Tag Archives: nature vs nurture

“Why genes are leftwing,” or not

Why genes are leftwing , by Oliver James is wrong. He posits that because we have found that much of our behavior hasn’t shown a genetic basis, it supports the general ‘left’ view that society and environment are the culprits for much of our individual and societal disfunction. It thus contradicts the ‘right’ view that it’s human nature and no amount of government action will change things, or as he  puts it:

The political right believes that genes largely explain why the poor are poor, as well as twice as likely as the rich to be mentally ill. To them, the poor are genetic mud, sinking to the bottom of the genetic pool.

As someone left-of-center (most of the time), you’d think I’d like to agree with this. I don’t. Never mind that this is a simplified caricature of the more complex reality of political ideologies, it’s wrong on the science. In fact, it reads much like the satire science article in the same paper (I think that satirical article should be required reading of all journalists writing about science, especially those in the Guardian). The only thing it’s missing is a random graphic.

What is wrong with this piece?

This is another round in the tired ‘nature vs. nurture’ debate. Genes and environment interplay in such a complex manner that teasing them apart is a sisypean task at best. What is true for one individual, isn’t true of another genetically. One individual’s genetic makeup might give them more or less plasticity in behavioral responses to environment, than another. Environmental influences can cause behaviors with little plasticity or none later in life. Genetics affect our response to environment, environmental influences can have profound affects on some genetic backgrounds and little on others. Just because something is ‘genetic’ doesn’t make it ‘rigid’ and just because something is environmental doesn’t make it ‘plastic.’ Nature vs. Nurture is a false dichotomy.

The science quoted is misread and misreported. To quote:

That was illustrated recently in a heavily publicised study by Anita Thapar, of Cardiff University. Although she claimed to have proved that ADHD is a “genetic disease”, if anything, she proved the opposite. Only 16% of the children with ADHD in her study had the pattern of genes that she claimed causes the illness. Taken at face value, her study proved that non-genetic factors cause it in 8 out of 10 children.

This is indeed wrong. What this is saying is that 16% of the children had the genetic cause to ADHD she had uncovered. What did not say was that the other 84% of children had non-genetic factors that caused their ADHD. In fact, if one would read the article he linked to above (not to mention, the actual research report), they’d find this quote:

Although this finding was limited to 16% of all the children with ADHD, they say it is highly likely the rest have other genetic variants that have not yet been identified.

The reality is that much ADHD has a genetic basis, much of it doesn’t and much of it is affected strongly by both. But that doesn’t fit the thesis of the article, so that nuance is thrown out. (Pharyngula has a few good words to say about that ADHD paper btw and the article about it)

Again, he misunderstands the science and the scientists he quotes:

This result had been predicted by Craig Venter, one of the key researchers on the project. When the map was published, he said that because we only have about 25,000 genes psychological differences could not be much determined by them. “Our environments are critical,”he concluded.

Yes, environments are critical. So are genes. Both are necessary to explain our behaviors, neither sufficient alone.

He builds a straw man soon after this quote. What we are learning, which the author has glossed over, is that so is the regulatory environment of these genes, and epigenomics, and splice variants, and structural variations  can create a very complex space of genetic foundations with ‘only’ 25,000 genes.  There were very few scientists who believed that ‘one gene’ was ever the cause for more than a minute handful of behavior and mental conditions. I knew none in the early 90′s. And yet he vaguely mentions, unreferenced,

…, after only a few years of extensive genome searching, even the most convinced geneticists began to publicly admit that there are no individual genes for the vast majority of mental health problems.

I think most geneticists were admitting this decades ago, but he makes it sound as if this is a new revelation.

Sexuality, one example of many, gives a counter-example to the nature vs. nurture/right vs. left dichotomy he posits. Many conservatives (to generalize) would dismiss the scientific evidence that sexuality is genetically hard-wired, while many on the left (definitely not all) would side with the nature argument. Even there, the picture is more complex. Sexuality has a strong genetic component and in some individuals (most men?) it is quite rigid and in some individuals (some women?) it’s quite plastic.

The author falls into the age-old trap of using science to back up a political ideology. A dangerous proposition at best. Indeed, knowing the science and facts behind issues can help inform the best courses of action to take to alleviate problems, but they don’t necessarily support or refute a political ideology.

Let’s take climate science. If we accept that the science is valid that the earth is warming and much of that warming is caused by human activity (which is quite scientifically a solid fact at this point), this does not mean one would necessarily have to accept either a left or right solution. One could argue that market forces would be the best solution, or that coordinated regulation of carbon markets, or doing nothing would be better than something. The science doesn’t necessarily inform on solution over the other, one ideology over the other.

The same is true for genetics. Let’s assume that much of the population differences in IQ are mainly (but not solely) due to nutrition or disease in early developmental years (as the research seems to be pointing) and not genetics, do we allow market forces to help level those differences, or social programs? Or we find that, all environmental things being equal, individual differences in IQ are largely genetic. What does that tell us about the ‘correct’ ideology? If our sexuality differences are rigid and unchangeable, do we allow for the free expression and social acceptance of those differences, do we regulate and suppress them? Or, as several have suggested, are there conservative responses to this that don’t suppress those differences? Or returning to ADHD, let’s assume we find that ADHD has a large genetic component. Does this invariably mean that environmental changes can’t affect the expression of that genetic foundation? No, to answer my rhetorical question. In fact, I would assume ADHD has both major genetic and environmental influences and the ‘solution’ to this is probably found to be everything from parenting, therapy, societal change, to drugs.

The article is yet another in a long line of poor science reporting. Sad, because there is so much that is fascinating in modern science that doesn’t need political embellishment.

Here is a growing roundup of responses to Oliver James’ poor piece:

Genes are Political Agnostics