The infidelity gene

This is an archival repost of something I wrote on the old blog way back in 2004, when I was a first-year genetics undergraduate.  I long ago learned to not listed to the Moral Maze.

I’ve just been listening to this evening’s Moral Maze on BBC Radio 4. The programme was titled “The Infidelity Gene”, and the panelists tried to deduce morality and the answer to the question “does free will exist” from a single piece of behavioural genetics research that they’d been given third hand from a newspaper which reported an overheard conversation about a genetics book. Needless to say, it wasn’t very good. The main reason it wasn’t very good is the presence of a Daily Mail journalist named Melanie Phillips on the panel, who clearly wasn’t qualified to be participating in the discussion.

The programme started with a few sound bytes by each member of the panel of Melanie Phillips, Claire Fox, Michael Gove and the biologist Steve Rose. Phillips began by making some noise about determinism as though genes having an influence over behaviour was somehow more deterministic than environmental and cultural determinism. Rose was very good and pointed out that genes and environment can not be separated and rather work together, that we know genes influence behaviour but that doesn’t mean culture doesn’t. Unfortunately, either by free will or some determining factor, Rose managed to forget all this for the rest of the programme, and went accusing all the guest scientists of being extreme nativists.

The first guest was Prof Tim Spector who talked a bit of dummed down behavioural genetics. Spector didn’t appear to be used to talking about behavioural genetics to people who aren’t familiar with the field because he didn’t really explain things very well, especially heritability. Spector was talking about studies which show a high heritability for things like racism and religiosity, which means that a large proportion of the variation in such traits can be attributed to variation in genotype. Heritability has very limited use, and is complex and easy to misunderstand. Spector set himself up for attacks by Melanie Phillips who thought Spector was saying that Racism is entirely genetically determined. It’s obvious that society has a big effect on whether you are racist, says Phillips, and Spector agrees, he never said it didn’t. Phillips is confused, she clearly didn’t understand Rose when he demolished Nature vs Nurture in his opening speech. Rose, however, knows exactly what Heritability means and how useful it is. Rose surely knows that Spector isn’t Phillip’s straw man? Nope. Rose plays along with it. Why?

The next guest is a Christian ethicist Dr Elaine Storkey. It’s a programme about morals and whether free will exists, she might have something relevant to say. No, she opens by talking about how genes play a big role in physiology, but none in behaviour, that genetics has nothing to contribute to psychology, that behavioural geneticists are fantasists and have no scientific evidence. She shows right from the beginning that she has absolutely no idea what she’s talking about. She makes all of the mistakes of Phillips and more. Nature and nurture are separate, genes are deterministic (but not culture?), the “hypothetical” genes limit freedom not give freedom. But even better: REDUCTIONISM! Genetics is reductionistic, and what can reductionism tell us? But remember, she opened her segment by praising the application of genetics to physiology and medicine. So, genetics is useful when applied to the body but not the mind? The reductionism cry is one of the worst of the collection of crap arguments reserved for political arguments against good science.

Prof Nicholas Humphrey is next. Here we have an evolutionary psychologist who does know what he’s talking about, and does so quite well. Humphrey opens by showing that genes do not determine our behaviour at all, they give us possibilities, a powerful brain, capable of learning and absorbing culture, but also built with innate desires and talents. Humphrey and Rose discuss heritability and finally actually explain what it means, hinting at how genes and environment interact by saying that heritability changes depending on circumstance, but unfortunately not discussing it further. Rose agrees that genes and environment interact to produce the mind, but objects to Humphrey’s extension into Evolutionary Psychology, by once again attacking a straw man of evolutionary psychology. Phillips doesn’t have anything to add, but tries to anyway. People’s religious beliefs change during their lifetimes, so genes can’t have anything to do with religiosity. Phillips appears to think that genes can only act deterministically, that genes can only act in the growing brain, that they do not continue to act throughout life, and that genes react to the environment and even culture.

Next up is a philosopher of science, who talks about free will, something I’ll avoid comment on, due to my own ignorance of the subject. Phillips should also have avoided comment, she knew even less.

The programme ends with some 24 carrot fashionable nonsense from Phillips. Genetics and evolutionary psychology are pseudoscience, not science. Genes are a concept. The proteins in DNA exist (I’d jesteringly suggest that she means histones), but that genes produce phenotypes are just a concept thought up by scientists. A fantasy. The concept gene is derived from the fact that we behave in different ways and scientists make assumptions from different groups with no evidence. Fox thinks man is perfectible, and we can overcome our biology, which limits us. Rose finishes with another one of those statements he keeps making that show that he accepts entirely that genes play a very important role in behaviour, which is why it’s so confusing that he attacks a determinist straw man of evolutionary psychology: genes give us freedom.

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