle choice.

    Personally, I think that is a good way for life to work.

    The hand you get dealt is usually not a sentence.

  8. 8
    timdean says:

    I don’t normally debate on blogs, but given the civility of your tone, I’ll happily engage with hopes of a reasonable discussion.

    Despite your anecdotal evidence, there are many studies that show height correlates with the height of parents and siblings beyond what can be explained by environmental (or dietary) factors.

    That doesn’t mean the environment can’t account for some of the variation in height, but environment alone cannot explain why two individuals who share the same environment have different heights. But genes + environment can.

    And the Three Suspicions you raise about twin studies are all very carefully accounted for by researchers and there still remains a significantly stronger correlation between identical twins than non-identical twins.

    In fact, identical twins raised apart often exhibit *more* similarity than identical twins raised together.

    The researchers also don’t “start out with the assumption that genes matter way more than environment.” The researchers design an experiment to ask the question “what matters more for trait X, genes or environment?” and the data provides evidence for an answer. They don’t go in looking for the answer they want. That’s bad science.

    And as I stated before, there’s no one gene for a complex trait like height, intelligence, autism, voting liberal etc. But there are genes that influence the production of certain proteins in greater or lesser amounts that might interact with the environment in different ways to make certain complex traits or behaviours more or less likely. And that’s hugely important when trying to understand why humans are – and behave – the way they do.

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