Thursday, October 16, 2014

Prompt 1

Brooke Kihle

Professor Johns

Seminar in Composition


Genetic un-determinism

                There’s a major taboo when people think of behavioral genetics. People tend to be completely ignorant to the difference between what is inherited and what is unchangeable. A key point Lewontin makes in “Biology as Ideology” is that genomes are not the only factor in determining human behavior. Environmental differences, developmental noise and genetic influence are what create an individual, thus shape a population and form diversity. Steven Pinker of the New York Times supports Lewontin’s ideas in his article, My genome, Myself in which he details The Personal Genome Project and explains the science behind it. In both cases, genetic or biological determinism is deemed scientifically incorrect because it is not the only factor that creates a human’s behavior and can be scientifically proven.

                First, whenever discussing genetic determinism the historical past misconceptions seem to be a great example. Such as, Nazis and 19th century racist, who used propaganda and general ignorance to be convinced of the misconception that genomes determine behavior. “These three ideas- that we differ in fundamental abilities because of innate differences, that those innate differences are biologically inherited, and that human nature guarantees the formation of hierarchical society- when taken together, form what we can call the ideology of biological determinism” (Lewontin 23). Past scientists preached that there were inborn differences in ability and that people were born superior or inferior and inherited such behaviors. Lewontin uses the example of a famous fictional character (appropriately used) Oliver Twist who was born in one of the worst orphanages yet speaks perfect English and described as a “good spirit”. Comparing Twist to the other main character Jack Dawkins, a brown faced boy who is portrayed as unintelligent and ugly the insinuation is clear, Oliver is highly superior because “his blood was upper-middle-class”.  Another example of the common misconception of genetic determinism is seem by late 19th century scientist, specifically Carl Brigham who was secretary of the College Entrance Examination Board led a study of intelligence which resulted in the assumption of “inborn intelligence”. The biggest and most conclusive argument to these historical “scientific” theories on genetics is that there was no evidence, merely ideas based off of social stigma.

                Second, Lewontin makes a strong point to completely disregard genetic determinism, “variation among individuals within species are a unique consequence of both genes and the developmental environment in a constant interaction” (Lewontin 26). This meaning that genes cannot wholly create human behavior because humans and even more general, everything, is produced through an environment. The environmental factors like temperature, nutrition, smells, sights and education are what creates an individual. It is also ignorant to say that genetics alone determine a person when genetics can be modified. With modern medicine many common genetic diseases are cured and therefore no longer influence the individual.  Furthermore, another random factor is key in determining human behavior which Lewontin terms developmental noise; meaning there are random factors during development of a cell. There is no way to determine the differences in each growth of each cell for each part of a human’s characteristic. This is supported in Pinker’s article, “for some conditions, like Huntington’s disease, genetic determinism is simply correct: everyone with the defective gene who lives long enough will develop the condition. But for most other traits, any influence of the genes will be probabilistic. Having a version of a gene may change the odds, making you more or less likely to have a trait, all things being equal, but as we shall see, the actual outcome depends on a tangle of other circumstances as well”. Pinker believes that through the findings of personal genomes we will help us to be able to identify what genes make up our personalities or at the most affect our behavior.

                Third, The Personal Genome Project that Pinker highlights in his article is an inventive modern day science experiment which actually disputes genetic determinism. To be clear, identifying personal genomes is not the same as determining the genomes that identify a person. This research will sequence an individual’s DNA and give them insight to their biological makeup, but this is very individual and cannot describe a population. The hope for identifying genome types is to find out what genetic factors make up our temperaments, our behaviors, our abilities; which is significantly different than pre-determining directly what our behavior is. This research will further identity specific genes that can affect such abilities.  

All this being said, Lewontin’s chapter All in the Genes? is the theoretical basis for this type of experiment. Lewontin highlights specific experiments that support the ideas that genetic determinism is false. Pages 32-3 detail experiments done on sets of twins. If you isolate the fake report done by Burt and focus on the real, scientific experiments it's conclusive to say that even though there are strong genetic similarity there are also environmental similarities which consequently leaves no control- no bases to specifically research one or the other. Inevitably, the twins experiment cannot determine conclusive results. Beautifully put by Pinker, “with personal genomics in its infancy, we can’t know whether it will deliver usable information about our psychological traits. But evidence from old-fashioned behavioral genetics — studies of twins, adoptees and other kinds of relatives — suggests that those genes are in there somewhere”.

In conclusion, there is constant scientific struggles when determining how responsible genetics are in human behavior. Many factors influence an individual in their lifetime and the major one being their environment can hardly be ignored. There is also random variations within cell makeup that needs to be included when studying behavior. Many experiments have been done over the years to try to further understand genetic determinism- wither right or wrong. These experiments have given modern science insight like the importance of environment vs genetic differences. Pinker’s article on The Personal Genome Project supports Lewontin’s theory the genetic determination is scientifically wrong. With the idea that genomes are individually researched and thus individually determined we cannot generalize a predetermination for a population of species. Lewontin’s main theory is that simply genetic determinism cannot be correct because genetics are not the only factor that determine a human behavior.

1 comment:

  1. Your introduction is very good, although I’d like to have a little sense of what your take on this material is, including in the thesis itself.

    Your second paragraph is maybe longer than it has to be, though it does show good understanding of the material. You end well: “The biggest and most conclusive argument to these historical “scientific” theories on genetics is that there was no evidence, merely ideas based off of social stigma.”

    In the third paragraph (also a little long) I wonder if you maybe exaggerate how close Pinker and Lewontin are. Is genetic determinism an on/off thing, or there room for a nuanced & statistical version of determinism, which focuses more on trends and populations? Maybe I put that poorly, because what I just described isn’t properly “determinism,” I don’t think. But what I’m trying to get at is whether Lewontin & Pinker fully agree, or whether they are at somewhat different points on a spectrum, with Lewontin probably being further along in the same direction? Figuring this out could, in a revision, also give you the space to figure out your own ideas & attitudes.

    Question: what is Pinker’s relationship to the Personal Genome project? That’s probably something Lewontin would really want to know.

    Overall: I think you wrote well on a challenging subject, and kept it very readable. Your conclusion is reasonable but also lacks nuance - I think this is a line of research which Lewontin would have a lot of mostly skeptical things to say about, even though you are likely correct that it isn’t really deterministic. But it *does* sound highly atomistic, for instance. To try to boil my thoughts down: ideologically, is Pinker really like Lewontin, opposite to him, or somewhere in the middle, and what are your views on the ideology of the two of them?


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