Sunday, 20 March 2016

Life imitates art: Captain America - Civil War

I have been reading twitter and the battle lines drawn between the genetics determine personality, ability and psychology and the opposing genetics tell you nothing camps. This is not the first time this battle has been fought. Last time we didn't even know very much about genes and we called it Eugenics. That was the Middle Class Victorian English man's attempt to protect his position in the world from the reality that he was nothing special. The second world war and the holocaust finished Eugenics as an acceptable position.

This new battle is much more dangerous especially in the current political climate and with current technology. There is every chance that we are going to up the scales to an existential level of threat and that will prove a Pyrrhic victory for whoever is left.

I am not a fan of Oliver James. I find his popular psychology grating and annoying and many of his arguments facile and unsupported by evidence. His most recent book has been attacked by almost all reviewers and a lot of people I follow on social media. It is titled "Not in Your Genes". The basic point is that nurture and not nature is responsible for all of your personality traits and abilities. You are not where you are because of genetics it is just because of up-bringing.

I have on my shelf a book written by Richard Lewontin, Steven Rose and Leon Kamin with a very similar title "Not in Our Genes" that makes very similar arguments. One of the criticisms of Oliver James is his lack of knowledge of genetics. It is impossible to doubt the genetic credentials of Lewontin. Lewontin et al's book was an attack on the genetic determinism and sociobiology of Dawkins and E.O. Wilson. Now I can seriously dispute the genetics ability of both Dawkins who has no idea about population genetics and molecular biology. As for Wilson his problem is that he studied the social insects and derives his rules for human social interaction from insect social interaction. While society is therefore clearly something that evolution has to discover (it is a universal in the language of Stewart and Cohen), he is mistaking analogy for homology. We do not have a common social history with the insects. These are two distinct evolutionary solutions to the same problem, and because of this knowledge of one CANNOT be directly extrapolated to the other.

James' view that genetic determinism is not a powerful driver is therefore not unsupported by people who do know their genetics as the critics might claim. Steven J Gould was another campaigner against the last vestiges of eugenics. Dan Graur is also particularly hostile in social media to psychologists claiming genetic effects or molecular biologists claiming function for all of the genome.

To understand it better we need to go back to the Victorian man who started this all. We need to think of Galton. As well as his work on genetics Galton is famous in statistics for discovering regression to the mean. The problem is that he and many other people failed to understand what it really means. It means that traits are not pure. It means that if someone is exceptional in something, then their progeny and likely to be closer to the mean. This is why so many properties in biology are normally distributed. The normal distribution is the error distribution for a complex system with many confounding variables. That sums up most of the properties of life, intelligence, success, height etc. If our genetic determinants were pure and with strong selection we would see divergence between members of the population until we would have speciation. We might have evolved the Morlocks and Eloi of H.G. Wells imagination. But we didn't. The strongest evidence that the genetic determinists are wrong is the diversity of humanity that still remains a single cohesive species.

If the determinists were right that genetics plays a major determining role then we could look at large genetic differences in humans and find differences. The largest difference is that between the genders where there is a Chromosome of differences and we could say that women and men (which the media seem to treat as distinct species) would have different personalities and levels of intelligence. This was an argument for a long period of time as Middle Class Victorian man tried to maintain himself at the top of the social tree. Now we know that if there are differences it is that women are more intelligent and have a better balanced personality than men but how much of this is social and experience and how much is genetics?

Next we could argue that populations that have been separated for long periods of time will have evolved different psychological and intellectual properties under genetic determinism. This leads us to the question of race as these are distinct genetic populations. Do we really want to go there and start asking those questions? Have we learnt nothing from two World Wars, endless genocides and the examples of peaceful migrations and settlement? There are no fundamental differences. Around the edges there are some but these are accidents of history and not universals of evolution.

This brings me back to the title. Science faces this civil war between the determinists and those who believe that nothing is set in stone. That is between the frightened Technologists like Tony Stark and those who have lived in a world where fascism was in the open and not cloaked in making X or Y nation great. So I am definitely on the side of the Captain and against rigid solutionism. This is why it feels to me like the Civil War. I am going to be on the opposite side of the argument to a lot of scientists who I respect and who I would have been allied to in the past.

Humanity works because of diversity and inclusiveness, for all of the bad that happens, what we do well out-weighs this and we must not let the cynics and the spreaders of fear win. We do not want to live under Ultron or Skynet.

Nature AND nurture play a part and the interaction between nature and nurture is the most difficult part to unravel. My intuition tells me that nurture is still the more significant of the two and that genetics at the level of personality and psychology plays a fairly small part. Nature and genetic evolution are very slow movers and slow to change but humanity has changed to be unrecognisable just in my life-time. This difference in time frames for me is the ultimate evidence that most of the arguments for genetic determinism will turn out to be wrong.

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