Fwd: The genetics of blame (fwd)

P. Myers (mpwr@u.washington.edu)
Fri, 21 Aug 1998 15:29:42 -0700 (PDT)

Long, but very interesting article!! Pat Myers

You've got to dance like nobody's=20
               watching, and love=20
                  like it's never
                    going to hurt.

Subject: Fwd:  The genetics of blame

The genetics of blame

A gene for homelessness? Is this a joke? Not entirely, for those who
subscribe to the burgeoning new mix of science and politics called neuro
genetic determinism, writes Professor Steven Rose.

Early last December the science writer Matt Ridley contributed a column
to the Daily Telegraph. He argued that, contrary to long-held
common-sense views, genetic research now proved that how we are brought
up and the nature of our family background have little effect on the
sort of people we become. All important aspects of our personality are
somehow preordained by the genes in our bodies. Hence, he concluded
bluntly, interventions by social workers into our lives would not solve
these problems; it was time for political conservatives to abandon their
residual moral authoritarianism and move towards policies more in accord
with biological realism.

Ridley's views on the importance of genes are shared by much of the
press. Week after week newspapers report what are seen as major
breakthroughs in biological and medical understanding, though few draw
out the seeming political lessons with such clarity. A random sampling
of newspapers last autumn offered the discovery of a gene contributing
to IQ and another for schizophrenia, Edward Kennedy's belief that he
carried "the genes for alcoholism", and an announcement that mail-order
gene tests would soon be available.

Genes have been located, it is claimed, not only for diseases like
breast cancer but for homosexuality, alcoholism and criminality. And
there is the notorious and only half-facetious speculation by Daniel
Koshland, former editor of the prestigious Science journal, that there
might even be genes for homelessness.

At the same time as drugs to extend life, improve memory or prevent
compulsive shopping make newspaper headlines, university scientists call
press conferences in which they claim to have discovered the biological
causes of sexuality or of violence in modern society.

In 1995 the London-based medical charity, the CIBA Foundation, announced
that it was sponsoring a closed meeting of behaviour geneticists whose
research pointed to a "biological" origin for the incidence of violent
crime - and of course its concentration in non-white inner city ghettos.
An earlier attempt to hold a similar meeting in the US had to be called
off when protesters objected to its racist assumptions.

The emerging synthesis of genetics and the brain sciences -
neurogenetics - and its philosophical and political offspring,
neurogenetic determinism, offers the prospect of identifying, ascribing
causal power to, and eventually modifying genes affecting brain and
behaviour. In a world full of individual pain and social disorder, neu
rogenetics claims to be able to answer the question of where we should
look not merely to explain but also to change our condition. Give social
reasons their due, the claim runs, but in the last analysis what really
determines things is biology. Urban violence, homelessness and psychic
distress are desperately serious features of modern life to which
solutions are required - although no one to my knowledge is researching
the genetic causes of homophobia, racism or financial fraud. There is a
widespread despair at the failure of the socialist - or even
social-democrat - project of remodelling society to alleviate these

Under such circumstances it is easy to understand the attractiveness of
seeking explanations and interventions rooted in human biology. This
drift from the social was memorably summed up by Margaret Thatcher when
she claimed there is no such thing as society, only individuals and
their families.

The question is whether such explanations are valid and useful or
whether they merely exacerbate social distress whilst failing to provide
meaningful scientific insights into the origins of the problems they
seek to understand.

This is not a new debate; it has recurred in each generation at least
since Darwin's day. What is new today is the way in which the mystique
of the new genetics is seen as strengthening the genetic argument. At
its simplest, neurogenetic determinism argues a directly causal
relationship between gene and behaviour. A man is homosexual because he
has a "gay brain", itself the product of "gay genes", and a woman is
depressed because she has genes "for" depression. There is violence on
the streets because people have "violent" or "criminal" genes; people
get drunk because they have genes "for" alcoholism.

Such simplification, with its cheaply seductive dichotomies of nature or
nurture, genes or environment, is fallacious. The phenomena of life are
always and simultaneously about nature and nurture. Human existence and
experience is always and simultaneously biological and social. Adequate
explanations must involve both. Yet again and again one finds the
simplistic, unqualified, determinist claim making the headlines and
setting the research agenda.

The undoubted successes of molecular biology since the discovery of the
double-helical structure of DNA in 1953 have fostered a gung-ho
triumphalism among such genetic propagandists - the belief that their
science can explain everything that is to be explained about the human
condition. That they can rebuild humanity in an improved image if
allowed. "Give me a gene and I can move the world," seems to be their
claim. Furthermore, the new neurogenetic determinists want not merely to
do their science but also to control its uses. Sociobiologist E 0
Wilson, for instance, advocates a code of ethics which is "genetically
accurate and hence completely fair".

So is such neurogenetic determinism good science? I believe that it is
not, that it constantly oversimplifies the complexity of human behaviour
and shoehorns it into genetic models.

Take violence as an example. To make the claim stick, determinism has
first of all to lump together many quite different activities - rape and
arson, child-beating, pub brawls, strikers confronting police on picket
lines, civil war. The US fighter pilot directing a smart missile at a
Baghdad bunker is supposed to be showing the same biological propensity
as a man beating up his lover. All are examples of some brain process
going on inside "the violent individual", a brain process that can be
objectively quantified, "separated" into genetic and "environmental"
components, and then potentially drugged or engineered away. As if
anyone could really believe that genocide in Bosnia could have been
prevented by mapipulating the serotonin levels in the brains of Serb g
enerals or politicians.

Such determinism serves to relocate social problems to the individual,
thus "blaming the victim" rather than exploring the societal roots and
determinants of the issues that concern us. Violence in modern society
is no longer to be explained in terms of inner-city squalor,
unemployment, extremes of wealth and poverty and the loss of the hope
that by collective effort we might create a better society. Rather, it
is a problem resulting from the presence of individual violent persons,
themselves violent as a result of disorders in their biochemical or
genetic constitution.

But in a strange way, the blame is simultaneously placed upon them and
lifted from them. Where once a murderer might have been regarded as
morally culpable, or the cause of his violence sought in an unhappy or
abused childhood, now it is argued to be due to chemical imbalances in
his brain, themselves the consequence of faulty genes or birthing
difficulties. Thus in a recent US court case the lawyer of Stephen
Mobley, sentenced to death for the violent murder of a pizzaparlour
manager, seeks permission to mount a genetic defence against the
sentence, claiming that the killer may carry a gene which predisposes
him to violence. In which case Mobley would not be "responsible" for the
murder he committed. "It was not me, it was my genes."

Another interesting twist is demonstrated in the case of homosexuality.
If it is "in the genes" then there is no way a society, however
homophobic, can justify condemning gay people for following their
genetic dictates. It is not surprising therefore that certain sections
of the gay and lesbian community have actively welcomed the genetic
claims or that the Christian fundamentalist right are worried about just
how far the determinist argument can be stretched.

The second immediate consequence of such determinism is that attention
and funding is diverted from the social to the molecular. If rates of
alcoholism are catastrophically high among native Americans or
aboriginal Australians, the ideology demands funding research into the
genetics and biochemistry of alcoholism. Of course one can offer
multiple forms of explanation for any phenomenon in the living world. Of
course there are likely to be differences in the brains and bodies of
people who become "alcoholic" or "violent" compared with those who are
not - and research exploring these differences can be informative. But
it does not necessarily provide an explanation or point to a solution.
For example, crimes of violence are more frequently carried out by men
than by women. One may argue that this says something about the Y
chromosome, carried by men and not women. But the overwhelming majority
of men are not violent criminals, so the policy implications of research
seeking to explore the Y chromosome in the context of crime - short of
selective abortion of all male foetuses - are negligible.


Where once a murderer might have been regarded as morally culpable, or
the cause of his violence sought in an unhappy or abused childhood, now
it is argued to be due to chemical imbalances in his brain, themselves
the consequence of faulty genes or birthing difficulties


Violent crime is much higher in the US than in Europe. Could this be
accounted for by some unique feature of American genes? Well, possibly,
but pretty unlikely, granted that much of the American population
originated by migration from Europe. But also the rates of violent crime
have changed dramatically over quite short time periods. For instance
the death rate from homicide among young US males increased by 54 per
cent between 1985 and 1994. No biologically-based explanation can
account for this increase, so what has changed in the US over this
period that might account for such an increase? What is different about
the organisation of US society from that of Europe? Could one important
difference be the estimated 280 million handguns in personal possession
in the US? Unlike genetic ones, such hypotheses may give clues for real

Good, effective science requires a better recognition of the variety of
causes and possible solutions. Failing this it becomes a waste of human
ingenuity and resources, a powerful ideological strategy of
victim-blaming and a distraction from the real tasks that both science
and society require.

Steven Rose is Professor of Biology at the Open University. His latest
book Lifelines exploring the themes of this article, was published by
Penguin, London, last September. This article first appeared in The New
Internationalist in April 1998.

Copyright =A9 1998, Searchlight