Planet Earth

An anthropologist explains the gene!

Gene ExpressionBy Razib KhanMar 6, 2013 12:18 PM


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Over at a late response to my post Against the cultural anthropologists from someone named Michael Scroggins. He accuses me of being "The hyperbolic leader in this round of hippie bashing." That's a defensible proposition, but speaking of hyperbole, he says:

The paradigm that informs Chagnon, Diamond and their chorus of supporters in the blogosphere is an adherence to the modern synthesis in evolutionary biology. To be more specific, they are both, more or less, sociobiologists who believe in genetic determinism.

First, the way cultural anthropologists use the term "genetic determinism" is similar to the way propagandists bandy about the terms "fascism" and "communism." They're usually not descriptions of real individuals or movements in the modern age, but point to a reality which connotes a particular odious intellectual flavor worthy of shunning, shaming, and asphyxiating. More precisely,

there are almost no "genetic determinists" as such who adhere to the proposition that genes determine in some physics-like manner the specific manifestation of human nature.

Rather, genes matter, just as culture matters. The accusation of being a genetic determinist is clearly off the mark for Chagnon, and even less of Jared Diamond (who has written whole books centered upon the premise of biological egalitarianism and the overwhelming power of environmental conditions on the course of human affairs!). Even in the case of Chagnon, a self-identified sociobiologist, the accusation of genetic determinism is a matter of rhetorical flash and slander, the stock and trade of modern cultural anthropology. In Nobles Savages he recounts that his great antagonist Marvin Harris repeatedly references the lie that Chagnon believed in a "gene for war." This is a lie because Chagnon repeatedly challenged this characterization, but Harris and his fellow travelers apparently repeated the accusation because of its rhetorical bite even when corrected on the record. This seems plausible because a self-described hippie, John Horgan, has reported that not only does Chagnon reject the idea of a gene for war, but believes that war is a cultural artifact! (Horgan wrote about his encounter with Chagnon in The End of War). And yet the most interesting aspect of the post above is the long rumination on the nature of the gene.

For fields like population genetics, evolutionary psychology and sociobiology, the gene is a unit of calculation in the exact sense formulated by Johannsen in 1909. This is unproblematic if one understands that in this conception, a gene is more rhetorical topic than scientific fact. And, like Geertz noted of “mind”, when deployed in this sense by Diamond and Chagnon, a “gene” is a social concept which explains behavior, values, attitudes and social mores. The problem comes in considering the gene as a unit which transmits determinate behavioral traits on a one-to-one basis, which is precisely what Chagnon does. Why are the fierce people so fierce? Because they inherit the genes from the most violent males among them. Note also, that in Chagnon’s formulation, women are of little import except as carriers of genetic information. In contrast, the molecular view of the gene has undergone what can only be called a deconstruction since 1909. In the molecular view, the gene, as a unit, can be located in multiple spots (some quite mysterious) and behave in any number of surprising ways. It is, in the molecular view, far from the kind of determinate factor which Chagnon and Diamond rely upon for their analysis. At best, the molecular gene fuzzily transmits traits, more or less. For example the definition of a gene given in the 4th edition of Molecular Cell Biology is “the entire nucleic acid sequence that is necessary for the synthesis of a functional polypeptide.” In other words, a gene is a string of macromolecules that code for a protein. Note that the one-to-one correspondence between gene and behavior is absent and in its place has been substituted a definition which leaves open questions of the relation of elementary to complex phenomena.

This characterization is problematic, more or less. And though I am more positively disposed toward evolutionary psychology and sociobiology than most, the bracketing of population genetics into the same class as these to me definitely justifies the label of Left Creationist for Michael Scroggins.* Additionally, molecular genetic biology post-dates Mendelism and the early 20th century work in genetics by decades. And the two individuals most famous for the emergence of molecular genetics, James Watson and Francis Crick, both exhibited attitudes which Scroggins would define as genetic determinist. This is not "Not Even Wrong." It is "Not Even Aspiring to be Right." In any case, cultural anthropology delenda est! * Note that I am not conceding Scroggins' characterization in its basis.

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